Helpful context for the cancellation of a Dave Chappelle performance

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Comedian Dave Chappelle was scheduled to perform in Minneapolis on Wednesday night, but just hours before the venue canceled the appearance.

“We believe in diverse voices and freedom of artistic expression,” he wrote in a statement announcing the decision, “but in honoring this we lost sight of the impact it would have.”

The wording is vague but the reference is clear. Chappelle has drawn heavy criticism in recent months for repeatedly making transgender people the punchlines of his jokes. Apparently anxious to appear to endorse Chappelle’s view, the venue was canceled.

Now, any venue engaging in such a reversal will be aware of what is likely to follow: with the decision framed as a “cancellation,” a term used pejoratively to criticize incidents in which individuals or groups face repercussions for things they said or finished. Sometimes these repercussions are exaggerated and dubious. Often, with a little digging, it is obvious that they are not.

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Indeed, the expected voices, mainly from the political right, cast Chapel as the latest victim of “wokeism” – the pejorative term often used to describe those who draw attention to things people have said or done. Others wondered if this might have a chilling effect on artists in general.

That it involves Dave Chappelle, a well-known artist, almost necessarily means it will generate a lot of attention and consideration. We like to ruminate on things to which we have a personal attachment, and most Americans probably have at least some familiarity with Chappelle, if not an opinion of him. So we tend to ask ourselves: What does that mean?

The challenge is that this trend can make it too easy overdo it what this means. Rather, this year’s pattern has been an encroachment on the voices of non-majority groups, not those of the powerful. But dozens of anonymous individuals being shut down – including by government actors – attract far less attention than a popular comedian with a door shut in his face.

So as we consider the Chappelle incident, it is useful to also consider a number of less publicized events that either restricted speech or posed a threat to non-majority groups like the one that was targeted by Chappelle jokes. Everything in the following three paragraphs happened in 2022, unless otherwise stated.

Employees of the Hartford Public Schools were target with threats after a school nurse came to national media attention for being suspended for comments on transgender students. A school district in Wisconsin canceled in-person classes for the year and his graduation ceremony after bomb threats against the school and employees. The threats followed national media covering an incident in which students were investigated for transphobic comments. A man accused of threatening Merriam-Webster over his gender definitions also had threatens of “shooting” a state school board meeting in Wisconsin “for promoting the horrible and radical transgender agenda.” Texas implemented a law in which parents of trans children could be investigated for child abuse. In Alabama, the governor sign a law prohibiting transitional care.

The mayor of a town in Mississippi threatens withdraw funds from the municipal library to provide LGBTQ materials. An official in North Carolina made a similar threat. Libraries deleted pride displays under pressure in South Carolina and Utah. The library in Vinton, Iowa, was forced to close after its director – the third in two years – resigned following a pressure campaign that included objections to LGBTQ books and those of Jill Biden and Kamala D. Harris. The American Library Association felt compelled to issue a statement damn “the alarming increase in acts of aggression against library staff and patrons.” Florida past a law prohibiting books from school libraries or on reading lists that are “inappropriate” for students’ grade levels and allowing parents to file objections to included books. From July 1, 2021 through March, PEN America counted 1,586 cases of efforts to ban books in the USA.

Members of the far-right Proud Boys group, sometimes armed, disrupted drag queen storytime events in California, Nevada and Texas. The members also attempted to storm a bar near Sacramento where a drag show was scheduled but was canceled due to threats of violence. A drag queen storytime in North Carolina has been canceled after a series of threats. A drag queen story hour event at a Connecticut library has been moved after workers received emails containing anti-gay language and comments interpreted as threats. A gay California state senator was the target of bomb threats that accused him of being a “groomer”. The openly gay mayor of an Oklahoma town has resigned after facing repeated threats. Thirty-one members of a white supremacist group were arrested in Idaho before they could start a riot at a pride parade. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) signed a bill restricting discussion of same-sex relationships in schools and his state promoted a civic initiative with overtly right-wing interpretations of founding events that downplayed the slavery. Fifty-seven black churches and historically black colleges and universities were the targets of bomb threats.

Dave Chappelle’s show in Minneapolis on Wednesday, incidentally, was moved to a new location the same evening. Tickets are still available for his other upcoming shows.

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