When silence betrays us

Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer.”

Can we talk? Even — or especially — with a thorny subject in which we are bound to give and receive offense? If not, we are in trouble. We have already picked the low-hanging fruit. What is left is the hard stuff.

Look at the political landscape: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs an anti-trans youth sports bill into law. A high school play is canceled in Ohio because a local pastor complains about a gay character. An anti-LGBTQ candidate won the governor’s race in Virginia in part by not appearing with our 45th (and would-be 47th) president, whose divisive politics he nonetheless echoes.

This is no season for angry silence. Luckily, Thanksgiving approaches, and most of us are familiar with awkward family gatherings. So let’s stick our toes in the water.

Two of the biggest recent throw-downs are the furor over an arcane academic subject called Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the flap over Dave Chappelle’s discussion of transgender people in his latest Netflix comedy special.

A white woman in a Republican gubernatorial campaign ad is angry that she couldn’t get Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved pulled from a high school AP reading list. That novel by a Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author is no more about CRT than when I kiss my fiancé good morning.

Jason Johnson, associate professor of communication and journalism at Morgan State University, notes that he teaches at a historically black university and doesn’t teach CRT. Nor is it taught to schoolchildren. What is really happening is cynics stoking fear to suppress discussion of America’s racist history. Morrison is black and her novel deals with slavery, so she’s convicted in advance, like the victims of Kyle Rittenhouse, whose murder trial for shooting protesters in Wisconsin is stacked in his favor by a judge who won’t let his victims be called victims, but lets them be called rioters and looters.

One thing that arises in discussing the Chappelle flap is the claim that trans women are murdered disproportionately. Any murders are too many, but this statistic is thinly sourced. It is dealt with in a 2019 article in The Stranger, “Is the Life Expectancy of Trans Women in the U.S. Just 35? No.” That bogus stat is reminiscent of anti-gay researcher Paul Cameron, who averaged the ages of death in obituaries in gay papers at the height of the AIDS epidemic and declared that the life expectancy of gay men was 43. Among other errors, he omitted the majority who survived.

Calling this an example of “facts too good to check” only provokes accusations of murderous indifference to trans lives. Such emotional blackmail causes many people to keep quiet, but does not change a single mind nor save a single life.

Any citation of pro-trans credentials is met with scorn. Any divergence from the party line makes me a clueless cis gay bigot blinded by privilege. If I cite trans comedian Flame Monroe’s defense of Chappelle, she will be dismissed as a sellout.

One activist insisted claims of “cancel culture” are false, the proof being that attempts at censoring Dave have failed. I compared that to declaring a murderous shooter innocent because he missed his target. The activist was disgusted by my insensitive analogy.

If I say I am proud of Dave as a fellow native Washingtonian — even if I add that his comments on the controversy are not helpful — I get eye-rolls. Saying, like a black journalist friend, that I found Dave’s story about his late trans friend Daphne Dorman extraordinary, gets me nowhere. Those determined to take offense always succeed.

To note that Dave is a master practitioner of his craft will get no more hearing than pointing out that comedy is inherently transgressive. The professionally outraged do not care any more than a tyrant arresting political cartoonists. The difference is that the tyrant has more power than the totalitarians of the American left, who only isolate themselves.

Those who benefit most from our fixation on fragility are right-wing, anti-LGBTQ racists. Stonewall was rooted in queer folk refusing to be victims. That has been turned on its head by people who appear to regard their ineffectuality as a point of pride.

We need to desist from unilateral demands (as if we are a conquering army) and reach across our divides rather than hold one another hostage. Justice cannot be achieved through unjust means.

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