If you have heard anything about Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special on Netflix, The Closer, it’s most likely the accusations of transphobia that led to some Netflix employees and allies staging a protest on 20 October.
You’re less likely to have heard about Chappelle’s comments in that special about child abuse survivors, #MeToo or lesbians. Or about how, while quarantining, he watched videos of black people beating up Asians, comparing the attacks to his body’s efforts to beat the coronavirus. Or about his idea for a film Space Jews, about aliens who originate from Earth, and things go badly for them on the other planet, so they return to Earth thousands of years later and claim it for themselves.
As has been well publicised, he also criticises gender ideology. He condemns trans activists for pillorying his late friend, a transgender comedian Daphne Dorman, after she defended him from previous accusations of transphobia. He also talks about black rapper DaBaby, who he believes provoked a fiercer reaction for apparent homophobic remarks than being involved in the fatal shooting of a black man. He notes his jealousy of the gay community for the advances it has made, while the black community has not.
Some of it I didn’t find funny or clever. Some of it made me uncomfortable. But like the best comedians, Chappelle makes astute observations about society. There is a lot to unpack about the hierarchy of victimhood and double standards inherent in identity politics and the nature of power and privilege. He challenges those old-fashioned folk who see the world and ourselves as morally complex, and who embrace a bit of discomfort, to examine our reactions to his jokes.
Indeed, the reaction to the show is more revealing than the show itself. Because while there have been a few mutterings on Twitter and elsewhere about the other aspects, it is his alleged transphobia that has caused outrage, calls for boycotts of Netflix and his cancellation, turmoil at the network and its chief content officer apologising, and the 20 October protest outside its headquarters.
Yet there is nothing that Chappelle said that provokes a reaction anywhere near what I felt when I read that, at that protest, the non-binary Jewish creator of TV series Transparent Joey Soloway declared that ‘Trans people are in the middle of a holocaust’.
Of course, it is only one word that one person used in a speech. But since trans activists remind us that words and feelings matter, and I’m in the mood to reflect on my reactions, indulge me while I do so.
I associate the word Holocaust with the cross-border industrialised genocide of six million Jews under the Nazi regime. I think of the Nuremberg laws, Kristallnacht, the ghettos; the indescribable feeling of visiting the gas chambers at Auschwitz, looking at the scratch marks on the walls; and my friends who have whole branches of their family tree chopped off.
Many Jewish people – although apparently not Soloway – feel a sense of guardianship in respect of the word and the totality of the experience and emotion that it conjures, embedded in their collective consciousness.
But of course copyright laws aside, no one owns words. Certainly, given its etymology, no one owns the word ‘holocaust’. It is derived from the Greek words holos (whole) and kaustos (burned), used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Over time its sacrificial, religious connotations diminished, and became a reference to destruction by fire. In 1882, the Jewish American Emma Lazarus poet wrote the chillingly prescient words: ‘You say the Jews shall burn…Know ye what burning is? Hath one of you, Scorched ever his soft flesh or singed his beard, His hair …and raises not his voice To stop this holocaust?’
Eventually the word simply came to mean destruction, and sometimes, the destruction of a large number of people. The 1910-11 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica stated that ‘The word is now often applied to a catastrophe on a large scale, whether by fire or not, or to a massacre or slaughter’.
The word began to be used in relation to the Nazi regime in the 1940s, but usually with a qualifier, such as the ‘Nazi holocaust’ (used in the English translation of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence). During the 1950s, it was used sometimes simply as ‘the holocaust’, including by Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and by renowned Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel. With widespread attention on Adolf Eichmann’s televised trial in Israel in 1961, as well as the New Yorker’s publication of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the word ‘holocaust’ entered mainstream public discourse. By the 1970s, the word, unqualified and capitalised, had gained currency. In 1978, over 100 million Americans viewed NBC’s TV miniseries Holocaust featuring Meryl Streep.
The ramifications of the Holocaust are ongoing. The Jewish worldwide population (some 15 million) is still not back to pre-Holocaust levels. Survivors still live. Research continues; documents, artefacts and photos are unearthed. Alleged Nazis go on trial or live undetected. Restitution claims persist. Yet, at the same time, there is increasing Holocaust denial and trivialisation. Since the pandemic, invoking the Holocaust for political point-scoring has reached absurd heights. The more it is universalised, the more its weight and meaning are devalued and the more the unique Jewish experience is erased.
There is an irony in protesting a show by referring to a holocaust, while ignoring what many consider to be its antisemitic joke. That aside, when people who are not victims of the Holocaust use that word to describe their experience, a comparison of suffering inevitably ensues. I don’t want to get into a victimhood competition. I don’t know what it is like to be transgender, but I do know they are not suffering a ‘holocaust’ in any way the word has ever been used. Their experience is unique, and different to Jewish people, black people, or anyone else, and will vary between themselves. That experience should be respected, but not at the expense of or through the erasure of others’ experience or the appropriation of others’ suffering.
Which is, of course, the point that Chappelle was making. In a bastardisation of Newton’s third law, we learn that for every action, there are unequal and opposite reactions. It seems he has had the last laugh.
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