Ethics Dunce: Dave Chappelle

I hate to call comic Dave Chappelle a weenie and a political correctness panderer, so instead I’ll settle for Ethics Dunce. He badly miscalculated here.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington D.C. had planned to rename its performance theater —I once co-wrote directed a show there!—after alumnus Dave Chappelle for his “ongoing commitment and service to the school.” Chappell, fresh off of his controversial Netflix concert that was attacked for its jokes about transsexual activism, appeared at the school in November and faced a barrage of criticism from predictably oriented students. He challenged opponents of his work and his advocates to compete to raise the most money for Duke Ellington, promising to abide by the winning group’s wishes regarding the performing space’s new name.

Well, his fans out-raised the pro-trans mob, but nonetheless, at the dedication of the newly-named theater this week, Chappelle announced that he would refuse the honor, and declared that the theater would be henceforward called “the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression.”

In spare comments explaining his reasoning, Chappelle said he was “hurt” by the student comments in November, and would be open to putting his name on the building in the future. His decision apparently is based on his conclusion that naming the theater after him would encourage ongoing controversy.

That’s nice. But if he really believes in artistic expression, he should not be encouraging the “cancelling” of individuals who have controversial points of view by caving to critics. As it stands now, the name of the theater is hypocrisy itself. It takes the place of an honor to an actual artist whose name has been removed because students and others wanted his art and speech to be censored.

There are other ethical problems with Chappelle’s decision. It’s a bait and switch: funds were raised based on the understanding that his name would go on the theater. Furthermore, if he renamed the theater himself, that wasn’t his prerogative.

Duke Ellington should rename the theater after Ricky Gervais.

10 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Dave Chappelle

  1. I’m not as sure about him being a dunce. Yes, he did say he would go along with whatever the winning team desired but whether or not he anticipated the theater named after him is not readily apparent. We also need to consider the mission of the school and if attaching his name to any part of it may diminish the school. Had he maintained his promise to go along with any name proposed by the winner he could have harmed that very institution that he holds dear. I think the new name is far more appropriate because it is a message of promise that art must never be cancelled because a small vocal minority are offended. Had it been named after him it would simply be treated as another personal monument to one’s narcissism.

    • Follow up: I don’t think you can cancel yourself for your own good but you can throw yourself on a grenade to protect your buddies.

  2. I see this as more like he’s trying to be magnanimous in victory. He beat the cancel mob, his supporters showed more enthusiasm and were willing to put more skin in the game than his detractors, but he decided to offer a compromise solution anyway. It’s a small gesture toward peace and an effort to defuse at least a tiny bit of the toxicity swirling around our collapsing social order. I personally don’t see it as capitulation.

    Unfortunately, it will likely be received as a sign of weakness and contrition by the fake outrage artists, as they are not known for nuanced thinking, nor are they interested in compromise.

    • Jeff,
      I think we approached this story the same way. I wonder how one interprets the narrative/information available determines whether something is seen as ethical or unethical. I can see Jack’s pov that you cannot go back on a promise or allowing the cancel culture crowd to win. The question remains at what cost to others is acceptable to remain taking what is a different ethical stance that seems to be contrary to another ethical choice?

      • I think this is a situation that sets competing ethical principles up against each other. Ethically, Chappelle’s commitment to his supporters should be honored. But it’s also an ethical choice to attempt to defuse the situation. I don’t see either choice as necessarily unethical. They may not be equal in my view, but neither is a bad choice.

        To your question, I’m not sure how to construct a consistent framework to evaluate such situations. Since the decision-maker is the one evaluating the costs that others will pay, it’s going to be a pretty subjective process.

  3. I think his actions can be explained by something that plagues many people, myself included. It is the desire not to hurt another person’s feelings when that person’s emotions are particularly intense. By taking a stand, people would probably be crying at his feet.

    Say you see your friend cheating on his wife. You confront him directly about it and tell him to knock it off. He cries and says he doesn’t want his marriage to end, that it was a mistake, etc. At that point, you start to feel a little bad about it, even though he is the one who was doing something wrong. The duty to confront the friend can make you feel like the bad guy because of the intense reaction to your confirmation. We definitely need a name for this.

  4. I thought about this a bit more, and I don’t know if this was on Chappelle’s mind or not, but making it something like “Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression” is a great strategic move. At some point in the future, the school would have come under pressure to rescind the Dave Chappelle name and replace it with some less-worthy-but-reliably-leftist artist’s name. Now, they’re pretty much stuck with the name that Dave chose. They could always find a way to justify taking Chappelle’s name off the building for one of his meaner jokes, but taking away “Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression” is going to feel pretty gross to a lot of people. In that way, this is a bigger thumb in the eye for the censorious crybabies than naming it after himself.

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