It’s a device you’ll often see in comedies.
A character enters a room that’s packed with people. There’s a meeting happening. Or perhaps a party. But just as the character begins to settle, he looks around and notices that the room is a completely different place than where he expected to be, and the audience makes the realization the same time he does. Like, “Holy shit! He thought it was at an AA meeting, but it’s really a bar mitzvah.” And then the character attempts to sneak out of the room. Sometimes, unsuccessfully. Hijinks ensue.
Perhaps there’s a specific name for that trope (and maybe someone reading this can educate me) but it’s been on my mind this week as I’ve read the reactions to Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones—a special I finally got around to watching last night. After the first few minutes, I saw why it’s become, like Funny Games and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, one of those creative works where the reaction to and conversation about it cannibalizes the actual content. His primary objective seems to be provocation; not making a thing that lasts, or something we’d want to come back to and rewatch, like the best stand-up acts compel us to do, but proving he can say what he wants and convince us to laugh at it too. And there’s definitely a specific name for this trope: Trolling.
While trolling has earned its negative connotation, it can be weaponized for good—as Bomani Jones proves on Twitter pretty much every day. You can troll racists and low-information bigots, exposing them and the batty and dangerous thought processes that define them. But Sticks and Stones is mostly an hour of Chappelle trolling trans people, rape victims, gay people, and other hyper-vulnerable communities while defending famous millionaires. And something happened while watching it that has never happened to me while watching Dave Chappelle. I got up and did things around the house while it was still on. Not because of some deep offense, but because I was just bored with it. Defending the words and rights of powerful people is perhaps the most mundane and least transgressive thing an artist can do, and last night was trash pickup night, so I multitasked so I could get to bed at a decent hour.
That said, there are also many who consider this to be one of his best performances. And among that group are trolls, professional bigots, white supremacists, Nazi sympathizers and more of the very worst white people; an adoration due to the parallels between their sensibilities and his.
Now, is it possible to like a thing a racist also likes without exposing a deep deficit within you? Of course! I’m sure many racists like pizza because pizza is fucking awesome. Shit, Donald Trump loves shiny shit, and the space shoes I’m rocking today proves that affinity is shared by me. But if you’ve just entered a room, and you find yourself surrounded by Nazis, you should probably ask yourself how you got there and what you need to do to leave.
(Unless, of course, you’re there on purpose. In which case, congrats on finding your tribe.)