Dave Chappelle, Transphobia, & the Yoga Sutras

Last weekend I saw my first live comedy show: Dave Chappelle. One of my faves. As always, he was hilarious, irreverent, and thought-provoking. What I didn’t expect was for his closing bit to include a piece of tragic news, which led to Dave ending the show with a sincere plea for everyone to please try to be kind to each other.

To understand the gravity of his closing bit, you first need to know that Chapelle is often accused of being transphobic. Here are the top two (of many) headlines that pop up on a Google search:

In response to these accusations, Chappelle filmed an epilogue to his hit Netflix special “Sticks and Stones” in which he talked about Daphne Dorman, a transgender comedian and activist who attended several of his shows and “laughed the loudest” at his trans jokes. He spoke fondly of the friendship they developed.

 At his show last Friday night, he brought up Dorman again. He recapped what he said in the “Sticks and Stones” Epilogue and went into greater detail about their friendship over the years. He supported her career and she even opened for one of his performances.

Dave was surprisingly somber as he told the story, despite the many funny moments they had together. He then described how Daphne had defended him against his critics on Twitter.

It turns out, according to Dave, her opinions were not well received by some members of LGBTQ+ community. After defending herself against a barrage of virulent responses, she committed suicide.  I kept waiting for the punchline, the “just kidding” followed by a disturbingly dark joke. It never came. She died on October 11, 2019.  He concluded the eulogy with a plea for people to be kind to each other.

This whole story weighed on me. The next day I did a little research and confirmed everything he said. Many were even blaming Chappelle for her death. How does one make sense of all this? I believe in being kind and doing one’s best to understand and be considerate of others’ feelings. I also believe in freedom of expression. Are these at odds with each other? Do I need to choose a side?

Why am I telling you this? What does any of this have to do with yoga?

When I need clarity, I refer to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Here are some relevant passages:

II.30 Nonviolence, truth, abstention from stealing, continence, and absence of greed for possessions beyond one’s need are the five pillars of yama.

II.31 Yamas are the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time, and class.

Here is clear guidance to be nonviolent (non-harming, kind). But who gets to decide which words are harmful? What do we do when potentially harmful words (in this case, comedy) directed at a specific group (in this case, transgendered folks) are received with pleasure and appreciation by some (Daphne told Dave “thank you, your jokes normalize us”) and offend/emotionally hurt others in that same group?

 So what is true? Are Chappelle’s jokes harming or non-harming? It seems the answer lies in the eye of the beholder. According to the sutras, the lens through which we view the world becomes distorted by our experiences, specifically by our over-identification with the material world (e.g. erroneous, limiting perceptions such as ‘I am my body’, ‘I am my job’, or ‘I am my nationality’). Our goal in practicing yoga is to clean that lens. When the lens is clean, we can both perceive the material world accurately and reveal the true self within which, of course, transcends labels.

I.41 The yogi realizes that the knower, the instrument of knowing and the known are one, himself, the seer. Like a pure transparent jewel, he reflects an unsullied purity.

I.48 When consciousness dwells in wisdom, a truth-bearing state of direct spiritual perception dawns.

I.49 The truth-bearing knowledge and wisdom is distinct from and beyond the knowledge gleaned from books, testimony, or inference.

I.50 A new life begins with this truth-bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind and new ones are prevented.

When we perceive the material world accurately, we are able to take in the whole of everything. That includes seeing beyond words and labels to the heart of a person, to what motivates them. Seeing the heart of a person always helps us have more compassion for them (though we may still choose to not be around them for the sake of our own wellbeing).

Isn’t our goal (as progressives) to create a world in which people are free to be themselves and express their individuality without fear for their safety and security?

How does condemning a person for having different viewpoints support this objective?

II.4 Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows whether dormant, attenuated, interrupted, or fully active.

This sutra summarizes the tragedy of this situation. If Daphne Dorman had known her own immutable beauty and divinity, she would not have fallen into such a state of despair and hopelessness. (I don’t mean to minimize the complexity of mental health issues—I’m just sticking to the sutras here). If Dorman’s critics had been willing to have compassion for her viewpoints, even if they disagreed, maybe productive conversation might have ensued resulting in a greater sense of connection rather than rejection and isolation.

And what about Chappelle? Does he see the light in others as the same as his own? Does he stand for nonviolence and truth? I don’t know, but I would argue that so much of what comedians do is expose the absurdity of the artificial divisions/categories/labels that we box ourselves into, by poking fun at these categories. Seeing ourselves as “other” undermines the connection that humans need and crave.  To be left out of a comedy show (i.e. have your primary “identity label” ignored) would only further “otherize” that group.

In the end, Dave Chappelle made a heartfelt plea to the audience to please be kind to each other. Always. I think that is a good indication of his intentions. And I concur.

~Where do you fall on the kindness–free speech spectrum?
~How much responsibility should each of us take in understanding and being considerate of others’ feelings?

~How do you take ownership of your own emotional wellbeing in a harsh, imperfect world?
~Any thoughts on our attachment to labels?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please click the link below to continue the conversation.

#pridemonth #transphobia #LGBTQ+ #RIPdaphnedorman #ahimsa #cancelculture  #yogasutrasofpatanjali #davechappelle #sticksandstones

5 thoughts on “Dave Chappelle, Transphobia, & the Yoga Sutras

  1. I had not heard the story of the comedian and found it both sad and inspirational.

    I was struck by your comments about looking beyond words and labels and seeing the heart of a person. This empathic approach is often difficult. I appreciate your compassion for others, even those that cause you pain. I will heed your words. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in such as heartfelt way.

    1. It IS often difficult! I like to remember that every person used to be an innocent baby. Who knows what they’ve endured between then and now? That makes it easier for me to feel compassion for people whose behavior bothers me.

  2. I’ve been waiting for this follow-up! Some of the wait was due to sheer curiosity, but also knowing if it involved Dave Chapelle that it’d be worth talking about. As a disclaimer, I’m also a huge fan of Chapelle. I was not a fan of his earlier work, but his more recent work has been thoughtful social commentary. I’ve noticed an increasing sadness about his work and a habit of imploring others to be better. I share his growing sadness as I watch the news or even encounter microaggressions throughout my daily life. We all need to strive to be kinder to others, yet it can be so very hard to talk about it. Many of us approach difficult topics with humor, to alleviate the discomfort in the potential for conflict and to make it inviting for others to join us in the discussion. As such, some of us take the stance that cracking jokes about a topic is still starting a conversation. Yet, words do hurt. I suspect the work lies in between, in what direction we push the dial so to say. As a social worker, I also struggle in that space as I’m ethically bound to push the dial in a positive direction, but it exposes me more to the conflicts. It becomes my own responsibility to take care of myself and deflect the conflict, which can foster resentment as I feel others should be cognizant of the impact of their words/actions. It’s an uncomfortable place at times as we strive to encourage others to be better for all of us.

    1. Thank you so much for shari g your thoughts, April! I agree that humor can help start a conversation, and how can we begin to understand each other if we avoid difficult/charged topics?

  3. To borrow from a book title, everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten: be nice to each other, hold hands, and watch out for words and actions that can hurt others, especially those who are different than us. We can be forgetful and can always use a reminder to call on the better angels in us.

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