The How and Why of Identity

October 17, 2021

by Steve Stofka

A current topic of controversy is a popular comedy special on Netflix featuring the acerbic wit of Dave Chappelle. In this last of several Netflix specials, Mr. Chappelle airs many grievances, one of which involves previous remarks he made about transgender people. Hannah Gadsby, an Australian comedian with a quiver of arrows and the skill of a markswoman, targets the bias and bigotry in our culture. Recently she has aimed at some remarks by Netflix executives who defended Mr. Chappelle’s humor. Ms. Gadsby leads a growing audience of voices who worry that the Chappelle special could inflame hate attacks against people with a non-mainstream sexual orientation or gender identity.

In past centuries society has regarded non-straight orientation as a behavior outside accepted norms and ostracized those individuals as deviants. Social scientists have now recognized the importance of biology in sexual orientation and gender identity. Recent jurisprudence and law have accorded equal access to marriage, property and employment regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Black people have long been ostracized for their skin color and there is no dispute whether skin color is biological or behavioral. Decades of law and jurisprudence have not been able to undo the bigotry and bias against those with black skin. Two comedians, each from a marginalized group, confront each other and the larger society over the nature and construction of identity. This is an enduring debate.

2400 years ago Aristotle attributed the falling of objects to their nature. People accepted that view until Galileo showed that it was a dynamic of forces, not an inherent nature that made things fall. Explanations that attribute causes to nature – the within – are attempts to answer the question of why. Explanations that investigate the dynamic between things answer the question of how. In the 17th century John Locke argued that people had a natural right to private property that no king could dispose of without violating a natural law. That was why society had an obligation to protect property rights. The how of that natural right involved a dynamic between God, Adam and Eve when He turned them out of the Garden of Eden and set them to toil the earth for their food.

In his special Mr. Chappelle adopts a realist approach, arguing that gender is an unalterable fact of nature. An alternative perspective is that gender is a construction of biological, social and psychological factors. The nature vs. dynamic identity debate exists in many fields. Some people claim that only gold has real value as a money, regarding paper money as a mass illusion of value. Economists argue that the value of something is what you will give up for it, a value based on a dynamic. Karl Marx thought the fundamental value of any good was the labor that went into producing or harvesting it. Mainstream economists assume that the value of a good is its utility to the user, a fluid construct of preference, time and price. The debate over sexual orientation and gender identity is another manifestation of this conflict of perspectives.

Some comedians walk the dark alleys of our society and psyche. In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin questioned mainstream values. In a brash and vulgar style, Bruce openly flouted speech prohibitions and police often arrested him during his act. His notoriety helped bring these laws to the Supreme Court where they were ruled unconstitutional. In the 1970s, Richard Pryor offended many with his off-color remarks as he dug deep to unearth the hatred and hypocrisy that rotted our culture. In other cultures today, comedians who ridicule authority figures are arrested. Caustic remarks are against the law. Liberal societies tolerate a wide range of speech and views. Those are the two choices on the menu: authoritarian or liberal. I’ll take the liberal, please.

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Photo by ANGELO CASTO on Unsplash

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