When Chappelle Says It, It’s Funny

November 18, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Dave Chappelle, in his SNL monologue, offered an insight about language that I’ve used a few times in this blog. It’s about adding the definite article “the” to a demographic category.

Here’s how I put it in a blog post seven years ago after candidate Donald Trump (remember those good old days? they’re back) had told an interviewer, “I’d be phenomenal to the women.”

When you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society. Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Chappelle got more laughs.

In another post a year later (here),  I quoted linguist Lynne Murphy on the same topic.

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Turning those individuals into “a large, uniform mass” not only allows for “othering”; it’s also the precondition for paranoid conspiracy theories. Even if, as Chappelle suggests,* there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, you can still see them as individuals, as Jews trying to turn out successful movies and TV shows. To see them as a cabal conspiring against Kanye or Christians or America it helps to think of them as “the Jews.”

* See also Joel Stein’s 2008 article “Who Runs Hollywood? C’mon” (here).

No comments: