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Both Sides, Part 3: License
The latest Chappelle thing, and the latest horrible terrible no-good Texas School thing, and a question: What are the two sides in “both sides,” anyway?
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on November 1, 2021.
This is Part 3 of a thing.
Part 1 is here. Short version: when we “consider both sides,” what’s usually meant is whether or not we agree with a proposed idea. “Both sides” being the people who agree and the people who disagree, not the people who are affected and the people who are not. Thus, “both sides” becomes a formulation that erases the people most affected from consideration.
Part 2 is here. Short version: The motivating spirits animating this debate are one that says “I deserve to live in this world” and another that says “I am beyond reproach.” Because a spirit beyond reproach must be unassailable, people acting in this spirit seek to control not only their self-perceived right to do and say what they want regardless of harm to others, but even the response of others to the things they do and say.
We left off with the idea that a person Beyond Reproach, unwilling to change, would by the very fact that they refused to improve, wind up defending worse ideas, failed ideas, and with a question:
What does an idea look like as it starts to fail?
October 18, 1961.
An editorial in the McComb Enterprise-Journal lamented the things you couldn’t joke about anymore, blaming the death of comedy on "the restraints of race consciousness." https://t.co/KWLZMnBmhM
This question leads me to another question: how does an idea fail?
To answer, let’s look at an a once-successful idea that has, thankfully, begun to fail. It’s a false idea, but a popular one, predicated as it is on one of our countries most grotesque foundational lies.
Here’s the popular false idea: Black people are subhuman.
Let me be careful here. I know this idea hasn’t failed in many ways that matter. Here’s what I mean when I say it’s begun to fail: a person deemed “white” used to be able to say Black people are subhuman, right out in the public square, published in newspapers, in those exact words, without repercussions or even controversy. People had license to say it, in exactly those words.
Let me define in 3 rules what I mean when I say license.
1. An idea has “license” if it is so commonly accepted that expressing it, or any other ideas or activities premised in it, carries no expectation of reputational damage or social penalty—consequences we could call reproach.
So, here’s a rather important question: who bestows license?
Here’s a rather important answer: The people who hold some measure of control over another person’s reputations, relationships, and careers.
In other words: family, friends, employers, employees, colleagues, customers, patrons, fans, audience, hangers-on, and hot dog vendors.
If you express an idea through word or deed, and the people with control over your reputation, relationship and career enforce no reputational damage or social penalty, then you have received license from them. If they reproach you with reputational damage or social penalty, then they don’t. Likewise, by the same mechanism, you give them license.
This happens all the time. It’s normal. You don’t have license to squat on the dining room table at Thanksgiving dinner and take a shit in the stuffing—nor should you. The idea I can take a shit anywhere I want is does not have widespread popular license.
Neither, anymore, does the idea Black people are subhuman. I think that’s good.
2. “License” determines who has to take care in word and deed, and about what sorts of things. It’s how social structures communicate values. It’s how society communicates what matters, and who; what is acceptable and what is not.
License is how society works—when it works.
Or, if society gives license to harmful lies, it’s how society fails.
And, look: These days you can’t just say “Black people are subhuman” without fear of consequence. It is a way that society has largely agreed to convey the idea “Black people exist and matter, as people.”
Even your racist uncle, who believes that Black people are subhuman and says it, looks both ways before doing so. Even the Grand Wizard of the KKK, who says it openly, has paid the consequence of being known to be the sort of person he manifestly is, which even in these darkening days limits the number of stages upon which he can speak, and the people who will share it with him, and the rooms and homes that will treat him politely.
What happened? Their license got revoked. Not perfectly, not completely, but it did. The idea has begun to fail.
How did it begin to fail?
Here’s what happened: for decades and centuries, a large number of courageous Black people faced violence and death, while a growing group of allies faced threats and reproach, to boldly insist on the opposing idea we are equal human beings who deserve to live equally, and this society is making that impossible, and that must change.
It was a reproachful idea. It had no license. Black people themselves had no license, because the popular, licensed idea stated that they didn’t even exist as full human beings, and laws had been drawn up enforcing that belief, and as a result they held no measure of control over the reputations, relationships, or careers of the people who oppressed them. Their reputations, relationships, and careers were adversely impacted simply by dint of them being themselves.
You can’t give or receive license if you don’t exist.
So it’s important, if you are somebody who wants to not care about another person while staying Beyond Reproach, to establish that person as someone who doesn’t exist.
3. “License” is as much about who within society is permitted to bestow license—that is, to participate in communicating societal values—as it is about the values themselves.
These people who pushed the reproachful idea we deserve to live in this world were called radicals. Unrealistic. Extremist. They made trouble and stirred people up, it was said. They were blamed as the cause of violence even as they received violence, a penalty for being a person with no license to exist, expressing an idea that has no license.
And so those who bravely insisted we deserve to live in this world suffered hardship, and pain, and terror, and violence, and many were murdered, and all struggled, but the idea is true, and the idea it counters is a murderous lie, and people began to listen, not from a spirit that insisted I am beyond reproach but from a spirit that admitted I may be wrong. When people listened, they learned, and grew and changed their actions, including refusing anymore to issue license for the bad idea.
At some point, the reproach for the idea “Black people are subhuman” held such a steep social, reputational, and professional penalty, you couldn’t say it out loud without fear of consequence like you once could. Even people who still held that idea had to pretend they don’t hold it, and some even seemed to convince themselves they didn’t hold it while still saying things and actively pursuing policies that make it clear they did.
The license got revoked.
Meanwhile, Black people have license to bestow, because as the idea Black people are subhuman began to fail, and some of the laws that codified that belief were stricken, they began to have some measure of control over the reputations, relationships, and careers of those who believed the lie.
This has led to a wider range of perspective. More voices. Less constraint for more people. More people taking care to listen and pay attention to those voices, because they have improved.
And that’s what it looks like when a bad idea begins to fail.
It started with a belief …
… that created a spirit …
… that moved people to action …
… and that eventually changed reality.
And that’s good, actually.
Except people never stopped believing the bad false idea, and want to change it back the other way.
Because their belief has no license, they receive reproach. And the more the idea receives reproach, the more reproach the idea continues to receive.
This is unacceptable for anyone who is Beyond Reproach.
Teaching students about structural racism has become a political flashpoint across the country. Here's my interview with one of Virginia's leading activists, Patti Hidalgo Menders -- a mother of six who's fighting the state's equity and inclusion curriculum. Via @Sho_theCircus: https://t.co/qQlopoYd3j
Some chafe at the idea that anyone should ever hold any control over their reputation or relationships or careers. They insist on their version of their intentions, they insist that those intentions are all that matter, and that the impact of their words and deeds do not matter and aren’t what you say they are anyway.
They don’t care about people, but they’re obsessed with how people perceive them. Why? Because they understand license.
They want to do what they want to do without reproach, not because they care about people’s feelings, but because reproach revokes their license to do whatever they want to do. So they demand permission to say and do as they please, and if you don’t give it, they threaten you with whatever penalty they can deliver.
We have a word for people who refuse to allow anyone else any measure of control over how they are perceived.
We call them “narcissists.”
It’s a disorder. Some people have it, and the people around them suffer.
Some countries have it, and the people in proximity to that country suffer.
Our country has it.
You might hear people today say: You can’t say anything anymore. I can’t say what I actually believe.
You might hear people today say: You have to be so careful or you’ll get cancelled.
What they are saying is: I no longer have permission to act as if this person doesn’t exist or matter, and I want that permission back.
Your racist uncle resents being forced to look both ways before saying it with a hard “r.”
He wanted a leader who will give him license again, who will tell him his hatred is acceptable, who promises to restore his lost greatness.
He sure got one.
Now your racist uncle expects to get his license to not care about other people back. He’s willing to fight for it. He wants power to enforce it back. He wants to legislate it.
He wants laws that say that all kinds of people who we’ve agreed exist no longer exist, and that all kinds of people who we’ve agree matter no longer matter. And he wants laws that say that we’re no longer allowed to even talk about it.
That’s what happens when Trump or some other Republican leader, or one of their lackeys or sycophants, or far-right extremist propagandists like Tucker Carlson trots out Nazi tropes like “replacement theory.”
What are they doing? Giving America Permission Again.
Narcissists demand permission. They usually get it.
“Both sides” is a permission delivery system for narcissists—and a preferred one, if they perceive some danger of reproach.
Carroll Independent School District exec director of curriculum Gina Peddy: "Make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing — that has other perspectives”
Teacher: “How do you oppose the Holocaust?”
Peddy: “Believe me, that’s come up”
The online interest in racist "Replacement Theory" has spiked to all time highs this year.
As mentioned earlier, the bad idea Black people are subhuman hasn’t failed entirely. Black people still face words and deeds and systems and policies premised on that old failed idea every day. And slavery hasn’t been crushed, which we know if we know anything about the prison industrial complex.
Because people who consider themselves Beyond Reproach never changed, and use force and power to establish their right to hold and pursue those failed ideas, and maintain the old structures built on those ideas, and built their own sheltered communities of thought and prayer to protect themselves from the reproach they receive from holding those ideas, and build their own labyrinths of self-justification to convince themselves that the idea they were pursuing wasn’t really the old failed one that it so clearly was.
And they insist—demand—that we never stop considering Both Sides.
We. “We” who? The people affected? No. Us—the people who give them license. And if we refuse to consider their failed idea, they insist that’s our failing; that it’s not something they are doing to others, but something we are doing to them.
They threaten us with reproach. They threaten to revoke our license. They threaten to disrupt our lives, to make us uncomfortable, if we don’t subsidize their failing idea. They promise to call us unreasonable if we refuse to call them reasonable.
And if enough of us continue to subsidize it, then license is never fully revoked. If we only revoke bigotry’s license to the extent that it no longer disrupts our own lives and our own comfort, and we fail to revoke it in times and places that might lead to us receiving reproach for doing so, then we’ve only made bigotry retreat a polite distance, and taught it the use of ranged weapons.
And that is, unfortunately, what so many of us with the most power to bestow license have done.
We’ve stayed comfortable and reasonable. We’ve avoided reproach from those who deserve reproach.
So the struggle to exist, for people who are not me, continues to this very day.
People want permission to be bigots, and by having their views established as acceptable topics for reasonable debate, they get enough permission to continue to operate.
You know who understand this dynamic really well, and has in the past expressed it with power and insight?
When I was a young man, I didn’t think trans people existed. Or to put it another way, I thought they were ridiculous and somewhat sinister aberrations, and extremely extremely extremely rare. Their only presence in my life was as a punch line in popular entertainment—by which I mean their very existence was taken as funny and sinister. When I considered them, I thought them about as real as Freddy Krueger, or Crocodile Dundee.
Why did I think that? Because these were the only depictions I had ever received.
I had never met any trans people.
Except yes I had met trans people.
Of course I’d met trans people. I just don’t know I had. They weren’t self-declaring. Why would they, in a world where they were exclusively presented as ridiculous but somehow sinister aberrations?
They had no license to exist, while culture had broad license to depict their humanity and their very selves as non-existent.
Many of them still had to struggle against the bad idea I’ve been unpacking—the one that says Black people are subhuman—because they were also Black.
All of them had to contend in one way or another with another bad idea that was only recently starting to fail, separate but related, which I haven’t even mentioned yet. This one says women are property.
I listened to the licensed idea, and never questioned it. I was a fool, and a common one, when it came to trans people. And, because of me, and millions of others like me, trans people suffered.
They still do. They’re at extremely elevated risk of murder, of suicide, of violence, of degradation, of laws targeting them for exclusion and harm. They’re the target of the single most successful author of the last century. They’re hounded by politicians and hatemongers. They’re still a very popular punchline with comedians. They’re still fighting to communicate the idea we deserve to exist in the world. Why? Because the prevailing ideas, the ones that have license, are trans people don’t exist and to the extent that trans people exist, the fact of that existence is funny and sinister.
However, something has changed.
That license has started—slowly, imperfectly—to fail.
People are starting to listen to the idea we exist and we deserve to live.
They’re learning, and growing, and changing.
They’ve stopped granting the same license as before.
The people who like to use trans people as presumed punchlines don’t like that very much, in much the same way as the people who still think that Black people are subhuman dislike having to look both ways before saying what they really think.
And so what? Nuts for what they like and dislike.
We should revoke their licenses.
“Helping kids of color to feel they belong has a negative effect on white, Christian, or conservative kids” https://t.co/ywW1YlYAMD https://t.co/34cJZ3mC0R
When Dave Chappelle was a young man, he walked away from a reported $50 million dollars. He was being offered the money to continue making his extremely popular television show, which skewered racist views and attitudes. He walked away because he began to realize that, for many people in his audience, the laughter was coming from the wrong side of the coin. People were laughing, not at his skewering of racist stereotypes, but at the stereotypes themselves.
They were people who wanted license to believe the old lie. Dave Chappelle realized that without meaning to, not despite his sharpness on racial injustice but because of it, he was bestowing that license to them.
And then Dave Chappelle did an extraordinary, almost miraculous thing. He walked away from incredible wealth and success to avoid bestowing that harmful license.
He realized that his words had an impact, and that impact mattered.
As a result, Dave Chappelle became somebody who can speak with extraordinary power and credibility to issues of bigotry and systemic injustice.
And also because of that:
If you were an anti-trans bigot who wanted to receive license to believe that trans people don’t exist, I can think of few people with a more damaging ability to bestow it upon you than Dave Chappelle.
Dave Chappelle, who is not trans, and is neither a woman nor perceived as a woman, in full knowledge that his words have impact, took a reported $60 million dollars, and did exactly that, using his authoritative voice on the Black struggle to position the struggle of Black people to exist in the world and the struggle of trans people as fundamentally and competitively at odds, and offered a full-throated apologia for the idea trans people don’t exist.
And that deserves reproach.
It’s our responsibility, if we think trans people exist, and that they deserve to live, to deliver reproach.
To not do so is to give license to an idea that should be revoked.
License, remember, is how society works—when it works.
Here’s a question: how best to deliver reproach?
Also, when you deliver reproach to those who put themselves Beyond Reproach, aren’t you simply denying their right to exist? If you revoke their license, treat them as if their perspective doesn’t matter, aren’t you just putting yourself Beyond Reproach by insisting on your side and refusing the allow their side?
Let’s do that one next time.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places. He lives like a king, and he dallies and he gathers and he plucks and shines and when the man dances, certainly boys—what else?—the piper pays him.