Friends don’t cancel friends
Mark Hemingway | Being there for each other when the Twitter mob comes calling
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Comedians Dave Chappelle and Patton Oswalt share something of a special bond. In the late 1980s, when Chappelle was still a teenager, both were young unknowns looking for a break in Washington, D.C.’s small stand-up comedy scene. The odds that both men would go on to be two of America’s most famous comedians—and Chappelle is arguably the most famous comedian in the country—are vanishingly small.
So, when Oswalt, a huge stand-up star and the voice of the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille, among other roles, recently posted a photo of the two men together on social media, you’d think it would have been a good occasion to celebrate 34 years of friendship. Instead, Oswalt bowed to a politically correct mob angry at Chappelle, called him “ignorant,” and otherwise tried to placate a bunch of faceless people on the internet at the expense of his supposed longtime friend.
The whole sordid episode provides good lessons for the era of cancel culture. The first is that agreeing with someone is not a prerequisite for being friends with them. The second is that if someone ever feels the need to publicly justify why they’re friends with you, they’re not your friend.
Chappelle, as you might recall, has been the source of a running controversy for offering jokes and commentary about transgender people. Chappelle’s humor on the topic has been typically nuanced, but he is clearly skeptical of the premise that you can deny biological reality. It takes a comedian to see that?
Oswalt, whose vocal Twitter account suggests he’s never encountered a liberal piety he didn’t reflexively defend, responded to the social media outcry by throwing Chappelle under the bus. He posted an essay masquerading as an Instagram caption making it clear that while they had been friends for decades, he and Chapelle “100% disagree about transgender rights.” He added that he wasn’t going to cut Chappelle out of his life—why was that even an option?—and explained that he feels guilty about all the other people he’s cut out of his life over disagreeing with them because it might have fueled their “ignorance with a nitro-boost of resentment and spite.”
Of course, liberal pieties don’t have much of a lifespan these days. It took about five seconds for people to start posting examples of Oswalt’s stand-up routines from the not too distant past mocking transgender people—including one that compared transvestites to clowns and suggested adults should keep kids away from them. Oswalt is hardly without postmodern sins here, even if he’s comfortable casting the first stone.
If Oswalt’s behavior here is an example of what friends are not to do, I was at least reminded of one of the more inspiring public displays of celebrity friendship. In 2014, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter asked actor Danny Glover about his friend and Lethal Weapon co-star Mel Gibson, whose alcohol-fueled antics involving racial and antisemitic slurs have largely destroyed his Hollywood career.
“I have a friendship with Mel Gibson,” Glover responded. “It’s a respectful friendship, and when I talk to Mel I know what’s gone down and heard what is happening. … I’ll say this: As I’ve said when people try to get me to throw … say something bad … I love Mel Gibson. That’s all I have to say about that.”
As you ponder that response, it’s worth noting that in contrast to Gibson’s reputation as a right-leaning traditionalist Catholic, Glover is a far-left political activist. But the reporter pressed Glover further.
“I don’t want to go any further with the question,” Glover told him. “You can say, ‘Danny Glover says he loves Mel Gibson.’”
The reporter pressed Glover again.
“This is not an interview with you,” Glover said. “This is [an] interview with me. What your friend says is relevant to your friends; what’s relevant to me is that I love Mel Gibson. Do you have another question?”
Glover gets it—being there for someone when they’re wrong is the whole point of friendship. Some years ago, a friend of mine was found in the middle of a social media firestorm, because of an admixture of brashness and an obvious mistake on my friend’s part. I was somewhat surprised to see a mutual friend immediately go online and leap to that person’s defense. Asked why, the mutual friend replied, “Anyone can defend you when you’re right. It takes a friend to defend you when you’re wrong.”
So let this cautionary tale be a reminder: All good human relationships are rooted in humility and forgiveness, attributes our society should know best through Christianity. If you can’t find evidence of those two things when that relationship is tested, someone’s not being a very good friend.
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