When staff attempted a shakedown, CEO Ted Sarandos sagged a little under the strain.
There's no reason why we're still talking about Dave Chappelle's two-week-old stand-up special The Closer. Except that Netflix employees have used it to intrude themselves into high-level company affairs, demanding that the company comply with their demands, ostensibly as penance for the company's decision to screen Chappelle's show.
It's a leap to paint Chappelle as a man with animus toward the trans community, especially for those who have invested an hour of their time in viewing the show. He made a point of criticizing North Carolina's bathroom laws, which would prevent transgender people from using the restroom of their choosing, claiming that no American should be required to provide their birth certificate to use a Walmart restroom (true). He tries to distinguish between feeling irritated by the rapidly shifting elite consensus that we must actively support the transgender rights movement, and just not being interested in the demands of a marginal subgroup. He closes with a tale of his friend, the transgender comic Daphne Dorman, who committed suicide purportedly after facing online fury from people in the trans community (though Chappelle takes care not to assign a singular cause to her decision to take her own life). The through line is a commentary on the plight of the black man in America, along with a lamentation that it's terribly easy for people to get barred from polite society, immediately and retroactively, for committing acts or uttering words that offend people's poorly-calibrated sensibilities.
The special is typically irreverent, as you'd expect if you've watched anything Chappelle has ever worked on. And it sparked such internal outrage that Netflix's trans employee resource group staged a walkout earlier today, putting a list of demands at Netflix executives' feet.
I’m so happy I didn’t do my eye makeup yet because now I’m sobbing. How did our little group turn into this? 😭— Terra Field (@RainofTerra) October 20, 2021
So much love to all of you right now, from the bottom of my heart 💜 🏳️⚧️💜 #NetflixWalkout https://t.co/SM99Nd732X
The walkout itself didn't amount to much (a not-huge crowd of Netflix employees, plus some counter protesters with cutely tepid signs like "We like Dave" and "I like jokes"), but Twitter really wanted users to believe it was a big deal, promoting the walkout as a trending moment. Several prominent actors and comedians, like Elliot Page and Wanda Sykes, drummed up support for the protest. The protesters' demands, which interestingly do not actually call for deplatforming Chappelle, involve specific asks: the company must add disclaimers before transphobic or hate speech-promoting content; suggest "trans-affirming" content alongside content deemed transphobic; "hire trans and non-binary content executives, especially BIPOC, in leading positions"; create a new fund that specifically cultivates and platforms work by trans and non-binary creators; and revise the processes involved in curating transphobic content. Having pried the door open, low-level transgender rights activist-employees are trying to force Netflix executives to engage in affirmative action and aggressive content moderation.
OK, the demands from the trans employee resource group (ERG) are WILD. Note that they don't call for deplatforming, interestingly, but for all kinds of affirmative action & "hate speech" flagging measures. They're framing it as if they're owed reparations, concessions, etc. https://t.co/ywtqZyOlbz pic.twitter.com/Lhq5pr7a36— Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) October 20, 2021
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who had recently defended Chappelle in a letter to employees ("content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm," he wrote) now says he miscalculated. "I should have led with a lot more humanity. … I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made," he told Variety. "Because we're trying to entertain the world, and the world is made up of folks with a lot of different sensibilities and beliefs and senses of humor and all those things — sometimes, there will be things on Netflix that you dislike," Sarandos continued, saying they'll draw the line at content that calls for intentionally "physically harming other people" and hyping the company's "creative equity fund," which supports trans and non-binary content creators. Sarandos' did not reiterate his initial question of whether content that appears on screen will "directly translate to real-world harm."
It's wonderful that Sarandos hasn't completely abandoned his argument of providing artistic independence to Netflix partners, and it's understandable for CEOs to want to nurture material that appeals to many demographics. However, he made a mistake by giving in to a small group of employees who are making radical demands about the structure and priorities of a major corporation with consumers all over the world. Sarandos appears to be another CEO in a long series of CEOs whose staff successfully put their feet to the fire, demanding a digital world packed with content warnings and a physical world filled with diversity recruits, after originally defending a sound move.
This moment of moral panic is predicated on the idea that portrayal or discussion of bad actions in some way leads more people to commit terrible acts that end up harming the physical safety of vulnerable people. We don't have good data to back this up (except perhaps in the case of depictions of suicides, where data more strongly supports the idea of a contagion effect), but people casually toss this idea around, rarely pausing to consider whether Dave Chappelle's jokes about trans people have the power to radicalize otherwise decent people into violent transphobes. We have no proof that they do, and for whatever reason, this crucial subject has been routinely ignored, as if it had no bearing on how we should proceed.