You may have heard the news that swirled around The Colbert Report last week. If you haven’t—or if you need a refresher—here is what happened. It all started with a joke…
On 26 March, The Colbert Report ran a sport segment covering Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. The NFL franchise had been in hot water recently for publicly refusing to change their mascot name, which many people deem offensive to the Native American community. In what appeared to be an act of damage control, Snyder announced the creation of a foundation called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, whose mission ‘is to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities.’ In characteristic satire, Stephen Colbert said that Snyder’s actions inspired him to do something similar: improve Colbert’s own strained relations with the Asian community over a character on his show called Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, which (if I’m not mistaken, though please correct me if I am) hasn’t appeared on the show since 2005, though the original clip has periodically been replayed in segments covering the racial insensitivity of other people, like Rush Limbaugh for example, as a way to ‘put the racism of others in perspective,’ satirically speaking.
Colbert’s exaggerated Asian stereotype character was once again brought up in the Daniel Snyder story. Echoing Snyder’s refusal to change his team’s mascot name because it ‘captures the best of who we are and who we can be, by staying true to our history and honoring the deep and enduring values our name represents,’ Colbert explained that ‘Ching-Chong is part of the unique heritage of the Colbert Nation that cannot change.’ And so Colbert announced his very own foundation, the ‘Ching-Chong Ding-Dong for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.’ End of joke.
After the segment aired on Wednesday night, it re-aired four more times on Thursday and was even posted on the show’s Facebook page without any noticeable reaction. It wasn’t until 7pm on Thursday, when the show’s promotional Twitter account, @ColbertReport, tweeted a truncated form of the joke, which really was just the punchline without any of the setup and without any mention of the Redskins—not even a link to the segment footage—that people begin to take notice.
The out-of-context tweet looked like this:
People on Twitter erupted. Many were offended, and many were shocked by the tweet, especially since many, including the woman, Suey Park, who started the #CancelColbert hashtag, stated that they admired Colbert’s work in the past. The truth behind this is actually rather significant: even some of the most outraged among Twitter users were clearly about to see, and sometimes even make note, that the offensive tweet seemed out of character, even for Colbert, whose on-air persona has made him famous for being satirically insensitive.
‘The twit hit the fan,’ as Colbert said, after The Colbert Report finished taping for the week. Colbert, his producers, and his writers could only wait until Monday’s taping as #CancelColbert became one of the top five popular trending hashtags over the weekend, igniting several related debates ranging from subjects as large as racism and the efficacy of Twitter activism to whether The Colbert Report should actually be cancelled. It wasn’t until Monday’s taping that The Colbert Report officially defended itself, its host making clear that the truncated tweet was made in his name by a web editor he has never met on an account he doesn’t control. He then squashed the debate, or at least his part in it, but not before pointing a couple of subtle fingers toward bigger problems, namely the news media.
But despite #CancelColbert pretty much today being a thing of the past, for it is at the mercy of the very same speed that ignited it in the first place, it leaves in its wake some very serious issues, the likes of which shouldn’t be misunderstood, much less completely forgotten.
I was not offended by the joke. And this comes from someone with a low tolerance for race jokes. Just as with journalistic responsibility, a comedian must be responsible for the information—in this case, the joke—they present. If a race joke (or any joke that carries the possibility of offending anyone) is told and received ‘incorrectly,’ I do believe that the comedian is, at the very least, partly at fault and partly to blame. Part of that responsibility comes from knowing one’s audience. Colbert knows a large portion of his viewers would ‘get’ the joke as he intended, and he perhaps wouldn’t try the same joke in a nightclub, per se, where anyone could be present.
That of course does not remove the cause of offense entirely away from the joke itself. Adam Carolla’s joke about Filipinos and the Philippines, regardless of whether he said it on his podcast, in a nightclub, or on television, was inherently racist and more so a punch in the gut rather than a veiled critique of sex tourism or something larger. In fact, if he weren’t a comedian, his comments wouldn’t have qualified as a joke but rather more so a rant. In his apology (via Twitter, no less), Carolla said, ‘I try to be provocative, funny but I crossed the line & im sorry’ [sic].
The difference between Colbert’s joke and Carolla’s joke lies in each one’s suggested intent. Carolla claiming that he was ‘trying to be provocative’ may very well be translated as ‘trying to be offensive,’ while Colbert’s joke was an exaggeration of racism meant to criticise the real-life racism in Daniel Snyder’s refusal to budge on a name change. Even the fact that people on Twitter erupted in response to the truncated tweet and not the joke as a whole is worth pointing out.
Still, the world of satire can still be a dangerous place to dwell, because it requires the audience to ignore its gut reactions and digest all parts of the joke. In satire, it is conceivable that not only should the comedian be responsible for the information she or he presents but the audience also be responsible for the digestion, understanding, and reaction to that material. This brings us to the opposite side of the joke.
In his New Yorker piece ‘The Campaign to “Cancel” Colbert’ Jay Caspian King briefly but coherently dissects the phenomenon that is a Twitter protest:
Every debate on Twitter gets put through the platform’s peculiar distortion effect. The form’s inherent limitations—the hundred-and-forty-character limit and a fleeting shelf life—reward volume, frequency, and fervor rather than nuance, complexity, and persuasion.
King then points out the moment in a protest ‘where hashtag activism had circled back onto itself’ and the earnestness to engage in any sort of conversation is ‘compromised by self-promotion and race hustling.’ But King doesn’t seem to be accusing Park of such things, and neither should we. ‘I also do not believe that any activist really owes an explanation for the mess she leaves in her wake,’ writes King. He refers, of course, to the polarising effects of Park’s #CancelColbert, how it seemed to have originated from a joke without all of its parts, how it ignited a firestorm on Twitter before spreading to the news media, and how Park herself has since received backlash of her own, much of it exponentially more vicious, hateful, and racist than anything Colbert and Park have said themselves. Even Colbert came to the defence of Park’s safety (and right to free speech) on air, during the segment in which he was defending himself.
Idiotic threats, while scary, almost always only exist behind the shield of anonymity that the internet provides and, for the most part, evaporate without that shield. The real threat in this case, which Park insists is the real racism she fights, is the ‘long tradition in American comedy of dumping tasteless jokes at the feet of Asians and Asian-Americans that follows the perception that we will silently weather the ridicule,’ as King summarises. In conversation with Park, King relays that
[Park] saw the hashtag as a way to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism. ‘Well-intentioned racial humor doesn’t actually do anything to end racism or the Redskins mascot,’ Park told me. ‘That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.’
Like Colbert’s satire, Park’s method of activism as well as her choice of platform also risked misunderstanding. But even as King criticises Twitter’s efficacy as a platform for change, he also sees its allure for Park and other so-called hashtag activists. Without Twitter, Suey Park’s demand for respect on behalf of the Asian community might’ve at best been found in an online op-ed, read by only a handful of people. Surely no one would be rushing to conduct an interview with her. However, after the news media picked up on Park’s #CancelColbert, she conducted interviews with The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, and Salon, the latter of which some people may read as Park’s own ‘defence segment.’ When asked if Park watched Colbert’s ‘defence segment,’ Park said she hadn’t, and that watching it was irrelevant. She tells Salon,
A lot of white America and so-called liberal people of color, along with conservatives, ask ‘Do I understand context?’ And that’s part of wanting to completely humanize the oppressor. To see the white man as always reasonable, always pure, always deliberate, always complex and always innocent. And to see the woman of color as literal. Both my intent behind the hashtag and in my [unintelligible] distance, is always about forcing an apology on me for not understanding their context when, in reality, they misunderstood us when they made us a punch line again.
Regardless of your stance on Park’s method and her theories behind them, King points out the fact ‘that a hashtag conversation on Twitter could have so much resonance speaks to just how desperate Asian-Americans have been to talk about identity without deferring to the familiar binaries that shape most discussions of race in this country.’
Twitter in this case is very much a double-edged sword. The swiftness with which its components can make their way through different outlets is matched only by the swiftness with which people react to them. Park told Salon that ‘#CancelColbert was never literal, but it was a way to say, “Hey, improve Colbert,” knowing that trying to improve Colbert would never trend, knowing that it would never get heard.’ Her choice of vocabulary hinged on the power of its punch, intending to incite, intending to inflame. Perhaps she knew that the detractors would oppose her with similar punch, similar incitement techniques, and their own level of inflammatory response. It is tricky, if not altogether unreasonable, to rile people up in order to be heard and then expect them to calm down in order to participate in the conversation. Then again, is this what it takes? Is this how communication is evolving, and, if so, are we—journalists, comedians, hashtag activists, and everyday people alike—expected to evolve with these platforms? And if we do, could that be good for communication and understanding in the long run?