The Perils of Making Racial Insensitivity a Firing Offense

#CancelColbert is an intellectually lazy and counterproductive campaign.

Most good comedians are offensive. That is to say, they cause some people to feel hurt, angry, or upset. If you're a fan of Jon Stewart, or Louis C.K., or Chris Rock, or Patrice O'Neal, or Hannibal Buress, or Sarah Silverman, or Larry David, you're complicit in the inherently uncomfortable practice of comedy, where performers work on the edge of taboos, transgressing against them to get laughs and give insights. The best comedians are adept at tackling fraught subjects. They still fail regularly. And when they succeed, plenty of people still get their feelings hurt, find a bit to be in poor taste, or believe that it traffics in some pernicious stereotype.

In short, people take offense.

Stephen Colbert is the latest object of comedic controversy. Last week, the Comedy Central host did a bit on his show mocking Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. Under pressure to change his team's name, Synder responded by underwriting the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. To parody it, Colbert, who is always in character as a conservative ideologue, announced (circa 4:45) that he'd make good with Asian Americans by funding "the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."*

Funny, incisive satire? Offensive schtick that plays on ignorant, hurtful stereotypes? Don't let anyone tell you those are mutually exclusive categories. The Colbert Report's writers, the many audience members who laughed at the bit, and the two Korean-American journalists who wrote up the ensuing controversy at Deadspin are among those who expressed appreciation for the segment.

Many found it to be an adept takedown of a deserving target.

Writer Jay Caspian Kang, who is a pleasure to read on every subject, adeptly explained why some Asian Americans might take offense at the joke, even if they fully understood its context and intent. "There’s a 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," he observed. "If I were to predict which minority group the writers of a show like 'The Colbert Report' would choose for an edgy, epithet-laden parody, I’d grimace and prepare myself for some joke about rice, karate, or broken English. The resulting discomfort has nothing to do with the intentions of the joke or the political views of the people laughing at it. Even when you want to be in on the joke—and you understand, intellectually, that you are not the one being ridiculed—it’s hard not to wonder why these jokes always come at the expense of those least likely to protest."

That's a fair critique of the segment. Were I a TV comedian, I probably wouldn't have broadcast it, because I don't find the joke particularly funny, original, or insightful, while I find the hurt that it caused understandable and totally predictable.

But neither do I condemn Colbert. Specific criticism of one segment is as far as I want to go, because at his best, he is a brilliant satirist, which is to say that he thoughtfully probes ideologies and social taboos, and challenges us to think through our sensibilities. Doing that work on a nightly basis inevitably results in misses as well as hits. A satirist who never upsets anyone in the audience, who never goes too far, is inevitably falling short of his or her potential, as surely as an investor who never loses money or a quarterback who never throws an interception. Better that comedy occasionally offends than that it never challenges, so long as it isn't coming from a place of incitement, hate or racialist supremacy.

* * *

Suey Park is a 23-year-old activist. On Twitter, she is best known as the creator of the hashtag #notyourAsiansidekick. The Wall Street Journal's Jeff Yang describes it as a "collection of angry voices sharing their frustrations with the lack of representation and respect given to Asian Americans in mainstream society and mainline feminism." The hashtag "spiraled its way onto the radar screens of shocked non-Asian editors and reporters, who never saw this upwelling of rage and resistance coming from a community they’d perceived as quiescent." At its best, the hashtag offered a useful frame for advancing a pent-up critique. Helping so many to express themselves is an impressive accomplishment.

Park's day-to-day Twitter timeline is fascinating. Her approach to the medium bears an uncanny resemblance to the way the late Andrew Breitbart used it: Their politics are opposite, but both present themselves as happy warriors and marshal a riveting mix of charisma, crusading passion, and self-righteous confrontation. They're also adept at provoking hateful responses from the Internet at large, then eagerly highlighting the most abhorrent examples, as if they suggest that all folks on the other side of a given argument are horrible bigots. And when a critic seems to have them pinned down for an indefensible tweet? Well, duh, they were secretly engaged in high-concept satire all along, which just goes to "prove" how unimaginative and humorless their critics are.

On Thursday, Park, a self-described longtime fan of the Colbert Report, noticed that the show's official Twitter feed published the following (sans any mention of the Redskins context):

I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.

The angry responses that Park published on Twitter, to fewer than 20,000 followers, would be retweeted scores of times ... and would, somehow, draw national headlines.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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