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.

The apparent logic was that a campaign to cancel the Colbert Report is newsworthy if it trends on Twitter, even if virtually no one actually wants the show cancelled and the chances of it being cancelled are next to nothing. This probably isn't the best way for journalists to identify the most important issues facing Asian Americans, a worthy subject. What I do find newsworthy about the Park/Colbert episode is the particular tactic that Park deployed when offended by the tweet, for it is used too regularly in American discourse.

Here are her tweets:

The logic is straightforward enough: a television show published an offensive tweet once—therefore, all good people should join forces to TAKE IT OFF THE AIR FOREVER. No benefits of the doubt or second chances. Transgressing against vaguely defined norms of racial sensitivity, even in satire, must end in termination!

As Deadspin noted, "the #CancelColbert hashtag was soon flooded with a mind-warping mix of left-wingers and Asian activists refusing to understand satire and right-wing zealots who jumped on the opportunity to funnel as much false outrage as possible in Colbert's direction." In addition, the hashtag was used by people who understood but were still offended by Colbert's satire, and by fans defending him.

Park kept feeding the controversy:

That last tweet seems to imply that Park is speaking for every Asian American in the United States, as if they're all of the same opinion about the Colbert controversy. In fact, it predictably divided that extremely diverse population, as Park implicitly acknowledged when shaming Asian Americans who didn't take her side. Meanwhile, #CancelColbert started making national headlines, which is unfortunate. Park seems like a smart, energetic person with sufficient talent for a bright future.

But #CancelColbert is a lazy, counterproductive critique.

It's not just that it proceeds from the idea that a TV show ought to be cancelled, after a successful multiyear run of more than 1,300 episodes because of a single ill-conceived tweet. Park also called for this maximally harsh penalty despite the fact that the people who run the show weren't even responsible for the tweet in question. She was actually demanding that Comedy Central cancel The Colbert Report as punishment for a tweet sent out by an employee of Comedy Central.

And even if Colbert himself had sent the tweet, ending his show over it would be absurdly draconian, as well as counterproductive as a campaign—not because it's illegitimate to critique speech related to race or ethnicity, but because that project is so important that it calls for rigor, empathy, persuasion, and constructiveness, not righteous indignation that echoes around a tiny ideological subculture.

We're a diverse country encompassing a lot of people who live in racially segregated communities. Even people surrounded by diversity are only human: prone to self-regard; often clueless about the experiences, preoccupations, insights, and sensitivities of those around them. It would be miraculous if anyone was perfectly informed, empathetic, and totally unprejudiced toward all of the people they encounter, especially since there is tremendous diversity within every racial group, and different people have different notions of how important race is to their identity. Thus the importance of talking to all kinds of people; the even greater importance of listening carefully to all kinds of people; and the utility of hearing people out when they critique our ideas or behavior from a different perspective.

Staying open to constructive criticism is very hard. Eschewing reflexive defensiveness is very hard. And when the suggested penalty for racial insensitivity is to be cursed at and then beset by an angry online mob demanding that you be deprived of your livelihood? That makes dialogue and introspection damned near impossible. Even an unsuccessful #CancelColbert campaign is bound to have a chilling effect, as casual news consumers renew their belief that whatever happens, they should studiously avoid engaging on the subject of race whenever possible.

If #CancelColbert ever succeeded, many comedy writers wouldn't take more care when interrogating race in America. They'd just avoid the subject of race entirely when attempting comedy of any depth and ambition. Meanwhile, defensiveness in this hypersensitive area would increase even more, such that folks making important race-related critiques would find people even less receptive to hearing them. Campaigns like #CancelColbert are also flawed insofar as they treat the punishment of an offending individual, rather than racial progress, as their stated goal.

This all could have been avoided by marshaling a critique framed around something other than ending The Colbert Report. It may have prompted a smaller conversation.

It would've been smarter and more useful too.

And evidently, even Park agrees that getting The Colbert Report cancelled isn't a desirable outcome!

In our conversation, Park admitted that despite the hashtag’s command, she did not want “The Colbert Report” to be cancelled. “I like the show,” she explained.

So what was she after? Kang tells us:

Instead, she said, she 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.”

In other words, she tricked the Internet into thinking she was calling for Colbert to be fired, knowing that the provocation would help draw attention to a different critique—and this deception and its negative externalities are ostensibly okay because she's the sort of activist for whom the ends (however often they shift) justify the means.

This should be forgiven in a 23-year-old suddenly given a national platform on the strength of an innovative hashtag. But let there be no mistake about it: If the American masses are to reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions about race, the vehicle is far more likely to be a popular yet transgressive comedian, warts and all, than a magazine journalist like me or a Twitter activist like Park. It would be wrong to treat popular comedians as if their work is somehow beyond criticism. It would also be a shame if their ability to attempt ambitious, thought-provoking comedy was neutered, a casualty of college graduates from four-year universities who draw on cultural privilege to impose their subculture's ethic: Thou shalt not offend.

* One man's over-the-top caricature of movement conservatism is another man's actual Rush Limbaugh segment!