Friday, March 28, 2014

You really don't want to #CancelColbert.

Disclaimer: I'm speaking personally, certainly not for anyone else. I'm interested in hearing alternative critiques of comedy, satire, race, and identity, especially in the context of Stephen Colbert.

I have better things to do right now than shout into the echobox of criticism and defense of Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA, First Lady of France. But as a longtime, avid fan of Colbert's satire and self-satire, I feel a bubbling of internet rage that I need to address.

This post by Jessica Wakeman summarizes the situation well, and has all the requisite video links. Colbert (in character) satirized Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, who didn't bow to #ChangeTheName pressure, and instead "created the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation" in a somewhat pathetic attempt at appeasement through poorly-directed charity. The Colbert Report brought back a clip of the show from 2005 with Colbert's intentionally racist character Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, and modern-day Colbert, after "reporting" on Snyder's foundation, introduced the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. As often happens, Colbert's line from the show was tweeted (and quickly deleted) by the @ColbertReport account out of context, and inspired a knee-jerk #CancelColbert campaign, arguing that progressive satire punches up (not down), and that Colbert's sketch was blatantly racist.

In addition to Wakeman's post (The Frisky) linked above, here are some other smart responses I've read to the controversy.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
Erin Gloria Ryan, Jezebel
James Poniewozik, Time
John Aravosis, AmericaBlog

To synthesize these writers, Colbert's sketch does punch up, though on the surface, punches down. Viewed in context with the reporting on Snyder and the Redskins, Colbert is creating a (fake) charity to make up for his unabashed use of an offensive character (Ding-Dong), paralleling Snyder's refusal to alter the Redskins in name or mascot, and creation of a charity he hopes will be a hush fund. The point is that it's racist, especially when viewed out of context with the rest of the program, and Colbert's long-running character.

When you explain humor, it becomes unfunny. I know. But the reason the Colbert Report works (at least for me) is that Colbert's character makes himself look bad in order to expose hypocrisy. One of the better recent examples of Colbert doing good was in his interview with trans* activist Janet Mock, who had previously been misunderstood and misrepresented by CNN host Piers Morgan. For a < six-minute interview, Colbert does a heckuva lot to make himself look bad, elevate Mock, and show how easy re-education can be, while remaining seriously funny.

The last thing I want to do is argue that one good deed makes up for a lifetime of poor choices, but I do think that Colbert's pattern of satire shows generally good intentions, and a clawing at boundaries of acceptable behavior.

My larger feeling about this whole #CancelColbert "shitstorm" is that even if Colbert's sketch and statements were truly racist, offensive-to-all, and grounds for outrage, he still should not be canceled. Even if that were the case, The Colbert Report is a site of progress, exposure, and bullshit-calling. Humans make mistakes. When pushing boundaries, there are often occurrences of crossing them. Offer a sincere mea culpa, listen, and move on. For Colbert to be canceled would be for someone who is truly trying to leverage his privilege for good to be silenced. That truly wouldn't help anyone. He doesn't even need to explain himself; the critics have already done that work.

While I wholeheartedly support the right, privilege, and obligation for activists to speak up and explain how they are wronged by media culture, Colbert is the wrong target.

And finally, this should go without saying, but sending Suey Park death threats or other forms of abuse on twitter is not even remotely acceptable.