#CancelColbert Says More About Knee-Jerk Responses Than It Does About Activism

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Last night, #CancelColbert started trending on Twitter. It started with a tweet by freelance writer and activist Suey Park, who has previously led hashtag activist efforts like #NotYourAsianSidekick and #HowIMetYourRacism. The tweet, which read, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” inspired instant backlash. The comments ballooned on the initial tweet itself, which prompted Comedy Central to delete it. But the hashtag #CancelColbert has kept the issue alive.

https://twitter.com/suey_park/statuses/449339959879553024

When I first saw the tweet pop up in my feed — admittedly, yes, completely out of context — I wanted to gag. Call it the trigger response from years of having “slanty eyes” and vaguely ethnic gibberish chanted towards me on the playground and whenever I get catcalled today, but any sentence including “Ching Chong Ding Dong” and “Oriental” probably isn’t going to bring on the LOLs with me. So at this point, I knew three things: The Colbert Report Twitter account had made some widely offensive “funny” statement, they had promptly deleted it, and I was pissed.

Upon further refreshes through the #CancelColbert search, the information emerged that — no, wait! — the tweet was actually pulled from a sketch Wednesday night that mocked Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charitable organization that is laughably designed to help Native American people while still deploying the term “Redskins.” But instead of quelling the Twitter storm, the drama only escalated with additional context, sparking back-and-forth debates about the appropriateness of Colbert’s satire.

https://twitter.com/ColbertReport/status/449406887306731520

The full segment clearly mocks Snyder’s foundation, and also references a Colbert joke from 2005, in which he plays himself being caught on “live feed” imitating Asians in a highly racist way, and then not understanding why his imitation was offensive. (In case you’re unfamiliar, Stephen Colbert’s television alter ego is a staunchly conservative, equal parts bigoted and egotistical, Republican talk show host.) “Inspired” by this move, Colbert says that he is “willing to show the Asian community that [he cares] by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitive to Orientals or Whatever.”

I’ll be honest — even with that context, even understanding the point that the show and Colbert’s character were trying to make, the segment isn’t my favorite. But more importantly, this really, really ill-advised tweet illuminates broader issues about how we consume and respond to what we read and see today. There’s only so much that can fit into 140 characters, and you definitely can’t do justice to a full-length segment in that space, especially without a link to the actual video. American media has long been accused of “soundbite culture,” something that’s only amplified with the virality of the Internet. While there are now great spaces for digital-native longform, it’s impossible to squeeze the full contextual weight of a television show into the confines of Twitter. And when it goes badly, it goes badly. So this is telling of the perils of jumping headfirst into a misinformed tweet or phrase or anything that goes viral. (That “First Kiss” video was actually an advertisement, remember?)

Plenty of people tweeting with the #CancelColbert hashtag are just messing with both parties involved, but any scroll through the hashtag offers a slew of responses that seem reactionary in retrospect, because they come from a place of missing contextual information. Granted, the Internet is a reactionary space — I’m guilty of this too — and it’s all too easy to say that we will seek out more information about every viral photo, or video, or tweet before getting angry about it. I guess it’s comforting that the context often does emerge, eventually, but that usually isn’t before everyone gets riled up beyond the possibility of civil dialogue.