What, If Anything, Did the #CancelColbert Controversy Achieve?


Last night Stephen Colbert responded to the #CancelColbert “controversy” in pretty much exactly the manner everyone expected him to: by lampooning the whole thing, and by emphasizing that his original “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” joke was satire, aimed at Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which does such wonderful things as giving shoes and backhoes to native American reservations, thus making the use of a racist epithet as the team’s name PERFECTLY OK.

There are a couple of points here. First, and most obviously, for all his protestations that he’s not throwing anyone under the bus, Colbert does kinda throw whoever composed the tweet under the bus. He makes sure that everyone understands that he didn’t compose the tweet himself — “a web editor I’ve never met posts a tweet in my name on an account I don’t control” — and later makes a great show of blowing up the @ColbertReport account, encouraging his audience to instead follow his own personal Twitter.

This seems disingenuous, and in any case, the tweet was the same joke that he used on the show, albeit shorn of context. You can argue that any social media type worth their salary would know that the internet is a giant outrage machine and be extra careful not to risk this sort of controversy, and you’d probably be right. But still, it’s not a good look for Colbert to be passing the buck here, because the buck stops with him.

And that leads to the other point — exactly what kind of buck is stopping with him? Was the tweet offensive? Was the whole joke offensive? As ever, it depends on who you ask. Colbert is not blameless in this — he’s been rightly taken to task of late for using the word “tranny” as a punchline, and his jokes have skated close to the edge in the past. Such is the lot of a satirist. I do wonder, though, what exactly #CancelColbert originator Suey Park and those supporting her cause might have thought they’d achieved had Colbert’s show actually been canceled. Of course, that was never actually going to happen, so one could argue that the entire kerfuffle was conceived as a way of drawing attention to racism against the Asian American community. In a thoughtful piece in The New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang quotes Park as saying exactly this: “Well-intentioned racial humor doesn’t actually do anything to end racism or the Redskins mascot…. That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.”

I’m not sure that’s true, though. I don’t think its entirely unjustified to draw a comparison between two manifestations of racism, using one that’s patently offensive to illustrate the fact that the other is just as offensive, even if it may appear less so. And that’s essentially what the Colbert skit was doing: saying, hey, you’d never use this language about the Asian American community, so why is it OK to use it about Native Americans? Sure, you can argue that shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are one big ongoing exercise in preaching to the converted — their tone is never going to convince people on the other side of the political spectrum that they’re wrong. But then again, perhaps someone did see this and think, y’know what, he’s right. We’d never use the N-word, or break out these sorts of stereotypes against Asians, so why do we think it’s OK to use “Redskin”?

In the end, the entire existence of the #CancelColbert campaign rather serves to illustrate the point of the skit in the first place, which was that the use of racial stereotypes is a lightning rod for anger and outrage — unless, it appears, that language is derogatory to Native Americans. Even the clearly satirical use of the language Colbert deployed about the Asian American community has catalyzed a shitload of controversy. But the use of “Redskin” as the trademark of a franchise that’s co-owned by three rich white men? No problem at all, apparently — a point that wasn’t lost on Colbert last night when he noted that “Twitter seems to be fine with [the Redskins name and foundation], because I haven’t seen shit about that.”

The entire #CancelColbert debacle has rather overshadowed this issue, which is a shame — the debate is now about Asian American stereotypes, not Native American ones. Park might consider this a success — after all, if she’s made one point it’s that Asians shouldn’t be considered a “safer” group to use in satire than any other minority (although, as Colbert points out at the end of his segment, he hasn’t shied away from using other racial stereotypes). And there will be those like Suey Park who argue that racist stereotypes should never be used, even to lampoon racist stereotypes. Whether the argument that these kinds of stereotypes should never be used in any kind of humor is a defensible one is a discussion for another piece, because you could write an entire book about it and not come to any definitive conclusion.

The one thing that issue is not, in any case, is cut-and-dried. Kang notes that “Park has repeatedly pointed out that she does not subscribe to a traditional distinction between liberalism and conservatism. She does not defer to white liberals who point out that the joke was meant to satirize white racists, nor does she believe that a debt of gratitude is owed to the good intentions of white liberalism.” No one should have to be grateful to white people for having the basic human decency to call out racism, but Park’s refusal to distinguish between the intentions of different speakers smacks of fundamentalism — if you really can’t see the difference between the Ku Klux Klan and Stephen Colbert comparing two forms of racist language, or consider that both are equally worthy of condemnation, I don’t really know what to tell you.

Viewing any group as a monolithic entity with a single point of view both defies reality and polarizes debate. As Kang notes in his piece, “It is no simple thing to determine whether Twitter outrage can itself expand the terms of discourse and challenge the status quo.” I’d say that the answer, more often than not, is that it can’t. Anyone who’s ever taken part in any sort of identity politics-related debate on Twitter or Tumblr will attest to the tendency of these discussions to devolve into endless finger-pointing and privilege-checking and mud-slinging.

Clearly, as a white man, ultimately my opinion on this is only ever going to be a case of being on the outside looking in, a point that Park was quick to make when speaking to the Huffington Post on Saturday. Park might argue that she has no obligation to be in any way conciliatory or polite about issues of racism, and that doing so has gotten minority groups precisely nowhere over the centuries. I’m not going to argue against this. But what I will say is that feeding the internet outrage machine rarely gets you anywhere, either.