Way back on March 27 or so—an eternity in Twitter time—Suey Park, a 23-year-old writer, comedian, and activist, in response to a post from the Twitter account of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” (but not actually Stephen Colbert’s account), started a (Twitter-based) campaign: #CancelColbert. Park’s point (overly simplified): using racist jokes to mock racism isn’t really an effective way to combat racism, or particularly funny. The outcome: a bunch of (mostly) white (mostly) guys told her to shut up and learn how to take a joke.
Colbert’s original segment, which aired on Wednesday, March 26, mocked the racist name of the newly-established “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” in part, by claiming that Colbert (in the person of his mock-right-wing character) was establishing his own charity, named after an Asian character with a racist name, in support of “Orientals…or Whatever.”
Late on Thursday, March 27, “The Colbert Report” Twitter acccount posted a tweet announcing the establishment of the foundation for “Orientals…or Whatever,” which, due to a limited number of available characters, and a lack of forethought, made the use of the racist terminology that much more blatant.
It was at this point that Park entered the (Twitter) picture, calling for the cancellation of “The Colbert Report,” by pointing out that mocking racism with racism is still a form of encouraging people to laugh at racism and racist stereotypes. Park has since explained that she is a fan of Colbert, and did not literally mean that she believed Colbert’s show should be cancelled, but that she was using hyperbole as a means of calling attention to a particular idea. In other words, a Twitter campaign called #PleaseKindlyAskColbertNotToUseRacistJokesToMockRacism is much less attention-getting than #CancelColbert.
Never mind that Colbert had used hyperbole (involving racist stereotypes uttered by Colbert’s clueless commentator character) to make his original joke, Park’s hyperbole was, at first, dismissed as the misguided ire of somebody who was not aware of the context of the joke, and soon thereafter, dismissed as the ignorance of somebody who did not understand comedy, or, more specifically, satire.
The dismissal was accompanied by an insistence that if Park just recognized the context of the joke and/or was capable of comprehending the joke, she would recognize her mistake, demurely apologize, give a little giggle, and we could all feel good about our (her) little misunderstanding. But to believe such an outcome is possible one has to assume that when Park started the campaign, she had no idea who Colbert is, or what his comedic persona involves. To believe that Park misunderstood the joke because it was out of context, one has to believe that Park saw the ‘partial joke tweet’ and believed that the joke was not related to anything else, and was being presented as a self-contained idea.
Not surprisingly, all the people who insisted or implied that the joke was lost on Park because the Colbert Report tweet existed outside of the joke’s original context were, themselves, choosing to take Park’s criticism out of context. Rather than give Park credit for understanding the joke, and recognizing that Park was actually criticizing the joke, and with good reason, many Colbert supporters/Park detractors kept coming at her with a variation of, “It was a joke. Don’t you get it?” When that didn’t get the desired result, objections to Park slipped, unfortunately but all-too predictably, into the territory of personal attacks—refusing to hear Park and meet her ideas with careful consideration, because it was much easier to tear her down, in many cases by resorting to stereotypes of women, people of Asian descent, or women of Asian descent.
It didn’t help that virtually every news story, in almost every format, explained Park’s campaign as the result of a joke tweet that was made out of the context of the original segment that was aired on “The Colbert Report.” Rarely was any space given to explaining Park’s actual position, as it was much easier to state or imply that Park’s misunderstanding was the real problem. After all, when a news organization devotes several small chunks of time, over the course of several days, to an entertainment-related news story, why bother to insert any challenging ideas into that story?
I recognize that there have been plenty of occasions of people taking Colbert’s (and others’) satire as a serious statement of position, and reacting out of that misunderstanding. But that is not what happened here. To continue to insist that Park was upset because she misunderstood a joke is to continue to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park. Even worse, it is continuing to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park because that is much easier than considering the implications of what she is saying—that maybe by laughing at Colbert’s joke, people are complicit in supporting racist stereotypes. In that light, misunderstanding Park serves a very important ego-defense mechanism for people who may not, at base, be so much in disagreement with Park as afraid to acknowledge that their own behavior might be a part of the problem.
Of course, it’s natural for people to become defensive when they feel they are being called out on something. But rather than taking a little time to try and take in a criticism and give it some consideration, a large number of people reacted swiftly and harshly to Park’s criticism. And “it’s a joke, calm down,” quickly turned into something much more vicious.
To reiterate, Park was saying that to use racism to mock racism still encourages people to laugh at racism and stereotypes, when it would be preferable to just steer clear of racism and stereotypes altogether.
To state it another way, using racism as a punchline keeps racist stereotypes in common use as something to laugh about. It involves maintaining a low standard for how we choose to interact, and ensures ongoing marginalization of several groups. For instance, it is easy to recognize that a skinhead with swastika tattoos extending his arm and barking “Heil Hitler!” is racist, and it is easy to avoid being racist in that same way. It is also easy (although apparently not easy enough for Dan Snyder and many others) to recognize that naming an organization that allegedly supports an ethnic group by using a slur against that ethnic group in the name of the organization is a racist thing to do. Park was urging people to consider a little higher standard–perhaps one where Snyder remains the punchline/butt of the joke, rather than people of Asian descent.
So, maybe rather than insisting that Park just needs to learn how to take a joke, or how to understand a joke, it would be better to do the work of learning how to listen to other viewpoints, rather than just reacting to them without even taking them in. Hammering on somebody for their lack of understanding, while demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of that person’s viewpoint, would be funny if it weren’t so sad.