Escaping the Groundhog Trap


J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m not a big fan of Groundhog Day—the holiday or the movie.

As a kid, the holiday just confused me. Why a groundhog? Can’t you just see if you cast a shadow yourself? Or if a bush, a stone, a dog…anything casts a shadow? I wondered at the particular properties of groundhogs, and why their shadows might be somehow different than those of any other thing on the planet. I suppose I never quite felt like anybody adequately explained the magical properties of particular varieties of burrowing rodents for me to really get behind the holiday or its alleged meaning.

The lack of a real explanation is one of the things that keeps me from enjoying the movie, Groundhog Day as well. What caused this to happen? And why is the resolution what it is? What would make any magical powers of time control so interested in getting Bill Murray’s character, Phil, together with Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita? Perhaps a resident of Punxsutawney is one of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow who accidentally infected Phil with the time control powers. But that can’t be it, because then Phil would’ve had to die every day, and he only died on some of those days.

Beyond that, the movie just follows the theme of so many movies from the 1980s about how great small-town America is, and how some cynical guy from the big city needs to learn to appreciate that. As for Murray’s arc in the movie, it’s rather similar to Scrooged.

The audience is also expected to root for Phil to ‘get the girl,’ even after he uses his powers of time repetition to manipulate one of the local women into sleeping with him, and then trying to manipulate Rita into falling for him by pretending to like everything she likes—information he gathers from her in conversations she will never remember.

Ultimately, Phil has to get through one day being kind and helpful, rather than acting like his usual, egocentric self (but, again, why is this the resolution—and would it really matter whether Rita decided she liked him or not?). But that last, single day of generous Phil doesn’t feel much different from the videogame-style resets that go on through the rest of the movie, or in Edge of Tomorrow, and hardly seems like a long-term change to his character as much as it feels like him resigning himself to being a decent human being for one day if he ever wants to get out of Punxsutawney. How is his decency not just more manipulation—another possible route out of the repetition he is trapped in?

Many people have labeled Phil’s situation in Groundhog Day an “existential dilemma” or otherwise termed the movie as existentialist. Properly speaking, though, if Phil’s was an existential problem, he wouldn’t have a long period of being able to make whatever decisions he wanted with no thought, responsibility, or consequences at all, only to be pushed into making the “right” decisions–as judged by whatever power kept him perpetually trapped in Punxsutawney on a particular day–until he did what was deemed correct by that power and the “spell” was broken. He would be responsible for whatever he did, and nothing would compel him to do anything.

groundhog drive

The most important lesson of all–Don’t drive angry.

Still, it’s something of a tribute to Groundhog Day, the movie, that it has become synonymous in our culture with repetitive behavior or situations. And it is perhaps the fantasy that we could relive a particular day until we did it right, managing to impress everyone around us, and connect with our one true love in the process (as well as the opportunity to indulge in a great deal of irresponsible behavior along the way), that has led it to this level of popular recognition. Or perhaps it’s the underlying idea that we are trapped by our own behaviors in repetitive cycles, and that we can change ourselves in order to achieve a better life—along with the wishful notion that we need to be good people if we really want to get what we want.

After all, the idea of breaking out of repetitive cycles and habits, or perhaps of creating better habits and repetitive cycles, along with being better people…good people…our best selves, is what underlies much religion, philosophy, and, yes, therapy.

We all struggle through our own behavioral patterns, habits, and the potential sameness of our days, the rut of weeks, months, seasons, and years. But no bizarre fluke of time is going to trap us in a loop and push us to do things differently and become better people, or pursue what we want. That’s on us.

Whatever I might think of him, Phil found out that it wasn’t a groundhog, or the celebration that surrounded a groundhog’s shadow, that was at the core of his problem. Rather it was his own shadows, the darkness he threw out into the world.

So maybe Groundhog Day is the perfect time to look around at our own shadows and what they say about our forecasts—how much more winter we may have in store—and then think about what, if anything, we want to do to change that.

Happy Groundhog Day.



Really Lowes? and Sherwin Williams? and HGTV? Mocking Mental Illness as an Ad Strategy


JC Schildbach, LMHC

Lowes decided to announce its rollout of Sherwin Williams’ line of “HGTV Home” paint by crafting an ad that plays on popular ideas about some of the most well-known artists in history (and pop culture), each jealously challenging the notion of who is “the most legendary name in paint.”

Well, okay, “Mr. Happy Little Trees” Bob Ross doesn’t come across as jealous.

But Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and Michelangelo all do.

Vincent van Gogh just comes across as…well, you can watch it here:  

Get it? It’s funny because you think he’s saying “what?” because he cut off his ear. But then you realize it’s actually funny because van Gogh is suffering from psychosis or whatever would make him talk to a pigeon.


He talks to pigeons.  How clever.

He talks to pigeons. How clever.

Of course, nobody diagnosed van Gogh with a particular mental illness during his lifetime, particularly not from a current understanding of mental illness. Perhaps the most popular theory of van Gogh’s troubles is that they stemmed from Bipolar Disorder. Whatever the case, eventually van Gogh died of complications from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, following numerous other episodes of emotional difficulties and self-harm.

I want to be clear that I don’t have any particular axe to grind with any of the businesses in question (even if I should for one reason or another). I shop at Lowes regularly.  And even though Sherwin Williams has that terrible “Cover the Earth” logo, cover the earth all of the paint we’ve used in our home has come from our neighborhood Sherwin Williams store, except for the paint in the upstairs bathroom, and the stain on the deck, which we got at Lowes. And I watch HGTV (and the DIY Network) enough that M wishes I would just get off the damn couch and make our house more beautiful (or at least just quit talking about all those projects and do them).

Still, it’s disappointing to see that the big punchline for the combined Lowes-Sherwin Williams-HGTV commercial involves mocking, specifically, somebody who suffered from mental illness, and, more generally, the idea of psychosis, particularly given that the commercial was rolled out at the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month:  NIMH’s “Mental Health Awareness by the Numbers”

I suppose I could also point out that all of the artists in the commercial are white males. But given how the myriad options for art “jokes” involving white male artists were handled, I don’t have a lot of faith that a woman artist, or a non-white artist, would have fared much better when reduced down to a humorous reference that might be commonly understood.

Pam Geller’s Free Speech Chum


JC Schildbach, LMHC

Two heavily armed, body-armor-clad, wannabe-jihadists shooting a security guard in the ankle and then getting picked off by a pistol-wielding traffic cop in a parking lot outside a cartoon contest in small-town Texas is not, as Pam Geller would have us believe, some kind of religious war in the United States. Rather, it was Geller’s own failed effort to start a larger fight.

Before I go any further, let me state up front that Geller, along with everybody else in America, has every right to say whatever paranoid, delusional things she wants to say about the inevitable imposition of Sharia Law and the ensuing mandatory ‘honor killings’ by our ‘secret Muslim’ President. She also has every right to hold a cartoon contest deliberately designed to insult a particular group of people over their religious views. Said group of people, or any of its members, has the right to fight back with words, logic, cartoons or delusional rants of their own—but not with bullets, bombs, or knives.

Let me also point out that some people have stated that there are prohibitions against engaging in speech that is designed to incite people to violence. But that doesn’t really apply in this case. If Geller held a rally where she encouraged the attendees to go out and physically attack somebody, then she would be inciting people to violence. Saying something to deliberately offend somebody is not inciting that person (or group) to do anything. Their reaction is entirely up to them.

That said, Geller sailed into Garland, Texas, along with Dutch politician Geert Wilders, to hold a cartoon contest intended to insult Muslims over their belief that the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted in any physical form—much less in any deliberately offensive form. (Judaism and Christianity, among other religions, have similar prohibitions written into their holy books regarding depictions of holy figures, but plenty of Christians really like pictures and statues of Jesus—unless they’re offensive, in which case they call for bans on whoever made them, whatever paid for them, and whoever hung them on a wall).

Geller’s reason for holding the event at a community center in Garland was apparently related to a Muslim event held there earlier in the year, called “Stand with the Prophet in Honor and Respect,” an event which had been held in Chicago the previous year. In 2015, the “Stand with the Prophet” event had the unfortunate coincidence of having been scheduled to occur shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

Geller has stated that her cartoon contest is intended as a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Charlie Hebdo folks, though, were equal-opportunity offenders. That is, they didn’t seek only to piss off Muslims, they wanted to piss off everybody. And they’d been going at it for years. They didn’t just hire their own little paramilitary-force-for-a-day and set about trying to troll militant Muslims.

Geller, on the other hand, tried to chum the waters with her cartoon contest, thinking she’d draw a feeding frenzy of violent jihadists to her little event—perfect target practice for the $10,000 worth of security she hired. What she got instead was a pair of inexperienced, young pups, mouths full of aimlessly-chomping teeth, drunk on the blood and guts of Geller’s antagonism, who bit off way more than they could chew.

We're gonna need a dumber boat!

We’re gonna need a dumber boat!

Geller, when she isn’t directly attempting to insult all Muslims, claims that she is an opponent of Muslim extremists and extremism. However, she does not actually draw that line, or make any consistent effort to explain where that line actually is. To her, Muslims who actually do attack things and people like her cartoon contest and its attendees are seen as proof that she is right about the intent of Muslims to take over America and kill all non-Muslims. Unfortunately, to Geller, Muslims who do not attack are seen as evidence of a quiet, creeping plot—sleeper cells who are biding their time, before they make their move to take over America and kill all the non-Muslims.

Geller also claims she is a defender of free speech, religious freedom, and individual rights. But, again, her position on such freedoms is a bit muddled. For instance, if she is so supportive of religious freedom, it’s hard to understand why she pushed so hard to stop the “ground zero mosque” from being opened, or why she spends so much time antagonizing Muslims in general, accusing the religion as a whole, and all of its adherents, in whatever form, of heinous crimes (and future crimes).

Likewise, Dutch madman Wilders has attempted to ban the Quran in his home country, as well as trying to prevent mosques from being built there—all under the guise of protecting women and other ‘victims’ of Islam. These are not exactly the actions of someone who thinks that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ will lead to the best possible outcome.

In short, Geller and Wilders are in favor of freedoms for those who they agree with, but want to shut down those with whom they disagree, even if Geller’s and Wilder’s disagreements are with vague caricatures of their alleged enemies, or if those disagreements are assumed to apply to all people who fit under a vast umbrella of a label.

Yet, despite Geller’s and Wilders’ proclamations of war, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi do not represent all of Islam anymore than, say, Michelle Bachmann represents all of Christianity, or anymore than Geller and Geert actually represent the concerns of all people as relates to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Still, if we’re going to ban Geller from her weird little attention grabs, than might we also have to ban things like, say, The Book of Mormon (the play, not the book)?  As much as the authors of The Book of Mormon might have been making a more nuanced critique of religion and what it means to believe, they certainly weren’t out to avoid offense.

And if we’re going to justify Simpson’s and Soofi’s actions as some kind of expected or normal response to Geller’s provocation, then aren’t we moving dangerously in the direction of saying that perpetrators of violence are only acting in ways that the victims of the violence should have expected, and have to accept?

Make no mistake, there are consequences to Geller’s form of speech. The main form of those consequences is that stupid people will agree with her, and will buy into her ridiculous ideas that there is some vast Muslim conspiracy that is mere days away from taking away all of our freedoms as U.S. citizens in order to impose Sharia law. Said stupid people may even commit violent acts of their own, and will certainly engage in forms of speech that are as similarly unappealing as Geller’s. There is also the potential consequence that people of the Muslim faith around the world will view Americans as somehow aligned with Geller’s form of thinking (as opposed to tolerating it, because that’s what we do). Such people may view our tolerance of Geller as evidence of the ill intent of Americans toward the Muslim world, potentially perpetuating a long chain of conflict.

Although I’m not exactly demonstrating this by writing about them, perhaps the best response to people like Geller and Wilders is the response that all but two of the members of the Muslim community in the United States exercised: ignoring them/refusing to take the bait.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing about Voltaire, expressed the core idea of freedom of speech as follows: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not sure I’m actually willing to take a bullet so that Geller can continue to peddle her special brand of targeted, incendiary bullshit. But I’m definitely not ready to make an argument that she must be shut down/shut up (like the arguments she has made about Muslims).

At the same time, I’ve also written numerous pieces suggesting that maybe certain forms of speech should be curbed in an attempt to reduce hostility toward people with mental illness, toward minorities, and toward people who generally don’t find themselves at the top of the power pyramid. Curbing such speech is, of course, a matter of personal choice, and a matter of seeking to be decent human beings. Under the banner of individual freedom, we get to say and do what we want, so long as we aren’t actually hurting anybody in some directly demonstrable way.

Of course, Geller isn’t on some quest to prove what a decent person she is, or what decent people Americans are in their acceptance of diverse traditions and differing viewpoints. She’s not on any kind of mission to promote free speech, despite her claims to the contrary.

And Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi went down to Garland Texas with the intent to fight and die, much like Geller and Wilder went down to Garland Texas to try and provoke a fight.

They all got what they wanted—sort of.

Suicide?!? Shazbot!

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.

Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.

When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…

1)  Damn!

2)  60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.

3)  I wonder what else was going on with him.

4)  I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.

5)  Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!

Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.

Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.

1)  Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.

In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.

(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).

2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”

Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.

At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.

If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.

Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.

3)  “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.

Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”

The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.

4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”

Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.

And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.

Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in "Shakes the Clown"...shattering expectations for better or worse.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in “Shakes the Clown”…shattering expectations for better or worse.

But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”

I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.

5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”

I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.

It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?

And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).

On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.

I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload.  And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.

By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.

But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.

And, oh yeah…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize it. Part 4: Colbert Gets Snarky, Dodges the Issue

With Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling grabbing the headlines for their overt, easily-condemned racism, I really should have cranked out these Park/Colbert-related posts a lot quicker. After all, in the U.S.A. we can’t go all that long without another disturbing, race-related story coming to light. And so long as we have people like Bundy and Sterling saying such outrageous things, we can go along ignoring more subtle examples of racism, which really aren’t that subtle at all, as we pat ourselves on the back for not being as bad as those guys.

Still, when I started these posts calling #CancelColbert necessary, the underlying idea wasn’t that it was necessary to cancel “The Colbert Show,” but that the discussion that arose out of the #CancelColbert campaign was necessary, especially given the rather harsh, negative reaction to the campaign, not by the usual hard-right, proud racists, or even the Fox News fan base of racism deniers, but by a large group of people who count themselves among Colbert’s enlightened fans, those people largely being liberals or progressives. The necessity for the discussion was furthered by the severe freak-out aimed at Suey Park, the person behind the #CancelColbert campaign, and the avoidance of actually talking about whether it is okay for white people to use racist language targeting one group in order to criticize/satirize white racism against another group.

“It was a joke,” or “It was satire,” is simply not an adequate answer. It is exactly the kind of thing that Rush Limbaugh fans say anytime anybody criticizes him for his vulgarity and stupidity—“It’s just a joke. Get over it. Why are you so sensitive?”

The underlying debate is, arguably, another version of whether it is okay for white people to use “the n-word,” in any of its variations, and if they can expect that people will take it in the way they intend—or if it’s just plain offensive regardless. If you want to get down to finer points, it is possible to argue that Colbert’s language wasn’t specifically a racial slur against people of Asian descent, in the same way that “the n-word” is a slur against people of African descent. (Of course, maybe “people of African descent” isn’t the best description, since that includes everybody on the planet–but I think you take my meaning).  Still, the language Colbert used was not innocuous.

Consider it: “The Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Just imagine you heard this language, or more specifically, the “Ching Chong” or “Orientals” part, coming out of the mouth of a white person in a restaurant, or a bank, or pretty much any other public setting. Would it strike you as odd? Offensive? Would it seem perfectly okay? If one of your white friends used this language, would you call them on it? Ignore it? Analyze the context to determine if it was an acceptable use of those words?

My guess is that, unless you’re cool with racist digs at people of Asian descent, it might seem more than a little ‘off.’

Yet, despite the clearly offensive (sorry if I’m making assumptions) nature of the language, when Park called Colbert on the use of this language, a bunch of people attacked Park as lacking a sense of humor and failing to understand the context of the joke.  Rather than an exchange of reasonable viewpoints, the ugliest garbage the Internet can produce came flooding out—including targeting Park with unquestionably racist and sexist language, rape threats, and death threats. There was an all-out effort to tear Park down, without ever giving any real consideration to whether the language is, at base, offensive.

Several people, including Park, have noted that Colbert chose to craft the joke with offensive language targeting Asian people rather than other ethnic groups, exactly because it was accepted that the “Ching Chong” language would be seen as an obvious joke, whereas other racially-charged language wouldn’t be so readily viewed as ‘satire’—one underlying message being that Asian people are in on the (white people) joke, and cool enough not to get all freaked out about white people saying racist things in service of satire. Such a belief falls into ideas of Asians as the “model minority”—willing to go along to get along. When Park raised an issue by objecting to the language, fans of Colbert immediately shifted the issue away from Colbert using the language, and on to Asian people who “can’t take a joke.”

Now, I get that Colbert is arguably painted into a corner in that the character he plays on “The Colbert Report,” and the kind of person that character represents, would never issue an apology or acknowledge any kind of mistake or wrongdoing. And given that he is playing a character, it is more than difficult to say anything that would be taken sincerely, or really understood as him breaking character. Still, Colbert’s response, which notably did not refer to Suey Park by name even once despite showing a picture of her, was sadly lacking. It never once addressed the use of the particular language, or why it might be offensive, and instead, chose to repeat the language multiple times, while saying “not my fault” and “don’t take jokes out of context.”

You can watch the whole piece here:  Colbert’s Dodgy Response

Colbert’s response can be summed up in the following points (now drained of humor, sorry):

  1. I am playing a character.
  2. I was mocking Dan Snyder.
  3. The joke was repeated several times (reruns and social media) with no reaction.
  4. Somebody other than me sent the problem tweet.
  5. The tweet did not provide any context for the joke.
  6. The news media blew this out of proportion
  7. Michelle Malkin attacked me over this, and she is clearly worse than me.
  8. This took the attention off Dan Snyder and put it on me.
  9. I’ve done a number of other pieces involving race issues that would seem really bad out of context.

So much of this response seems as if it were crafted by handlers following social media reaction, who then ran it by a focus group just to make sure it would resonate with Colbert’s adoring public. It was a joke/satire—check. You’re taking it out of context—check. Don’t you get it?—check. Why now?/Why this?—check. Snyder is the issue here—check. This was blown out of proportion—check. Michelle Malkin sucks—check.

Colbert’s response, by failing to name Park, implies that Michelle Malkin—someone many Colbert fans despise—is the person most associated with the #CancelColbert campaign. It also has this creepy mythological undertone of refusing to name one’s enemy—“She Who Must Not be Named” in Harry Potter Parlance. Or, if you want to go into a history of racial issues involving naming and claiming, Columbus declaring, well, everything for Spain while refusing to acknowledge or accurately identify those he was claiming it from, or even concern himself with whether they were speaking the same language…

Okay, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic, but why couldn’t Colbert say who started the campaign, or even identify what she said was the underlying point? Don’t want to add any more to her (as every hack has written) 15 minutes of fame? Sorry, I don’t think Park is going away that soon, unless it is by her own choice. (And, btw, you don’t get to claim somebody and her particular form of communication is insignificant while also blaming her/it for allegedly derailing an important national conversation. Calling attention to a joke, thereby creating a national conversation is not the same thing as derailing a conversation that was already taking place). Don’t want to direct any attention toward her because then people might see that she has already engaged the same kinds of “hashtivist” campaigns in service against racist mascots? I guess it really doesn’t serve your attempt to tag someone as ‘anti-First-Nations’ if she’s shown support for First Nations people. Don’t want to answer the question regarding the use of particular forms of language? That sounds more like it.

I’d have at least a little more faith that Colbert’s audience is laughing at the sophisticated satire and context of the joke if they didn’t all giggle each time he used the “Ching Chong” language, as if they were toddlers hearing someone say “poopy.”

I’ll concede that Colbert isn’t the poster boy for racist comedy.  He’s been a voice for progressive causes, and has called out hypocrisy in politics, religion, and the media for a good long while.  Still, if someone questions something he does, it doesn’t speak highly of his audience if they are going to react with anger and hate–regardless of who is asking the question.  If someone asks whether Colbert’s language was racist, supporters of Colbert replying with name-calling, particularly grossly racist name-calling, doesn’t really lead to the conclusion that they are enlightened consumers of sophisticated comedy.

And when those supporters, and Colbert himself, dodge the actual question that was raised, they don’t appear to have some amazing sense of humor that the questioners lack.  They just look like they’re afraid of the question.

I’m still not sure why it was so impossible for (white, liberal) people to have this conversation in particular. I’m still not sure why Park had to be attacked by Colbert fans who were unable to accept the idea that maybe this kind of language should be dropped. After all, when Rush Limbaugh mocked Chinese President Hu Jintao with a ridiculous verbal stream of mock-Chinese “ching chong” talk, plenty of people rightfully criticized him.

Some have said the use of the language comes down to intent—that Limbaugh was talking in ignorance, while Colbert was talking with satire in mind.  And, sure, there’s a difference there. But isn’t that just a way of saying that we are laughing with Colbert, and laughing at Limbaugh? Or that Limbaugh was laughing at Asian people, while Colbert was laughing with Asian people?  But, then, where does that leave you when you find out that not all of the Asian people are laughing with you? Or at you? Or at all?

At base, it’s the same language. It’s the same stupid joke. Whether someone is laughing at or with somebody, they’re still laughing at the idea that all that “ching chong” talk is the basis of a good joke.

And when Colbert fans start decrying the people who questioned the use of the language in the first place, and acusing them of being anti-white, they sound an awful lot like those racism-denying Fox News fans—you know, the ones who think that the real race issue in America is that non-white people dared to admit that they aren’t all that happy with the way white people treat them—or talk about them.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Three: Chez Pazienza’s Double-Filtered White Whine

Chez Pazienza of “The Daily Banter” wasn’t even able to make it past the title of his piece about Prachi Gupta’s interview with Suey Park, auteur of the #CancelColbert Twitter campaign, without stepping in it. Yes, Pazienza thoughtfully titled his non-analysis of the interview “We Read Salon’s Interview with Suey Park So You Don’t Have To.” That is to say, when a controversy blew up in regard to the use of racist terms in humor, based heavily on the idea that white privilege is at play, Pazienza (a self described “white guy”) responded by telling his audience not to read what the originator of the conversation, a person of color, had to say. Instead, Pazienza filtered what he calls Park’s “hashtag outrage” down to a more appropriate white-guy outrage at Park’s ideas, all while failing to actually address the bulk of the ideas Park touches on in the interview.

Pazienza provides two full paragraphs of his own vitriol before actually beginning to speak directly to anything Park said, proclaiming that the #CancelColbert campaign was never really about addressing racism, and all about Park calling attention to herself. Sounding like a Fox News curmudgeon/commentator decrying the elitism of educated folk, Pazienza bashes Park for her “mindless repetition of buzzwords and narratives drilled into a willing mind by a modern humanities and critical race theory education.” Pazienza’s imposed narrative, then, is that Park is a narcissist whose education has made her an academe-bot who is completely out of touch with reality and so should be duly ignored.

Pazienza further reports that he would “be curious to approach some of the Twitterati I respect who have inexplicably defended her and ask” (following the publication of the interview), “if they feel like they still can.” Sending off a few private messages, or e-mails, making a phone call, or even reading through tweets that those “Twitterati” have posted is apparently too time-consuming for Pazienza, since it is much easier to make the blanket statement that such support is “inexplicable,” thereby avoiding the risk of being confronted with more ideas that Pazienza would then have to either ignore or misrepresent.

You can read the whole piece here: Pazienza strikes a blow for…well…even he doesn’t know.

Pazienza goes on to state that he “is not going to fully and seriously analyze the interview” but will instead “post some of the best excerpts of it here” and “leave it to you to decipher in the comment section,” because, of course, website comments sections are where real critical thinking and reasoned debate shines. Abdicating the writer’s responsibility to actually provide any kind of coherent analysis of the interview or the points therein, Pazienza instead lifts portions of the interview and makes snide comments about them without even attempting to show any understanding of anything, aside from how annoyed he got at reading said portions. It’s anyone’s guess as to why Pazienza thought he had put together a winning strategy for proving that Park, not Pazienza, is the unreasonable one.

Following his first selection from the interview, wherein Park says that the particular context of her #CancelColbert campaign is irrelevant to the larger conversation, Pazienza slams Park for her “combative tone.” Pazienza’s roughly-400-word introduction, trashing Park and (Paziena’s interpretation of) her intentions, is, in Pazienza’s view, appropriate to “reasonable, sane” people, while Park steering the conversation away from questions of specific context somehow shows she’s out of control.

Pazienza then skips over the part where Park explains her view that the ‘default position’ in the whole debate over #CancelColbert has been to read everything Park has said as literal while reading everything Colbert said as satire, and to assume Park didn’t understand why Colbert made the joke that he did. Among other things, that default position has led to the much-repeated storyline that Colbert’s use of hyperbole is justified, while Park’s use of hyperbole is simply misplaced anger. But, since Pazienza is trying to make a case that Park is aiming her anger at the wrong target(s), it’s best not to explain that she might have intentions/targets other than the ones Pazienza assigns to her.

Pazienza then includes several lines from the interview which involve Park explaining follow-up issues to the paragraph he left out, such as the idea of people of color being made to “use the right tone…in order to be heard.” But Pazienza already belittled those ideas up front, by labeling them “the problem with the world, according to Suey.” Funny that Pazienza chastises Park for her combative tone, then suggests Park is being ridiculous for pointing out that people of color are told to keep their tone in check. Or maybe that’s some of Pazienza’s own “sheer madness—or willful bullshit” to use his own words.

At any rate, Pazienza’s only takeaway from the tone-related excerpt is that Park uses the phrase “whiteness at large,” a phrase that Pazienza apparently believes to be so ludicrous that all he needs to do is repeat it to make it clear that the phrase, and whatever Park said in relation to it, is worthy of derision. (Perhaps if Pazienza hadn’t skipped that paragraph about hyperbole, he might be able to process some of this a little better). Of course, Pazienza does not bother to try and explain or contextualize the phrase—again inadvertently proving Park’s points for her. That is to say, Park connects the idea of “whiteness” or “whiteness at large” (as opposed to the specific Colbert joke and Colbert’s response to Park’s criticism) to the overall idea that it is made incumbent on people of color to understand the intentions of white people, while it is not considered reciprocally necessary for white people to try to understand the position of people of color. For example, Park has been repeatedly asked if she understands the context of Colbert’s joke, while those asking the question assume they understand what Park meant by her criticism of the joke—that assumption being that Park did not understand the context of Colbert’s joke or she would not have criticized it.

Park also made the comment about “whiteness at large” while explaining that she did not want the discussion of “oppressiveness” narrowed down and confined to either “The Colbert Report” or the particular joke that led to the #CancelColbert campaign. In other words, Colbert’s joke was not an isolated incident, and certainly such use of language is not only confined to Colbert. One can only guess that Pazienza believes that it was reasonable for Gupta to ask the question of whether it was Colbert’s TV show as a whole, or just one joke by Colbert, that was “oppressive,” and that that Park could have answered in any way that Pazienza would have found acceptable.

The next excerpt involves Park responding to a question about what she wants out of her “revolution,” which ends with Park asking for the question to be repeated because she was “distracted” by “a bird outside my window.” Pazienza labels this “the best Millennial-ADD moment or affected impression of an ADD-moment…you could possibly imagine.” For the time being, I’ll leave off any detailed discussion of the politics of using a diagnosable mental illness as an insult, and just ask what the hell is a “Millennial-ADD moment” or an “ADD-moment” at all?

Perhaps the more interesting question, though, is why, in an interview allegedly “edited for clarity and length,” the editors thought there was some legitimate reason to include Park’s comment about being distracted, especially given that the editors set the sentence on it’s own—which they did not do with any other sentence in the interview. So, it appears that the editors deliberately set the particular sentence apart in such a fashion in order to call attention to it so they could paint Park as a flake. Or does routinely print such comments in interviews? It seems impossible that Park was the first person ever in the history of to get distracted during a phone interview and to ask for a question to be repeated. Yet Pazienza mocks Park for losing her train of thought, as if it is evidence of mental illness or some deep character flaw.

Pazienza goes on to accuse Park of “staggering narcissism” and “putting her work writing Twitter hashtags on the same level as civil rights pioneers who truly put their lives and futures on the line to advance noble causes.” And maybe it would have been pretty narcissistic for Park to put her work on the same level as civil rights pioneers, if she had, in fact, done that. But what she actually said is that “white America” has repeatedly asked people of color to be “reasonable” if they want white America to support them, and that “big historical figures in racial justice were never reasonable” and were “painted as crazy.” Park may be positioning herself in a historical pattern (a positioning which Pazienza inadvertently validates by accusing Park of being unreaonable and unstable), but she didn’t say anything like ‘my #CancelColbert campaign is set to eclipse MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in terms of civil rights milestones’—although Pazienza implies Park has committed some such blasphemy.

One might also note that, on the matter of placing one’s life and future on the line, Park has received numerous death threats, rape threats, and been hit with a barrage of exceedingly offensive sexist and racist insults because she criticized something that her detractors have repeatedly characterized as “just a joke.” The threats, as Park notes in the interview, led to the necessary cancellation of some of Park’s public appearances due to safety concerns. I hope Pazienza thinks trolls who threaten rape and murder are a real problem, and wish that the existence of such trolls and threats would have provoked a more powerful response from Pazienza than his statement that Park “doesn’t deserve to be threatened” and that nobody should mock her for her “background or gender.” He does say, though, that Park should be mocked for her “deeply absurd opinions” which are “deserving of every bit of ridicule and derision that’s been heaped on them”–an argument that would hold more water if Pazienza showed any ability to articulate what those opinions actually are. One can only guess that Pazienza’s failure to examine Park’s arguments slips over into a failure to really consider the damage done by trolls who think nothing of engaging in assaultive behavior via Internet, and his unfortunate choice of diction leaves open the question of who Pazienza believes is actually deserving of threats.

Pazienza goes on to get offended that Park answers in the affirmative in response to the question of whether “white men are sort of the enemy.” Oh, Lord, what atrocities will she commit next? Why, she might even say that she thinks white men should acknowledge that they have a privileged position in society!! ¡Qué horror!

Of course, Pazienza fixates on the “enemy” word, instead of on the idea that maybe white guys should acknowledge that they have privilege in society. He says “there’s nothing wrong with” acknowledging white privilege (although he uses a whole a lot of words to cushion the blow of this devastating concept), and only utters it after complaining about Park’s “youthful moral certitude” and “black and white” thinking. Apparently in Pazienza’s world, “sort of” and “acknowledging white privilege” are words and concepts associated with all-or-nothing thinking. Pazienza then lobs accusations that Park, by making statements acknowledging white privilege and labeling white men as “sort of” enemies, while at the same time failing to point to the accomplishments of white allies, is “unbelievably childish” and “shockingly stupid and counterproductive.”

So, once again, we are treated to the finger-pointing tantrum of somebody falling miserably short of understanding the perspective of someone other than himself, or even trying to understand it. Pazienza says Park’s perspective is about “incremental but important positive changes not being enough for those who believe it’s all or nothing.” And, not to draw the MLK-Park connection, but what was all that stuff in that Birmingham jail letter thingy about ‘how long are we supposed to wait for white people to achieve the ability to be comfortable enough for real equality with people of color?’

Yes, Pazienza thinks Park, who he summarily dismisses as ridiculous, is in the wrong for lacking the maturity to acknowledge all the amazing things white people have done for people of color in the context of an interview regarding the problem of using racist terminology in comedy.

So, Pazienza accuses Park of alienating allies and potential allies by using hyperbole, when Park’s initial point was that Colbert’s use of (particular forms) of hyperbole is (potentially) alienating to people of color. But, again, in Pazienza’s view, it is up to Park to be conciliatory and to have the right tone, not Colbert. Strangely enough, this pressure for people of color to “behave” so that (white) people understand their good intentions and may just decide to help them to become equals with whites, while white people can say what they want and expect/demand to be understood (by people of color AND white people), is exactly what Park spends much of the interview explaining.

Pazienza goes on to accuse Park of not caring about Native Americans because (in his view) she made herself the focus of Colbert’s joke about Dan Snyder’s ignorantly-named Redskins society, instead of just letting Colbert’s audience laugh at Colbert’s joke and return to doing nothing about the issue of racist team names/team mascots. Never mind that it was Pazienza and his ilk that turned the spotlight on Park and her personal flaws rather than having an actual discussion about Park’s criticism of racist jokes being used to criticize racism. Pazienza, like his pouty brethren, ignores the fact that Park has been involved in other “hashtag activism” campaigns in relation to the issue of racist mascots. After all, it’s much easier to say Park is all about herself than to acknowledge anything she has done that might go against the ludicrous narrative that Park ruined everything that Colbert was fighting for—y’know, because his original joke was aimed at making sure people pushed Snyder to change the name of the football team he owns.

Pazienza can’t resist tacking on the whiny white-guy complaint that Park would invalidate his opinion simply because he’s a white guy, and then asserts that just because he is white doesn’t give Park a pass from criticism. Okay, but if you’re going to say Park is deserving of criticism, how about addressing the ideas Park raises instead of just getting angry and defensive, and spouting a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t even touch on said ideas? I mean, really, what part of Pazienza’s argument is Park supposed to validate? The part where he accuses her of seeking attention, or the part where he explains that he has no cogent argument to make?

I’ll grant Pazienza that Park can ramble, and that she uses a lot of language that is common to social justice theory, but perhaps not so accessible to mainstream America. But to say that Park’s form of activism is so off-putting that it is going to turn away people who were otherwise right on the cusp of casting off their white privilege, is to give far too much credit to people who don’t already recognize the problem, and to place far too much blame on Park.

Then again, I’m guessing Pazienza recognizes that there is some underlying truth to a lot of what Park says. And if he were to actually attack her arguments, he would put himself in a bad position of having to side with the people who deny white privilege exists and who argue that racial slurs are okay so long as they are in the right context–as defined by white people. So, Pazienza attacks Park’s character, and the way Park presents her information, rather than actually taking on the challenge of meeting her arguments in a more direct fashion. Because, in the end, all he really says is ‘I don’t like her,’ and ‘She’s being too confrontational’—which are points that really don’t amount to anything except the same old white guy crap, where everybody needs to quit being so sensitive, until the “jokes” and criticism get aimed at the white guys, at which point excessive sensitivity is magically transformed into a concern with civility and the need for people to behave like reasonable adults instead of calling names and using angry language.  It is the assertion that demanding that others “get over it” while insisting “you need to understand me” is the exclusive domain of white guys.

And while Pazienza bemoans all the terrible, exhausting work it took him to read Park’s interview, I can’t imagine the trauma he would have been put through if he had actually taken the time to try to understand it and respond to it in some way that wasn’t totally reactionary.  After all, calling your adversary ‘immature’ while you stamp your feet, shake your fists, and hold your breath, is not exactly a good strategy for proving your point. Neither is trying to claim that a bunch of people of varying races and genders agree with you by linking to their posts—some of which don’t really show all that strong of an agreement with you, and most of which take the same, childish ignore-the-argument-attack-the-arguer stance—which Pazienza does at the end of the article, right before he suggests that Pazienza talking about Park was Park’s end goal. So, now, who’s the narcissist?

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid

It’s a pretty long trek from “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s worth considering,” to “Your opinion is stupid.” It is, however, just a small step from conducting an interview with the subtext “I don’t have to listen to you,” to actually coming out and saying, “Your opinion is stupid,” which is exactly what Josh Zepps did in his “HuffPost Live” interview with Suey Park on March 31st.

Park made an appearance on Zepps’ show, via webcam from her home, to discuss the #CancelColbert campaign (related to a segment on “The Colbert Report” where Colbert used racist terms for people of Asian descent in order to mock Dan Snyder’s use of the racist Redskins football team name in the name of an organization created with the alleged goal of supporting First Nations people). Channeling Ron Burgundy, Zepps spent the bulk of the interview pushing Park to acknowledge that the Colbert segment that led to Park’s campaign was just a joke, and to chuckle along with him.

Zepps’ preparation for the interview seems to have involved little more than getting a couple of screen grabs off of Twitter, watching the Colbert segment, and coming up with different ways of saying, ‘Come on, it’s a joke. Get over it,’ while smugly smirking and chuckling. It’s unclear if he actually prepared himself to follow the indignant, defensive white male playbook, or if that just came naturally to him.

Apparently incapable of hearing anything Park said, Zepps stooped to asking her if she even knew what satire was, explained the definition of satire, and made multiple attempts to tell her why Colbert’s joke was funny/not offensive, as well as trying to tell her she shouldn’t be upset about racist language if it’s used in a satirical fashion.

Oddly enough, despite his attempt to educate Parks on the meaning of various words and concepts, Zepps didn’t seem to recognize at least one word Park used: “Orientalism.” Zepps failed to distinguish between Colbert’s use of the word “Orientals” (a derogatory term for a huge swath of people from Northern Africa, throughout all of Asia) and Park’s use of the word “Orientalism” (which I will loosely define as the practice of viewing/referring to the region previously mentioned, and the people from that region as exotic, strange, and “other”). Park took Colbert to task for engaging in Orientalism–in this case, making a joke that relied on viewing people of Asian descent as “other” and making them the punchline of a joke allegedly aimed at white racists–not just using the word “Orientals,” although using that word didn’t help anything.

Apparently, realizing he was not going to get any traction with Park on the point of how funny the Colbert segment was, Zepps tried to pull his fellow commentator, Jason Linkins, in on the debate by addressing him directly, saying, “Jason, a part of the whole gag here is the use of the term Orientalism which is such a weird, old, loaded (laugh) like, it’s just a stupid, stupid word. But to get upset about the use of that word when it’s in a satirical context strikes me as misguided.” Yes, that’s right. Zepps attempted to enlist the support of his fellow white guy in an effort to tell Park that having a negative reaction to the use of racist terms that are aimed at people of Asian descent (as Park is) is misguided—y’know, because it was a joke. Or, to put it more bluntly, Zepps asserted the right of white people to tell people of Asian descent how they should react to a joke using racist terms for Asian people.  (In an even more ludicrous exchange Zepps and Linkins spent a short time after the Park interview bemoaning the fact that, as white men, Park was denying them the ability to express, or even have, opinions–this coming from two guys who are paid to sit around and give their opinions on issues on a high-traffic website).

Park responded to Zepps insistence that the use of the racist terms was okay because it was satirical by saying that “satire caters to the audience that you’re speaking to,” and is an indication of “what the audience finds humorous or acceptable.” In other words, Park said that Colbert’s audience was willing to laugh at a joke wherein, to mock a racist, people of Asian descent were used as a punchline. The language Colbert used is still degrading, and the history behind those words is such that it can still provoke some rather powerful responses. But that idea was ignored, or perhaps not even considered. To put it more concisely, Park explained that “white liberals feel like they are less racist because they can joke about people that are more explicitly racist.” But in that equation, the joke still involved the use of racist terms and the joke was still built on the idea that racism is funny.

To further his argument that Park (and, by extension, anybody who had a problem with the Colbert joke) was simply wrong, Zepps suggested Park would better spend her time actually “attacking Dan Snyder’s racism” rather than attacking “a satirical attack on Snyder’s racism.” Again, Zepps tell’s Park what her reaction should be, and what the appropriate issue is, as well as what the appropriate course of action (for Park) should be.

Park’s response to this challenge contained a number of intertwined and somewhat complicated points, all of which Zepps ignored. First of all, Park argued against ‘individualizing’ the issues regarding racism by breaking them down into issues particular to separate ethnic groups, especially when her critique was, at base, against racism, and the use of racism to mock racism.  Park also pointed out that she has been involved in the campaign against racist mascots like the Redskins (see the above point regarding Zepps’ failure to prepare for the interview), and that regardless of the specific issue raised with regard to racism, the response—backlash against the person pointing out the racism, rather than focus on the actual racism—tends to be the same. Park further explains that, even as Zepps tells her she should be directing her attention at Snyder’s racism, he (and many others) choose to spend their energy coming to the defense of Colbert and a joke, while attacking Park, rather than doing anything about the racist mascot that Zepps tells Park to address.

Park made the rather biting comment that for “white liberals” and other supporters of Colbert, “it’s not really about whether or not the Redskins exist or whether or not racism is over, it’s really about feeling like they can’t have fun anymore and feeling entitled to be able to laugh at things that aren’t really funny.” If there’s any doubt about this point, one need only look at how Park has had much more ire directed at her for raising a question about Colbert’s joke than has been directed at Dan Snyder or the Redskins organization, despite decades of people attempting to focus attention on the issue of racist mascots, and a complete refusal by those with the power to do so to change the name of the Redskins. There has been movement on the issue with regard to mascots at the high school and college levels. But, as Park points out, Zepps is directing his efforts at defending a joke that used racist terms, while telling Park what her reaction should be to hearing racist terms used against people of Asian descent, and where she should direct her attention and political activism.

But none of Park’s arguments sunk in with Zepps. What did sink in was when Park criticized Zepps more directly, saying it was “incredibly patronizing for you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man.” Park attempted to actually have a discussion about the issues she was trying to raise with the #CancelColbert campaign, while Zepps repeatedly defaulted to the idea of “it was a joke” or “it was satire” and insisted that Park was merely misunderstanding Colbert’s intent, and did not know what satire is.

Park went on to say that she didn’t expect Zepps “to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying.” Zepps, and many others, took this to be a completely unfair argument, even racist on Park’s part (Oh no! She said that white people don’t listen to people of color–and in a context where a white guy was clearly not listening to a person of color!). But, throughout the entire interview, Zepps did not once acknowledge anything that Park said, or give any credence to the idea that anybody of Asian descent might be offended by the use of the “Ching Chong” and “Orientals” language that Colbert used. Zepps simply insisted it was a joke, so Park should not be offended. In other words, Zepps didn’t listen to Park at all—and she pointed out that he wasn’t listening to her at all.

Park gives her best

Park gives her best “Thanks for talking down to me” smile.

So, this resulted in Zepps engaging in a little defensive tantrum, wherein he said that being white does not “prevent me from being able to think and doesn’t prevent me from being able to have thoughts…reasoned perspectives on things.” Note, first, that Park did not say that being a white person prevented Zepps from thinking, she said it was getting in the way of his ability/willingness to listen to what she was saying. He wanted to argue a particular point.  She was trying to explain that she had a different perspective. Zepps simply continued to assert that his perspective was the right perspective, without acknowledging that he had any understanding whatsoever of Park’s point of view.

If there’s any question about Zepps’ intent, or Zepps’ belief in his own rightness, when Park pointed out that he was minimalizing her experience and minimalizing her opinion, read: he wasn’t listening at all, and denied that anything she said was valid—which is exactly what he did—Zepps said he was not doing any such thing, then said, “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Let that sink in. Zepps said that he was not minimalizing Park’s experience or opinion, but then called her opinion “stupid”—a word that could not more clearly demonstrate that Zepps had no intent of considering anything Park said, because her arguments did not fit in with Zepps’ overriding premise that Park had a “misunderstanding of what satire is…a misunderstanding of what irony is.”

Perhaps Zepps can understand this little bit of irony, though. Early on in the interview, Zepps said, in defense of Colbert’s use of slurs against people of Asian descent, “isn’t his point that there are lots of stupid racist people who, even in their attempt to be conciliatory on race end up putting their foot in it, and saying something dumb?”  Yes, Mr. Zepps, that was Colbert’s point, delivered in a way that some found objectionable. Still, thanks for providing another example of just that point.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved that #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part One: She Said What?!?

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.

Crisis Line Prank Call Reviews: Ownage Pranks & the Wacky World of Rape Jokes

On the eve of April Fools’ Day, it only seems appropriate to look into the hilarious world of Crisis Line prank calls. The majority of prank calls to regional crisis lines and to the Lifeline Suicide Prevention Hotline involve humor of the sort that is enjoyed by middle-school males who fall on the low end of the socially-conscious and critical-thinking spectrum for that age group. And Ownage Pranks’ work in this area is no exception to that rule. (From here on out, I will be referring to the auteur/auteurs as “Ownage” since I don’t have any other name to associate with the site—withholding the names and hiding the faces of those involved being perhaps the only intelligent thing about Ownage).

The real achievement of Ownage, though, is that it has become the top Crisis Line prank call video on YouTube by exploring a juvenile fascination with anal penetration, engaging in racist stereotypes, and making light of domestic violence, rape, and spousal murder.  With this winning formula, Ownage managed to get well over 2 million views of it’s post titled “Asian Crisis Hotline Prank Call HILARIOUS!”  The title is perhaps best described as inexplicable, as it both identifies the prank as involving an Asian Crisis Hotline—whatever that’s supposed to mean, and refers to the prank call as hilarious—which is only appropriate if one believes the definition of “hilarious” to be “supportive of rape culture.”

The video, which is not exactly recommended viewing, was originally posted in March of 2009 and is comprised of audio with subtitles.  In case you haven’t had your fill of rape jokes and racist stereotypes for today, and you don’t trust me to accurately describe it, it is available here:

Just be aware that by clicking on the above link, you’re going to build up the view tally for this video, and then have to live with yourself afterward.

Ownage Pranks is the brainless-child of some unknown person who bills it as “Nine stereotypical characters, one hilarious adventure.” Apparently, this is the tagline because Ownage believes that the people who would willingly view/listen to his pranks are too stupid to realize that the characters are based on stereotypes, and, as already mentioned, lack any knowledge of the definition of “hilarious.” The mascot for the site looks something like the Lamisil mascot “Digger,” the little toe fungus monster that, in one of the most disturbing series of commercials ever produced, lifts up toenails to crawl in under them. Visually associating Ownage with Digger is entirely appropriate, as both are roughly as pleasurable as toenail fungus and/or having one’s toenails lifted away from one’s toes.

Would you rather...have your big toenail pulled off, or listen to 7+ minutes of rape jokes?

Would you rather…have your big toenail pulled off, or listen to 7+ minutes of rape jokes?

At any rate, the Crisis Line prank involves Ownage “voice acting” as a woman that Ownage identifies as “Chinese—sorry Vietnamese.” When the crisis line volunteer, a 76-year-old woman, asks the caller for ‘her’ name, Ownage says, “Rangnahhahbilmangoyumdidahmgeh” (Ownage’s spelling from the subtitles). The Crisis Line volunteer then asks him to spell it out, and is told, “W-O-R-Q” for the first name, and “G-U-I” for the last name. Are we all cracking up, yet?

Ownage quickly dives into sexual abuse/spousal abuse/anal rape jokes with the caller explainnig that ‘she’ wants to have a family but that “every time we sleep together he want” (sic—as in deliberately ‘broken’ English) “to put it in the wrong area.”

The Crisis Line volunteer isn’t quite sure how to approach the call. Keep in mind that Crisis Line workers have to take every call seriously unless/until they can be certain it’s a prank. The volunteer’s task is made particularly difficult because Ownage keeps talking as much as possible, while asking only minimal, ridiculous questions. For instance, Ownage asks the Crisis Line volunteer if it would be a good idea to defecate on her husband’s penis while he is anally raping her in order to get him to stop.

Ownage goes on to say, “He force me. It like a rape.” Now, by saying it’s “like” a rape, I’m not sure if Ownage is making fun of the allegedly Vietnamese-American woman for not recognizing that her husband forcing her to engage in anal sex is actually rape, or if Ownage just doesn’t think that women who are married can be raped by their husbands. There are numerous other possible explanations behind what is supposed to be a joke, which I will leave out. I will just say that any woman who is forced into sex by her husband is, in fact, being raped, regardless of what part of her body is being penetrated, and regardless of what is being used to penetrate it.

Which leads us to our next point…Ownage proceeds to make jokes about the caller’s husband inserting baseball bats, wine bottles, beer bottles, and a watermelon into ‘her’ anus.

Following the watermelon comment, the Crisis Line volunteer states, “You need some help, you really do.” Ownage jumps right back in talking, I’m guessing, because he realizes that if the Crisis Line worker were to mention domestic violence shelters or resources for sexual assault victims, it would have ruined the glorious fun of his little prank. After all, nothing brings down a good rape joke like pointing out that it involves laughing at victims of sexual abuse.

Ownage also touches on the topic of men viewing porn and then expecting their wives/girlfriends to behave like the women in pornographic videos.   The caller reports that her husband watches videos that depict teen girls engaging in anal sex and enjoying it, and questions if there is something wrong with her for not enjoying anal sex like the performers in the videos. OMG, isn’t it so funny to think that men would watch porn, and then force their wives to engage in acts they viewed, whether or not their wives were comfortable going along with it? Oh, wait, that’s laughing at rape again, isn’t it?

Providing a brief break from the sexual violence jokes, the caller then mentions that ‘she’ thinks her husband is waking up and is in the bathroom. The husband in the bathroom becomes an excuse for Ownage to play some diarrhea sound effects—definitely the high point of the prank.

The husband eventually joins the conversation, and guess what? The husband is (supposed to sound like) a stereotypically abusive African-American man.  At this point in the prank, Ownage (via text) provides the little behind-the-scenes detail that, “I did both voices, by moving the mic away from me and turning away from the mic :).”  Yes, if ever there was a reason to use a smiley face emoticon, it’s when one is engaging in multiple racist stereotypes at once, all in the service of making jokes about sexual abuse.

The husband is then heard saying, “I’m not playin no games, you bitch. Now get your ass over here. Pull yo pants down nigguh” (Ownage’s subtitles). When the caller/wife protests/pleads that she does not want to engage in anal sex, and states that the “counselor” said “fack you,” to the husband, the husband gets on the phone with the Crisis Line volunteer and demands to know who is on the phone.

The prank ends with the ‘husband’ saying “fuck you” to his wife, followed by the sound of two gunshots, and then the wife wimpering for help. Are we all ROTFLOAO now?

Ownage’s prank lasts roughly 7 minutes, which can be enough time to de-escalate a person from a panic attack, or to help ground a person suffering from chronic mental illness.  It is enough time to determine a person is at serious risk for a suicide attempt, or perhaps has actively engaged in a suicide attempt, and is in need of intervention by emergency services.  It is enough time for a volunteer or paid professional to lend an ear to someone who has hit a rough patch in his/her life, and to provide that someone with a little solace.  But, instead, Ownage thought it would be funny to take up that time by trying to shock a 76-year-old woman with moronic jokes about anal rape, diarrhea sound effects, and racist “voice acting.”

As I’ve pointed out in other posts, when people point out problem “jokes” like this gem of a prank call, it is common for some backlash—accusations of excessive sensitivity, demands to lighten up, explanations that it is “just a joke.”

So, let me ask—on a scale of one to five—how many stars would you give to jokes involving racist stereotypes? How many stars does domestic violence rate? How about spousal rape? Spousal murder?

Yuck it up, clown. You really owned that 76-year-old volunteer.