I wasn’t going to write an article about this. Actually, I was trying my best (with mixed success) to avoid this controversy altogether. I haven’t been a regular watcher of The Colbert Report for a long time now and this controversy was over a perceived offense toward the Asian American community. Who the hell was I to weigh in on their complaints? But #CancelColbert kept nagging at me for reasons I couldn’t quite put into words until now, and because we cover television and have a strong presence on Twitter, I figured this is as good a place as any to get this off my chest.
A quick recap for the one or two readers out of several thousand that visit this site who may have missed this: The Colbert Report ran a segment on March 26th making fun of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s half-assed attempt to deflect the racism of his team’s name by starting an organization called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Colbert himself mocked this obvious PR stunt by announcing his founding of the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” He could have drawn any parallel – “The Gumbo Chaff Foundation for African-American Community Outreach or Whatever,” “The Shylock Anti-Jewish Stereotype Foundation or Whatever” – and the “point” of the joke would have been the same: creating a phony non-profit to deflect accusations of racism doesn’t really work when the name of your organization includes an offensive racial label. Audience laughs, Snyder is called out on his disingenuousness, on to the next sketch, right?
Then the show’s Twitter page @ColbertReport (not controlled by Colbert himself) posted the punchline, out of context, which prompted this angry response from Suey Park, the online activist best-known for #NotYourAsianSidekick:
#CancelColbert quickly became a trending topic on Twitter and remained one for a whopping thirty-six hours, prompting a widespread and reasoned, civil debate on racial humor, portrayal of Asians in the media, and the purpose of satire. Just kidding, it caused a shitstorm that forced @ColbertReport to be deleted and Suey Park started receiving death threats. Because internet.
Last Monday the show addressed the issue by explaining the intent of the joke and telling Park’s harassers to back off, and I’m sure that’s where most people would say the incident died. But not Park, who was asked to talk about the effect of #CancelColbert by Salon yesterday. What resulted was a near-incomprehensible muddle of shrewd observations, internal contradictions, vague rants, and some truly bizarre asides all mixed together in one of the strangest interview transcriptions I have ever read (I’m going to be addressing that interview at multiple points in this write-up, so I encourage you to go read the whole thing). But something else about this whole brouhaha dawned on me that I find…kind of disturbing upon reflection. Let me explain…
This next paragraph is probably going to look like a long-winded version of “Some of my best friends are Asian,” but considering Park’s repeated insistence in the Salon interview that she really is a fan of the show and totally thinks Stephen Colbert is funny, I think you all can cut me some slack, so here goes: I find Suey Park to be, overall, an intelligent person who has fostered needed attention on disappointing portrayals of Asians in the American media. The Awards Circuit has advocated strongly for more prominent roles for Asian actors and actresses, and I have long asserted that a white actor with even half of the smoldering charisma of Ken Watanabe would be the most sought-after movie star in Hollywood. I also despise any slimeball who threatened her life or well-being in response to #CancelColbert, and I hope that their kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities…huh, never thought I’d be quoting Dogtooth like that. I also absolutely agree with the part of her interview where she claims that progressives are often guilty of a type of underhanded, condescending racism waved off with the I’m On Your Side excuse.1 I’m also aware that my subsequent criticisms of her will come dangerously close to becoming the typical patronizing mansplainer that she also steels herself against on a likely frequent basis. My only defense there is that I have always believed an outsider can be just as insightful as someone directly impacted by an issue, specifically because they are an outsider. This is, at the end of the day, just one person’s opinion.
But what bothered me after this whole event is more with how activism is done in the age of Twitter and what that means for popular culture and art. I’ve been racking my brain to come up with the most realistic long-term effects of Suey Park’s form of public outcry, and I honestly can only think of two. In my view, either this new form of instant, bite-sized mass protest will stifle what little creativity and nuance remaining in political commentary we still have, or social activism (at least in our part of the world) has been defanged for the foreseeable future. Neither paints a flattering picture of us.
I want to make one thing clear: #CancelColbert – whatever legitimate gripes were attached to it after the fact – started off explicitly as a knee-jerk reaction to an out-of-context punchline that was later ascribed a post hoc “reverse satire” angle to save face. No one likes to admit being mistaken after making a brash declaration on the internet. She might now tell everyone that she aimed to introduce some new paradigm into discussions of race, and may even believe that. But everyone else saw a bunch of humorless, overzealous armchair activists trying to cancel a left-leaning comedy show because of a joke they didn’t “get.” An unfair oversimplification, maybe, but can you blame them? Ask for the other side of the story and you find out that she was trying to get a response out of him, but it doesn’t matter what that response was.2 Because, see, #CancelColbert was a joke all along, but THEY were the ones not getting it…get it?! We have to stop making generalizations about racial minorities, and any Asian Americans who disagree with Suey Park are all submissive, self-hating appeasers trying to be “good little Asians.” And yeah, sure, white people are The Enemy, but, you know, nothing against them personally or anything. Go read the Salon interview and tell me that I am exaggerating any of that.
“This is a revolution,” she declares at one point. Um, of what exactly? Who are you overthrowing? And don’t tell me “whiteness;” that’s no less nebulous than waging a War on Drugs and we all know how that turned out. Yes, fine, social media has been a platform for organizing sweeping changes elsewhere, but those instances had clear-cut goals and organization behind them.3 A more apt comparison is Occupy Wall Street: a lot of people angry at…something, but can’t tell who to target or what their demands are or even what they’re angry about.
But it also makes me wonder: what would have happened if Twitter and #HashtagActivism existed in decades past? Would #BoycottScorsese be trending in 1976 because some SJW thought Taxi Driver was racist, not understanding (or caring) that the film was actually a first-person character study of a racist? Would Sam Kinison have had to drop his act in the eighties to address the spread of #FireKinison? Maybe stumbling on a faux pas from time to time is just a messy but necessary side effect of the creative process, and demanding that all jokes be scrubbed with some all-encompassing racial sensitivity brush before airing them is not just unrealistic, but completely insane. I get sometimes that entertainers go too far and say something genuinely reprehensible, but you show me a comedian that has never pissed off a certain group in any of their routines and I will show you a comedian who has never said anything interesting. Contrary to Park’s assertion in Salon, context is everything; it allows us to take in and discuss stories and claims beyond what’s on the surface and get us to see themes and ideas in new ways. Think of all the great works of literature frequently challenged and banned from schools because context was “irrelevant” to overprotective parents.
But in the end, maybe that won’t even matter in the long run, because it’s just as possible that #HashtagActivism in America will be one of the most effective tools for maintaining the status quo of our generation. Consider: The Colbert Report is still on the air, all of the initial scrutiny on Dan Snyder has basically evaporated,4 and Hollywood is still casting Asian actors as sidekicks and punchlines. It’s not that not enough progress was made from this endeavor – hell, all change in social/cultural norms is frustratingly slow – it’s that nothing came out of this, nothing in the real world at least. For all her boasting about how “scared” white people are of her newfound power, the majority of positive attention she received during this whole ordeal was from the most ingrained establishments of news and entertainment reporting…did she ever wonder why that was? Or why the rise of the #CancelColbert hashtag happened right before these rumors of CBS eyeing Colbert as David Letterman’s successor? Boy, that was some coincidental free publicity, wasn’t it? Did she at any point stop to reevaluate her little online crusade when she found an ally in someone who has repeatedly spoken out in favor of Japanese internment during WWII? Most importantly, did she ever ask herself why, of all the possible enraged responses to “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong,” she went with the one that wouldn’t require her to get off the couch, nor any of her supporters (or haters) to leave theirs?
The answer is actually pretty easy for those removed from these battles. Most people – even SJWs – are Really Busy, and who has time to make their intent clear when expressing their Outrage Of The Month? Who can be bothered to conduct demonstrations, or picket for days on end, or force confrontations with the people who allegedly wronged you to make actual change happen? But with Twitter, you can make your voice heard instantly to thousands of people! What’s that? “Context?” Sorry, no time for that, you’ve only got 140 characters to express your umbrage! You may even get covered by the news, sandwiched right in between their latest report on Kimye and a panel of middle-aged white dudes and one hot blonde reporter discussing when the Apocalypse will happen! You’ll get noticed! You’ll be martyred when the douchebags eventually harass you! You’ll get people talking! And in the end…nothing will happen, and all along you’ll think you have made a difference because your cocoon of Twitter followers will tell you so. And you’ll never have time to reflect or take inventory on what’s changed or what still needs to be done or even if you were on the right side of that little conflict because by then you’ve turned your attention to the next last straw, point-of-no-return outrage (Tea Party activists, take note: this is also why no one takes seriously any of the dozens of scandals you’ve ascribed to President Obama.).
That’s also brought up in the interview, albeit inadvertently. When trying to lay out her barely coherent thesis about white privilege and modern racism, there’s a pause before she asks the interviewer to repeat the question: “I was distracted real quick. There was a bird outside my window.”
These days it seems all of us are…hey, who’s watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend?
1 For examples of this in film, see Crash, which opens with a despicable Asian stereotype within the first five minutes of a supposed manifesto on racism. Or The Last Samurai, where the biggest threats to Japanese culture were effeminate Japanese accountant-types and its savior ended up being Aryan dreamboat Tom Cruise.
2 If there was ever any doubt that the primary purpose of #CancelColbert was trolling, that one statement demolishes it now and forever. How is it possible to protest against someone or something and not care what their response is?
3 But then again better-defined goals over social media are inevitable when you’re organizing something like the freaking 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
4 One last aside: remember the controversy over Kirk Lazarus’s monologue about going “Full Retard vs. Half Retard” in Tropic Thunder? Everyone was so busy flipping out over Robert Downey, Jr. saying the R-word that they weren’t asking themselves why there were so many movies made featuring suspiciously audience-friendly characters with mental handicaps played by unafflicted actors and why the Academy loved to throw Oscars at them at every opportunity.