A Twitter war on Stephen Colbert
- 28 March 2014
Satire can be a dangerous game. Making jokes about racists is safe. Making a joke about racism by pretending to be a racist is the kind of subversive humour that can get you in a lot of trouble.
Just ask Stephen Colbert, who is both a master of the art and its latest victim.
The first thing to understand is that the Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report is not really Stephen Colbert.
The show's "Stephen Colbert" is a caricature, a cardboard version of a right-wing pundit used to poke satirical fun at right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.
On Wednesday night, Colbert mocked the attempt by the owner of the Washington Redskins US football franchise to defuse allegations that the team's name is a racist slur on Native Americans.
Earlier this week, Dan Snyder said he was starting an "Original Americans Foundation" to provide support to impoverished Native American communities.
On his show, Colbert announced that he was going to "show the Asian-American community I care by starting the 'Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever'".
It was a reference to previous instances on the show where Colbert pretended to be a stereotypical Asian and then didn't understand why his behaviour might be offensive.
The following day, the network-run @ColbertReport Twitter account - over which Colbert and his show have no editorial control - sent out a tweet to its one million followers with that quote, devoid of any context or reference to the Redskins.
The message caught the attention of 23-year-old social media activist Suey Park, who gained fame in 2013 by creating the #NotYourAsianSidekick Twitter trend.
On Thursday night, she tweeted to her 18,000 followers: "The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it."
She followed it up with a concerted campaign to rally support for her cause.
When supporters of the show pushed back, pointing out that Colbert's routine was satire, Ms Park pressed on:
That last tweet was picked up by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, who called on her 700,000 followers to "co-sign", giving the trend additional momentum.
The Twitter war quickly caught the attention of the mainstream media, as columnists and commentators weighed in on the matter.
Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams admits that she is "a full-time, professional offended feminist", but adds:
I've got to say that we all undercut the serious points we may be trying to make about changing the conversation when the response to something that we deem inappropriate is a full-on demand for somebody's head.
Colbert's humour succeeds by "cranking offensiveness up so far as to be inherently unbelievable", writes the Wire's Brian Feldman. "React however you choose, but this sort of thing is Colbert's bread and butter."
Slate's David Weigel wonders if Ms Park's "hashtag activism" will have an effect:
Any time a public figure or group of people is blitzed and told not to say something offensive, no matter how prideful they are, the instinct is to never say that again.
He says that just because Colbert has tried to mock someone else's racism, that's not enough for people like Ms Park:
As they explained in 140-character bursts, when a white comedian like Colbert joked about racism by playing a racist, he was still telling his audience to laugh at a racist joke. Anyone who disputed this was trying to "whitesplain" satire - an argument that can never be debunked.
He also notes that the entire episode exposes how difficult it is to win Twitter outrage wars:
The weaponised hashtag also takes power from the people who are trying to mock it - Twitter doesn't discriminate between earnestness and parody. People making fun of the humorlessness and bad faith of the hashtag end up keeping it in the "trending" column.
The Daily Banter's Chez Pazienza calls Ms Park a "human umbrage machine", saying he hopes the episode will "serve as the breaking point for progressive pop culture, when it finally decides that the constant ridiculous outrage has become nothing more than self-parody".
Meanwhile, those on the right revelled in a liberal icon like Colbert taking fire from the left.
Twitchy, a social media watchdog site founded by Malkin, took particular delight, collecting tweets from outraged liberals and liberals outraged at the outrage.
Douglas Ernst of the Washington Times blogs that Colbert's situation "highlighted quite nicely where you end up when you follow that worldview to its logical conclusion: the land of livid thought police".
"Sadly, Mr Colbert, for some weird reason, still doesn't understand that his own ideology breeds intellectual cannibals," he adds.
Comedy Central has since deleted the offending message, and Colbert tweeted from his personal account that he had nothing to do with it: "#CancelColbert - I agree! Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage. Who is that, though?"
As regular viewers of The Colbert Report will attest, the show's guests and interview subjects often act as though they're oblivious to being the target of subtle derision. It's part of the show's insidious charm.
Ms Park, on the other hand, professes to be well aware of Colbert's style of humour and contends that pretending to be racist is just as bad as being racist.
If Colbert had used a racial epithet - say, the "n" word, for instance - to make fun of a Klan member, would that have been acceptable? Is "ching-chong ding-dong" any less inflammatory?
At what point does humour cross over into offensiveness?
As I wrote, satire is dangerous business. That danger, walking the line between laugher and shock, is part of what makes it so compelling - and Colbert so popular.