Friday, March 28, 2014

Cancel #cancelcolbert

So a campaign to cancel The Colbert Report has arisen after a controversial tweet from the show's official (or is it?) Twitter account. Talk about missing the point.

The tweet said that Stephen Colbert was "willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Which would be indeed be offensive — if lampooning intolerant, egotistical, jingoistic, Anglocentric, right-wing blowhards wasn't Colbert's defining act. Granted, the tweet by itself lacks context, and Twitter is not the best forum to set up extended satire (the segment the tweet was based on played better on TV). But Colbert succeeds in general because we know that, in real life, he's a diversity-embracing, humble, liberal family man. His joke, then, is not on Asian-Americans, but on anyone stupid enough to caricature them (or any other group that could have been plugged in to make the same point). Colbert's show, books, interviews and appearances are littered with gags in this vein, and all of those jokes are on anyone who would take (or make) them in earnest.

(Indeed, the above tweet is a direct, satiric response to Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder announcing an indigenous outreach foundation that critics say is his attempt to deflect charges that Redskins is a racist name. The linked Nation article makes a suggestion as to what Snyder's foundation should be called, and cites another by Slate, both of which sarcastically employ racial slurs in the same vein they allege the real name does. If the target of that snark is clear, the intent of Colbert's camp shouldn't be any less so.)

Colbert plays his character so well that casual observers often mistake him for the genuine article. That's most likely how he landed his infamously brutal White House Correspondents' Dinner roast of the Bush administration in 2006, and why I've had both liberal and conservative friends unfamiliar with The Colbert Report ask me if he really is Jon Stewart's balancing act. I'm guessing that the new outrage stems in part from this crowd. Albeit a very, very small part.

Mostly, it seems to emanate from people who see Colbert for the brilliant satirist he is and hate him for it. People who are just as (or more) likely to be outraged over the perceived hypocrisy of, "He can say it! Why can't I?" as actual racism. 

So, at its core, the #cancelcolbert movement is a mix of people unfamiliar with Colbert's persona, and those using this as an excuse to condemn him (when their outrage over such slurs is often, to be diplomatic, inconsistent). It shows.

One mistake in this incident was the crew's deletion of the tweet. I'm sure that was a well-intentioned err on the side of sensitivity because, again, they're not actually terrible people. But it gave critics ammo for their entirely false charges, and did nothing to zap the tweet out of public consciousness. Instead, Colbert should have owned the tweet and mocked the often-deliberate misunderstanding that resulted. 

I hope that, right this minute (or at least next week, being Friday and all), The Colbert Report is working on a killer segment about the whole incident. For a show that so ably dissects the absurdity of American thought processes, it's gold-medal material. The Colbert Nation would appreciate it. Our nation needs it.

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