Saturday, March 29, 2014

Of Colbert and intent

Combing through the #cancelcolbert Twitter thread — which I recommend if you're feeling too good today and want the non-pain to stop — I realize I was way off on who is most aggressively driving this campaign. For the most part, it's not conservatives with prepackaged hate for Stephen Colbert, nor is it those apparently unfamiliar with the Comedy Central superhost. 

It's rigid, humorless, professionally outraged liberals. 

Yes, there is a lot of injustice and tragedy in this world. Yes, racist jokes are not cool or funny and people don't need to just "lighten up" about them. There are indeed hardships that whites, being a majority people, never have to experience firsthand. No argument on any of that.

But here's the thing. 

Intent is important.

If you're unwilling to separate the satire of Colbert from the real, honest-to-God destructive racism out there, then you are going out of your way to not think. You're letting self-righteousness cloud the integrity of your views.

OK, so it's one thing to be outraged absent the appropriate context. Or to receive the context and still think the joke or satire fell flat. But if you get all the context afterward and you still lump Colbert in with real monsters, then the problem is you.

(By the way, while the tweet lacked the full context of the TV segment, it was still a complete one-liner originating from a verified Comedy Central account. That should have been all the context needed to cast doubt on its sincerity.)

The risk with satire is that it's often mistaken for the real thing. After writing enough satirical columns for my college newspaper, I left some people thinking I was racist, sexist and (in one especially blatant April Fool's case) a Republican convert. The first two allegations hurt me in particular, not just because I'd written numerous non-satirical columns decrying racism and gender inequality, but because the people levying the accusations were smart, progressive and truly hurt by what they thought I said. In most cases, I was eager and able to sort out the misunderstanding. Even if they ultimately decided that I was a clumsy writer, they at least understood that I was not one of the bad guys.

But there was that occasional militant type who stubbornly stuck with their original impression, apparently unconvinced that they could misconstrue something, or was otherwise satisfied in their superiority. These people undermine what they stand for with their disinterest in perspective, which in turn makes it harder to address our pressing social ills — the very ones that satirists like Colbert work to bring to the forefront with wit and humor. 

It's important to know the difference between a Colbert and a bigot, and even more crucial to acknowledge that difference. The only thing more misunderstood than satire is subtlety.

No comments: