When Hashtag Activism Totally Lost Its Narrative

One of my biggest gripes with the extreme flanks of the political debate is this: neither the far-left nor the far-right appears capable of modulating their respective screeching. This not only self-marginalizes both wings, but all of the indiscriminate shouting tends to bleed together into a kind of monotonous white noise resulting in actual decision-makers shrugging them off, Oh it’s just the flanks shouting, like always. Nothing to see here.

Facebook and especially Twitter, with its well-known nuance-free vacuum, only amplifies this dynamic.

Any movement that’s interested in actually influencing the corridors of power is best served by modulating its efforts — being more reasonable with friendlies, tough on opponents, while standing firm on whatever goals they seek to achieve. Effective persuasion is about more than shouting down everyone who gets in the way of those goals. Case in point, is President Obama more willing to listen to Glenn Greenwald, who makes it a point of vocally dismissing the president as a war criminal and baby killer, or Rachel Maddow who mixes reasonable, thoughtful criticism of the president with credit where credit is due? The answer is obvious.

Likewise, there are men and women in powerful stations who have, each in their own way, spoken out against those who market in hatred, intolerance or racism. Over the past several days, one of those men, Stephen Colbert, has been unfairly smeared as an enemy of tolerance by nuance-blind Twitter hashtag activists.

As you’re probably aware by now, on Wednesday night’s show, Colbert, who plays what he describes as an “idiot” — a meta-satirical version of a reactionary paleoconservative cable news host — was very clearly mocking and shaming Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder over the title of his new charity: “The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” It’s a fantastic set-up for a smack down. Colbert announced that he — again, playing a far-right cable news idiot — was forming the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The intention here was to scold Snyder’s obvious tone-deafness: the inclusion of “Redskins” in the name of a charity aimed at helping Native Americans.

Whether it’s been Rush Limbaugh (Obama is a “little black manchild”) or Bill O’Reilly (“Em-effer — I want more iced tea!”) or all points in between, Colbert has always played his fake cable news persona as being in allegiance with those guys as a way to mock from within their ongoing syllabus of ridiculous and often racially insensitive remarks. The character he plays is in cahoots with the Limbaughs and O’Reillys of the world, and through his character, he incisively highlights their myopia.

In a recent interview, Colbert stated quite clearly that his role isn’t to prescribe solutions to problems, but instead to mock through exaggeration and caricaturization the people who are responsible for the problems. It’s difficult to think of another performer working in television today who’s been more effective at this task.

Now, sure, I concede that the name “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” is in and of itself offensive. But here’s the thing: it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be shocking in order to underscore how shocking it is, in Colbert’s view (the man’s, not the character’s), that “Redskins” is seriously the name of a professional football team in 2014. In other words, it was a spot-on comment about the shocking offensiveness of the word “redskins.” If his satirical charity wasn’t at all offensive, how could it ever adequately comment upon the offensiveness of “Redskins?”

Using offensive words in the context of satire is much more than a comedy tradition, it’s often what makes for the most thought-provoking comedy, whether it was George Carlin repeating in public the “Seven Deadly Words” as a statement about censorship (Carlin was mostly spared the wrath of Twitter); or Bill Hicks joking about suicide and describing the objectification of a woman in order to make a statement about the shamelessness of marketing; or Louis CK repeating the wholly offensive word “nigger” as a statement about how white people who say “the n-word” are totally “getting away with” saying “nigger.”

Shock-value, when executed smartly and in the proper context, resonates more loudly and broadly than many other forms of speech. After the laughter ends, it forces an audience to evaluate its own views and biases — and because it originates from a place of humor, it helps the medicine go down. Good satire always does. Colbert has proved himself to be a genius at threading a very complicated satirical needle — four nights a week for more than nine years — especially given how he’s ridiculing cable news reactionaries while playing an hilariously reactionary cable news character. In this respect, come to think of it, I’m surprised there haven’t been more episodes of indignation and overreaction like Suey Park’s #CancelColbert hashtag.

Comedians like Colbert, Patton Oswalt, Louis CK and others are just several of the most effective yet unspoken allies the anti-racism, pro-tolerance movement has. They might not think of themselves that way, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And they might not always deliver their message in the same way you personally would deliver it, chiefly because their first duty as comedians is to make people laugh and everything else is secondary. That’s what professional comedians do. Colbert’s consistent ability to be funny and whip-smart in the process of calling out the darker, uglier sides of the socio-political discourse is why it’s so astonishing to me that Colbert (of all people) is being criticized with such widespread outrage.

I’m not sure how many different ways this needs to be emphasized but, no, Colbert isn’t the enemy, not by any stretch, especially knowing that he was calling out racial insensitivity with the “Ching-Chong” joke. And yet there’s this #CancelColbert hashtag campaign launched by Ms. Park, which wrongfully lumps him into a very notorious crowd.

It reminds me of when Jane Hamsher decided she didn’t like every line item of the Affordable Care Act and launched the kneejerk effort to “Kill the Bill” (I wasn’t on Twitter at the time, so I don’t recall if there was an accompanying hashtag). It reminds me of every time the president doesn’t fall in line with every far-left pet issue, inciting demands for impeachment, primary-challenges or war crime tribunals, even though Obama is objectively the closest thing to an ally the far-left has had in the White House since I-don’t-know-when. By the same token, Colbert absolutely agrees with Suey Park on the name “Redskins” — full stop — and so he used his platform to make a point about how offensive he thinks it is, while employing the satire his viewers have come to expect.

For this trespass his show must be canceled, Ms. Park says. Of course it won’t be, but one thing’s for sure, it’ll be a very, very long time before Colbert goes anywhere near the issue of race. And that’s a shame, because few people are better at shaming racists than Colbert.

The fact that he isn’t at all racist and while having so thoroughly mocked racism on his show since it premiered in 2005 should have, in a reasonable world, offered him a huge benefit of the doubt from Ms. Park and others. Simultaneously, Dan Snyder has basically gotten off scot-free since Thursday while the man who excoriated Dan Snyder’s insensitivity is instead targeted as the racist villain. Just remarkable. If Snyder was smart, he’d send Ms. Park a gift basket for redirecting the outrage destined for him onto the guy who mocked him on national TV.

There’s no denying that more than a few people were offended by the joke, and none of what I’ve written here will convince them otherwise. In fact, it’ll probably piss them off even more. But I hope one or two people who circulated that hashtag will realize the importance of modulating tone and recognizing who’s an ally even when the ally doesn’t express his views in laser-precise alignment with the voice of the movement. Having witnessed the impact he’s had on so many issues, from campaign finance to, yes, issues of race, allowing Colbert to be Colbert is far more effective as push-back against intolerance than forcing him to dull his style. Let’s hope the latter doesn’t happen.

  • Sabyen91

    Everybody is making the assumption Ms. Park is on the left. I haven’t seen any evidence to support this.

  • Skippy3000

    This whole story is ironic because Colbert has often taken things that conservatives say out of context in order to falsely portray them as racists. Now the same thing is being used against him. I don’t feel sorry for Colbert at all.

    http://www.mediaite.com/tv/foxs-red-eye-mocks-cancelcolbert-twitter-is-a-sinkhole-filled-with-silly-silly-people/

  • mrbrink

    I subscribe to the School of Cyrus in these matters. Chez might be able to appreciate this.

    Goes something like this:

    Can you count, suckers? I say, the future is ours… if you can count!

    Now, look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That… is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be.

    You’re standing right now with nine delegates from 100 gangs. And there’s over a hundred more. That’s 20,000 hardcore members. Forty-thousand, counting affiliates, and twenty-thousand more, not organized, but ready to fight: 60,000 soldiers! Now, there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town. Can you dig it?

    The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers!

    A little raw, but the point stands.

    All this reactionary bridge burning and factional warring for some measly piece turf, some self-indulgent carve out on the mean streets of Twitter, and for what? A spray-painted identity mark on the city landscape that says, “Turnbull AC’s,” or “The Orphans?!”

    Burning down like-minded coalitions and marginalizing strength in numbers just to get some little tweaks to the language and little tweaks to policy.

    Take the NSA. Like some sort of twitter turf warriors, they’ve “organized” their little cliques and go out lobbing molotov cocktails at anyone who doesn’t join them, bopping their way through perceived rivals, like Colbert, or Bob, or whomever– just for some little piece of policy turf. All that burning and tagging up the political landscape with vote-depressing memes just to stop the collection of metadata? Or to stop the satirical depiction of racists? So much loss for so little gain. Small timers.

    They weaken our electoral numbers, and let the Wingnut Rogues march right over all of us to take over the whole fucking country. Can you count, suckers?

  • Aaron Litz

    This is the reason why I automatically discount Twitter and its content; the signal-to-noise ratio is so horrendously bad it is all-but useless for finding anything meaningful. That and the sound-bite structure of the messages you are forced to create do to its 140 character limit makes it all-but useless. There are very few people who can really use it effectively, most of them comedians (Patton Oswalt and maybe a few others.) Other than for those few, the only real use for it is nothing but a way to post links and say “me too” in a new way.

    That’s just the way I personally feel about it, though, and why I avoid it like the plague.

  • BumpIt McCarthy

    Downthread, commenters Razor and Midwest Met have a good exchange about Ms. Park going into the Suey Park business. Exactly, and sadly right.

    On her FB page, she’s trying again with a new hashtag, #notyourstockmuslim. All well and good, and at least she isn’t attempting to pull herself up by pulling someone else down again, but now, not only does she have a credibility problem, but her sloppiness and every-problem-a-nail approach are evident: Muslims have much worse problems than being, as she solemnly exhorts her activist army to trend against, considered background or sidekicks! If only the stereotype of Muslims were that benign.

    If she cares, she should put down her laptop and organize a counter-rally the next time Pam Gellar whips up her collection of goons….

    But that would be haaaaard. I hope she works out how to have a long, useful life of activism, but it looks like she’s bent on disqualifying herself before she gets started.

    • Daigoro Ogami

      Maybe Park could start the following hashtag: #SorryNativeAmericansForNotGivingAShitAboutYourIssues

  • Churchlady320

    One immutable thing I’m learning – it is never a great idea, no matter how well intentioned, for any of us white people to pretend bigotry. It adds to the hurt even as it’s meant to slap bigots in the face. Ms. Park is just exhausted by it all. I, for one, do not intend to pile on her because I don’t walk in her shoes and will never have to.

    • BumpIt McCarthy

      So Stephen Colbert’s nine years of pointed satire are a mistake, while Ms. Park is free to first attempt to destroy his show with a few taps of her fingers, and then claim that she didn’t mean it, she just wanted to “start a conversation?”

      Please. How do you answer the Native Americans who are angry that she hijacked the conversation Colbert had going about Dan Snyder?

      • Dr. Squid

        I asked the same thing and was told to go away. Buncha litcrit wanking.

  • FlipYrWhig

    This particular burst of rage, or faux rage, is peculiar, because the context was obviously to do something as offensive and tone-deaf as “Redskins Foundation.” Also, Colbert has been doing “Ching Chong Ding Dong” bits for years with much less topical prompting: has there ever been any outrage against those? I don’t remember any, but maybe it’s been brewing.

  • Kim Williams

    So very well said. The over sensitivity & histrionics that come from the left everytime they hear/read something that (if looked at under a very special microscope) can be hash tagged or facebooked as racial insensitivity or misogynistic is the main reason that as a group, We are dismissed as perpetual victims.

  • D_C_Wilson

    The problem with explaining satire to humorless emo firebaggers is that they are humorless emo firebaggers. They will never understand satire and, like Park, will actually just double down on their hysterical wanking on Twitter.

    Irony of all of this is that if Park and others really cared about fighting racism, they’d be firing their salvos at Snyder to get the team’s name changed instead of wanking on Twitter about Colbert satirizing him.

  • i_a_c

    Far be it from me to tell a person of color whether or not to be offended by something. If she thought that the joke was offensive, then who am I to tell her it’s not? I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to feel that the point was made at the expense of another ethnic minority, even if I disagree.

    It is totally wrongheaded, however, to turn it into a crusade against someone who is undoubtedly an ally of anti-racism. Counterproductive to the extreme.

    • Razor

      Totally agreed… you’re welcome to be offended by anything, but in this case, it’s a silly thing to be offended by because it was clearly anti-racist. The only people who should be “offended” are racists, because that’s who the joke was at the expense of.

  • missliberties

    This particular faction of the left flank drives me to distraction. They are the reason I could not abide dKos for two more seconds.

    The original ‘pie’ fight was this lefty flankie uber politically correct group who were ever so offended by an ad, with an attractive woman in short shorts selling pie. The purielle lefties were so aghast at the use of sexism in ads. It was an all out blog war for weeks.**

    ** Yet no one celebrated the beauty of that womans body, took pride in it, or noticed that the pie was delicious!

    My guess just a few folks are twitter raged, and are getting a lot of attention for having a tantrum.

    Lighten up lefties. Learn to take a joke. This crap fills in the rights stereotype of liberals, and shows that in fact some libs deserve to be mocked!! (*ducks, hides, runs for cover)

    • Churchlady320

      Why? Why should Ms. Park “learn to take a joke” when it’s her culture and race that you’re dismissing so lightly? We white people have never come under assault. There are no hate words for us. Honky is a derivation of a word WE made up for Eastern Europeans. Cracker is a mule driver. Those words can’t hurt us. As one who never will have to live with bias because I’m so WASP I buzz, I think if someone is hurt by something, we need to pay attention. I wish she’d not focused on a man who WAS trying to make a good point, but that’s not my call either. I’d rather hear her out than condemn her because it’s just too easy to blow her off.

      • formerlywhatithink

        Ms. Park, speaking as an Asian person, does not in any manner speak for all Asians. To assume she does, whether by you or herself, is the height of folly and egotism. Like I’ve said before, I watched the segment when it aired, found it hilarious and thought it put the stupidity of Snyder in the harsh lime light it deserved. Ms. Parks, from what I have seen, is more interested in promoting the interests of Ms. Parks, nothing more. With the backlash she generated with her puerile and self aggrandizing Twitter campaign, she is now claiming it was satire. That alone, the fact she’s unwilling to even stand for what she claimed (as idiotic as it was) shows she’s more interested in self promotion than actual change.

        Tell you what, you and Ms. Parks are free to find whatever you want as offensive, it’s a free country, but please don’t tell me that as person of the Asian persuasion, what I need to find offensive.

  • OC_DC

    No matter what you do the shit flinging howler monkeys on one or both sides of the isle will throw a fit. All you can do is shrug your shoulders, note that “yes, both sides are full of idiots”, and accept that anybody who views themselves as an activist for something or deeply invested in an issue is a lunatic who you should never take seriously on anything.

  • GrafZeppelin127

    Colbert’s show is an improv act. The host of that show is a fictional character.

    It’s intended to be an improv act. It’s intended that the audience knows that it’s watching an improv act, and views it as an improv act.

    Limbaugh’s show is an improv act. Every show on the “Fox News” channel is an improv act. The difference is that their audience doesn’t know it, and those who write, produce and disseminate those shows don’t want their audience to know, or even think, that they’re listening to or watching an improv act.

    [O]ne thing’s for sure, it’ll be a very, very long time before Colbert goes anywhere near the issue of race.

    Oh, I don’t know about that. The character Colbert is absolutely fearless, and thoroughly convinced of his own awesomeness. Indeed, his response to this ridiculous episode is sure to be high-freaking-larious.

    • Ipecac

      I was thinking the same thing. Colbert won’t back down.

      • Aaron Litz

        Yeah, after what he did at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, I think the guy has brass balls and won’t back down from anything. He’ll take it as a challenge!

        Which is just one more thing that makes him so rad.

  • Ipecac

    Excellent article. I’ve watched with astonishment at the backlash against Colbert. I watched the segment when it aired and I understood exactly what he was doing and how brilliant it was in making his point against the racism inherent in the Redskins name. Shame that Ms. Park didn’t.

  • Grizzle

    Where’s Bobby Jindal crying about freedom of speech protection when you need him?

  • aceshigh

    Except that the far right DOES get what it wants quite often by being screechy and out of control.

    • Draxiar

      Like children with parents that give in just to keep the peace.

      • Razor

        If only, but it’s been working for the GOP for decades.

        • aceshigh

          That’s my problem with Bob attempting to equate the far right with the far left.

          The left (never mind the FAR left) has no leverage or bargaining power in American politics today. Democrats win points with the political elite by actively ignoring its liberal base.

          Republicans, on the other hand, brag about outflanking each other on their right. Could you imagine if two Democrats running for President tried to “out liberal” the other?

          It just doesn’t happen.

          • missliberties

            Why do you think that is? It is because liberals are seen as wealth redistributers and anti-business. So what is your counter argument to that?

          • aceshigh

            What do you mean “counter argument”?

            I’m not arguing one way or the other. I’m simply stating the reality, and you’ve provided the “why” of that reality(“It is because liberals are seen as wealth redistributers and anti-business”)

            If you meant to ask “How do we fix it?”, well, I don’t know the answer the that.

          • missliberties

            Yes. I am asking “How do we fix it”.

            This is just a sideshow, that plays out over and over, and it is tiresome waste of time. This isn’t rising the tide, or lifting any boats, if you will. Its dragging us down in the mud where we always seem to get stuck.

    • missliberties

      The far right gets what it wants, because the media seems to cater to their temper tantrums.

    • D_C_Wilson

      That’s because republicans know that the far right will show up at the polls and vote for them, even in the midterms, so they listen to their screechings. If the far left would give up their desire for the perfect liberal savior and back progressive democrats, they’d listen to their screechings as well.

  • Razor

    I think Ms. Park has raised some great points in the past. The #NotYourAsianSidekick and #NotYourFetish are both valid reads and reflective of real problems.

    But she whiffed here and it’s not just because people are “whitesplaining” and “tone policing,” she just flat-out reacted without having context, and then double-downed and went into the Suey Park business, and business was booming for her this weekend. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of American Indians, whose battle against the Redskins name was totally overshadowed.

    • MidwestMet

      “went into the Suey Park business”

      Probably the best way to sum this up. Once she got a taste of what it was like to be a cultural power broker, she was on the hunt for a new target. Just as every year Bill O’Reilly goes on & on about the War on Christmas, even when there is no evidence to back it up.

      George Carlin summed up the proper use of racial epithets here. Even though it is just text (no audio or video), still NSFW:

      https://www.facebook.com/GeorgeCarlinQuotes/posts/381854215228160

      • Aaron Litz

        This is exactly it. She found a high-profile target who would make a big splash and hit all the launch buttons without hesitation or caring what his real point was. As long as she got headlines she was getting what she wanted.

        She hijacked the narrative to be focused on herself. Now instead of the joke maybe doing some good it is wasted in pointless bickering among people who should be allies.

        I think she is a Conservative plant and a shill (not really, but I want to play with that whole BS “shill” paradigm.)