December 19th, 2014
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.
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