10 brief thoughts on Colbert’s entire show responding to #CancelColbert

There's no way to NOT see this eagle as ridiculous.


Tonight, Colbert Report had for the first time an opportunity to respond to the 72h trending hashtag #CancelColbert. I caught the full show.

After the show, here are my full thoughts — on the ep and the hash-tag — in no particular order:

1. I’m almost 95% certain that a writer of the show read my first post on this subject. Or maybe it’s hubris. Or maybe I’m right. But, the entire show read like a point-by-point reading of my post. So… uhh… I told you so?

2. The most important point that Colbert made was that, whether you agree or disagree with it, #CancelColbert supporters have a First Amendment right, and their outrage is understandable, if arguably misplaced — in my opinion, alone — in regards to the full segment. Whether you agree with me in thinking the tweet was racist, whether you think both the tweet and the segment was racist, or whether you think none of it was racist: don’t tweet ad hominem attacks or rape threats or death threats at people you disagree with. Just don’t. Because no matter what you think, if you do this, you are wrong. 

Women — particularly women of colour — face enough harassment online just for speaking our minds. Don’t be an asshole. Your provocations are neither wanted nor needed. If you’re attacking people, get the fuck out.

If you need to attack who people are when you disagree with what they say, you have lost the argument.

3. As I suggested — again, it’s like my post was a damned template for tonight’s show — Colbert seemed most furious that an unknown web editor at Comedy Central was empowered to tweet his segments out of satirical context. As I alluded to in my post, Colbert is a talented satirist; he, unlike perhaps some of his fans, understands that in satire, context matters. He, more so than anyone else, would get why a punchlines from a satirical segment cannot be shared out of context; in essence, he kind of agreed the tweet was racist.

Consequently, my chief “demand” in my post was met: that Comedy Central rethink their policy of tweeting out satirical segments from the show out-of-context. After some wrangling, it appears Stephen Colbert was able to dismantle the @ColbertReport Twitter account that he doesn’t control, effectively preventing any future such misunderstandings from taking place. Again, I feel kinda weirdly vindicated.

We should also consider that this weekend’s activities probably cost an underpaid intern their job. An underpaid intern who didn’t understand satirical comedy, perhaps, but still someone who is probably no longer employed.

4. The AAPI community needs to have a conversation on avoiding respectability politics vs. furthering movement goals: a conversation that begins with the acknowledgement that both sides have valid points, and that there is no easy solution here.

The #CancelColbert supporters have a very valid point in arguing that radical action and racial outrage should not require that people of colour temper our actions and reactions to appear more acceptable to the mainstream, particularly when this is in conjunction with needing to silence valid expressions of racial anger and pain. Race activists should not need to be “well-behaved” to be taken seriously; and we should not be dismissed when we are not. Tone policing is not okay, particularly if it is used to marginalize oppressed voices.

However, what also struck me clearest in watching tonight’s Colbert Report was the disservice that the radical choices made by #CancelColbert had on the very conversation it hoped to start. I tend to be an action-oriented “activist” (in so much as I am an activist): I am focused on  what goals that can be achieved and what changes that can be made; every activist action is, for me, purposeful — and usually with the purpose of educating and convincing others. Consequently I am always viewing campaigns through the lens of how each action will affect the likelihood of achieving certain tangible goals; this is just my starting point, one no more or less valid than any other.

But applied here: if the purpose of radical action in this instance was to initiate a dialogue on an instance of racism for the purpose of either a) expressing a point-of-view and convincing someone who might not a priori understand or agree, or b) agitate for some sort of apology from Colbert Report, I have to wonder whether that conversation was challenged or facilitated by making actual (or unintended) demands to “cancel” Colbert? Such demands could only be expected to inflame defensiveness from the show’s rabid fans, and alienate those who might otherwise agree in principle.

Speaking for myself alone, I cannot fathom structuring a campaign around a political demand that I did not actually want to have happen (or around a hashtag that could reasonably be mistaken as being the actual goal of the campaign). Or, I cannot fathom launching a campaign where the goal of my campaign was not immediately clear to movement members or the casual observer.  Again, speaking only for myself, as a pseudo-ally (kinda? not really?) of the sentiment of the hash-tag, my most pressing concern in deciding whether or not to back the hash-tag was trying to reconcile my own thoughts with a campaign that made demands I just couldn’t rationalize — either to fire Colbert, or to blame him for the actions of an unrelated intern. If I couldn’t convince myself that Colbert should be fired, or reprimanded, or whatever the goal was, than how could I convince anyone else … even while I felt the tweet was racist? Was there room for my perspective in the hash-tag? I still don’t know the answer to that. But it’s certainly clear that if the hash-tag was intended to be a democratic campaign intended to engage people to challenge perceived racism, the message of the hashtag — in both its apparent radicalism and its muddiness in purpose — managed to alienate at least one potential supporter in me.

Ultimately, the hash-tag didn’t need me, and I’m fine with that. I’m not saying every campaign needs to be something I agree with or have to be able to jump on board to. I do not seek to police anyone’s tone — as I said, the expressions of outrage I witnessed this past weekend were valid and worth hearing; they should never be patronizingly dismissed as overreactions. But, the tone struck by #CancelColbert as well as the lack of clear movement goals was not something I ultimately felt comfortable with for myself, and so I elected to take a different path. And, just as we should not police the tones of those most radically outraged, we should not police the tones of those who would choose a more moderated approach for themselves by calling them sellouts, race traitors, or more. If everyone’s tone is valid, then everyone‘s tone must be valid.

5.  We need to be better to each other, in general, and respect that a diversity of opinions can all arise — all of equal racial validity — out of our community. Thinking the segment was racist does not make you hysterical; thinking the segment was funny and acceptable does not make you a race traitor.

Our community needs to find, or rediscover, ways to disagree with each other without calling each other race traitors, sellouts, or crazy people. We must remember that there are people sitting behind each of these computer screens, driving those Twitter handles we’re tweeting at. As a community, we have disagreed sharply on this issue, and will disagree on other issues down the road; how can we still remember to treat each other like human beings when we do so? How can we still remember that our words have the capacity to hurt others? (And, yes, I realize the irony of writing that in relation to a controversy over the pains that slurs cause.)

To that end, some AAPI activists started a hashtag called #BuildDontBurn, which sought to extend an olive branch that might serve as a first step in healing the many raw emotions after this weekend’s community-wide shakedown. It was intended to refocus our attention not on the things each of us have said and done to hurt one another, but on a more all-encompassing sense of community and mutual respect. I don’t think the hash-tag has been hugely successful, but perhaps it is a start.

6. To that end, if I said or did anything to anyone over the weekend that intentionally or unintentionally hurt anyone’s feelings, I am sorry.

7. B.D. Wong is an incredible actor and artist who only lends his image to media that he fully stands behind. I was flabbergasted to see him in the opening segment of the show; being well-aware of other incidents where he has disavowed connection with a project after disagreeing with its final message. His appearance in support of Colbert Report was a powerful and unexpected endorsement, and makes me all the more proud to be a fan of his. That being said, I felt his appearance was also weirdly shoe-horned; as if the segment was one giant in-joke I wasn’t in on.

8. This should always have been about changing the racist name of a popular sports team. It’s an issue that I confess I haven’t been involved in; not because I don’t believe in this cause, but because I’m simply not a follower of professional sports, and so this issue was far outside my usual sphere of awareness. In short, prior to the Colbert Report, I had very little exposure to the full spectrum of the fight over #changethename. That makes me the exact target audience of Colbert’s original segment. I am a person who was inspired to greater activism as a result of being exposed to the true racism of the Redskins’ name.

I do not believe in banning words — I am too much of a First Amendment advocate and academic to believe in censorship of language. But I do not believe a racial or ethnic slur has any business as the name of a professional sports team. I will endeavour after this incident to do my part in raising greater awareness on this issue, in the future.

And perhaps, that’s all anyone can really ask for in all this?

9. As I wrote in my first post (and yes, I like to fantasize my writing was the inspiration for the quip in Colbert’s show), I’ll accept Michelle Malkin as a crusader against anti-Asian racism when she retracts her book defending and denying internment. And yes, Ms. Malkin, I did read your book, in-full.  I even reviewed it for this site, in a post that has was lost in my host migration. And, yes, it was horrible.

10. Agree with hashtag activism or disagree with it, but after tonight, I don’t think anyone can deny that it’s influential.

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  • D

    Very calm, tempered, thoughtful post– which seemed all too rare in much of the #CancelColbert hullaballoo. Thanks.

  • If you’ve ever seen SVU then you’d understand the utter hilariousness of the opening bit. Never mind the fact (this was pointed out to me) that he wore a redskins shirt for the entire bit as well. That was an awesome added touch.

  • I’m like a religious SVU watcher. RELIGIOUS.

    I seriously didn’t get it…

    (Maybe I just need to rewatch the bit)

  • Mike

    Honest question here – wasn’t the original point of #BuildDontBurn about putting aside the differences WITHIN the AsAm community and agreeing to disagree without trying to rip each other down. I’ve sat on the sideline reading what its now perceived to be – an approach on how to protest…. Am I wrong in understanding that this new interpretation from folks within and NOW outside the AsAm community is incorrect?

    If not, why aren’t people saying anything to correct it?!

  • Hi Mike,

    Yes, you are correct. I write this comment without pointing fingers at anyone. The timeline of the hashtag was its creation by some in the AAPI blogosphere to put aside differences. The extrapolation of the hashtag is “I would like to shift my focus on building bridges within our community by respecting one another in disagreement, and I would like to put an end to any behaviour that has contributed to burning a bridge”. In essence, an olive branch extended from one side of the ideological divide to the other.

    It was misunderstood by some who were not part of the hash-tag’s organization as a different extrapolation “I am building bridges, you are burning them down”, or other passive-aggressive variations on this theme.

    If not, why aren’t people saying anything to correct it?!

    Not sure how to do that. The fact of the matter is that those who entered the hash-tag and shifted the focus have far greater numbers than those who started the hash-tag. I engaged the hashtag for about 2 hours to say most of the things I also said in this post — albeit in short-form — and am not sure what else I can contribute.

    The message about the hash-tag’s intent is there if you scroll back far enough. Ultimately, I don’t think that all sides of the community are ready yet to hear the original message of the hash-tag, so my guess is that even to spend time to correct its interpretation would likely not yield any beneficial results.

    Thanks for your comment though. I basically dipped out of the HT when it was clear that the message hadn’t made it through. In my mind, healing involves responsibility on the parts of both parties. It is the responsibility of one party to extend an olive branch; it is the responsibility of the other to be receptive to it. We cannot force either action, just give it time.

  • I think the problem with both hashtags (#CancelColbert and #BuildNotBurn) is that both of them are far too easy to coopt by people who don’t have a stake in the matter (okay, I’ll say it… “white people”).

    In the latter case, it’s too easy for the tone police to jump on and run into the ground. The former was an actively dishonest posture claiming to demand something in order to call attention to something else.

    It’s something to consider as a tactical aspect for future twitter campaigns. If you strip everything away but the actual hashtag (because everyone’s gonna try and steer it), is it still something worth saying?

    #NotYourAsianSidekick passes that test; the others do not.

  • Hi AViescas, thanks for your comment. I think your point is well made although I actually disagree somewhat with the comparison to NYAS, only in that it was intended to be about Asian American feminism in the onset, and was clearly co-opted away from that. So it, too, suffers from a fluidity of meaning.

  • crazy MMer

    One of the many ‘ironic’ things with this blog post is the fact that I took the moniker “crazy MMer” directly from one of your posts many moons ago with regards to a certain website. 😉

    Also, the censorship thing…

  • Kiwi

    I disagree with you on “the expressions of outrage I witnessed this past weekend were valid and worth hearing; they should never be patronizingly dismissed as overreactions.”

    MOST of the reactions I have read, if not all were racist/sexist bigoted posts. I disagree with canceling the Colbert Show for the same reasons as you. I was totally against it saying that it offended me more than the tweet until I saw the comments of fans spewing racist/sexist comments calling Suey Park “chink/hoe” and justifying it because she was “stupid”. Then THOSE comments offended me more than #cancelcolbert. These commenters are spewing the very same racism that the Colbert Show criticizes. I did come across some reactions saying, “if you don’t want to cancel the show, then don’t say you do”. However, they are vastly disproportionate to “chink, chink, chink, suck white dick, chinky hoe.” It makes me question whether these people who are writing these comments genuinely support the Colbert Show, or just pretend to because it vicariously insults Bill O’Reily.

  • @Jenn Fair enough! I only saw the hashtag’s inception, and not where it ended up. My gut instinct suggests it had more “staying power” than the others but it’s hard to tell.

    It’d be interesting to try and study how much and what kinds of fluidity twitter slogans are susceptible to, and then determine how much is acceptable.

  • Hey Kiwi

    Quick clarification: “the expressions of outrage” line refers to supporters of #CancelCoblert’s outrage, not those who use ad hominem attacks, because see Point #2. Anyone using those kinds of attacks are just wrong and should be dismissed.

    Sorry for the confusion!

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