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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