Activism, credibility and finding the right platform

Did the recent #CancelColbert hashtag incident actually help anti-racism? It started in response to this…

On Thursday night, the official Twitter account for “The Colbert Report” committed the comedic sin of delivering a punchline without its setup. The offending tweet, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” was meant to be a satirical analog to the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, whose creation was announced earlier this week by the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder.

The joke, which originally aired on Wednesday’s episode, is not particularly complicated: Daniel Snyder created a charitable organization for the benefit of a community and used a racial epithet for that same community in the organization’s name—so here’s an absurd fictional extrapolation of Snyder’s own logic. Everyone who hates both racism and Daniel Snyder laughs.

….and it asked people to call on the show to be canceled. Also from the above article:

I called Park on Friday to ask her about how #CancelColbert got started. She said she saw the offending tweet while eating dinner Thursday night and decided to respond to it. Despite her online profile—and the forceful, yet sometimes decidedly academic, tone of her advocacy—Park does not consider herself a “full-time” activist and claims that she does not particularly enjoy hustling along a hashtag. Her degree of involvement in a hashtagged cause, she said, depends on how much “free time” she has at the moment, and whether a particular issue piques her interest. “It’s not like I enjoy missing ‘Scandal’ to tweet about ‘The Colbert Report,’” she said.

So Park called for the cancellation of the entire satirical show based on one of its many, many satirical jokes. This seemed like a drastic overreaction, when in fact it might simply have been a ludicrous oversimplification necessitated by Twitter’s limitations. Unfortunately, it was difficult to argue against the interpretation that Park wanted the show destroyed for doing what it had done thousands of times before. Any point more nuanced than that got completely lost because it hadn’t been made in the initial 140-character-max message.

Worse, a lot of followers who clearly didn’t have a clue started claiming that Colbert’s joke was “jokey racism” later claimed as satire, a la Andrew Dice Clay when he got in trouble for telling bigoted jokes. Either they’d never seen Colbert at all or they didn’t comprehend how satire works. Because you see, Clay – like a lot of comedians who have claimed “satire!” after the fact – had a lot of bigots for followers: if he’d genuinely been aiming for satire, he’d failed miserably. Conversely, I’ve never heard of a conservative thinking Colbert is really on their side – they know he’s mocking them because the satire of his act is so well-established. And then a number of people identifying as “Asian” said they didn’t find the joke offensive at all, and that got hauled out as proof that this was all a total non-issue. And then people started harassing Park – which ironically is the most discussion-worthy part of the incident, and the one that got the least coverage.

There might have been legitimate issues to raise here, but they didn’t get raised to the level of the national conversation. For example, even when it’s clearly satire and we accept that the comedian’s intention is to mock bigots, some jokes and words may be too offensive even for satire. Some concepts are just too hurtful. And sometimes the satire goes wrong, often due to ignorance on the satirist’s part, and appears to be making fun of victims. If anyone felt this joke was wrong for any of these reasons, that was a conversation we might have had, and it might have taught someone something. And finally, as was the case here, when satire is taken out of context, misunderstandings follow. But all of these things take more than 140 characters to be turned into teachable moments.

And the loudest arguments raised in the whole event came from people who didn’t seem to know much about activism or awareness raising at all. They came from conservative hypocrites like Michelle Malkin and white liberals who actually didn’t actually understand the issues at all but just wanted to be part of this whole thing for reasons that had little or nothing to do with concerns about racism.

A hashtag is not the place for a nuanced conversation. Save the hashtags for pointing out the really obvious, beyond-debate incidents of bigotry. 140 characters isn’t enough for a useful discussion about something this complicated.Note that I’m not saying the joke isn’t problematic. Nor am I suggesting that Park’s intention was anything but good and worthwhile. These are both subjective debates I leave to others. I am simply pointing out that finding the right platform for your message is an important facet in broadcasting a concept to the level of national consciousness. Enough people work at twisting activists’ words when the message is clear.I said earlier that the people who harassed and threatened Park for her call to cancel their beloved show are, ironically, the most discussion-worthy aspect of this whole event. That’s because they were precisely what Park has said – when given more than 140 characters to work with – her complaint was about. These are people who see themselves as liberals, but are happy to resort to misogynistic and racist tactics the instant someone threatens something they enjoy or a chunk of their own privilege. This is the sort of person I ran into so much in the film industry that it caused me to realized change from within would never happen: once you get that institutionalized sense that you’re on the side of the angels, anyone who tells you you’re not has to be mistaken.And that can happen with activists too.

Comments

  1. Quib says

    I don’t myself have a Twitter account, but from reading I can tell that it’s a very interactive and conversational medium. Calling Twitter the wrong platform to react to and discuss something that was posted on Twitter, seems like it would obligate commenters to actively refrain from engaging with the dialog.

    Some hashtags that have gained popularity do try and sum up an argument, but that’s not the point. They identify content, and act to connect common threads of interest. It’s inherently open ended, and I don’t see how that can be limiting or exclusionary, or in any way keep more valid points from being raised. “#CancelColbert” was punchy and inflammatory more than informative, but it was also very effective. It probably did polarize issues in its simplicity, but I don’t think people who launched racist attacks in response to “#CancelColbert” would have responded particularly more productively to a more detailed hashtag or a link to an essay.

    • says

      Not “actively refrain from discussing”. In 140 characters you can certainly say “that joke is racist” in many ways, or discuss how it’s badly out of context. What I feel didn’t fit into Twitter is this call to cancel the show. It seemed more like trolling.

      How did you see it as effective? I don’t, because I still haven’t seen a cogent explanation from Park for how the joke was actually racist. She just keeps saying it was as if that’s self-evident, which it is, but that’s how a successful satire would appear. It’s also how some unsuccessful satires appear. But Park will not explain why this remark is wrong but Colbert’s many other bigoted statements are fine satire.

      • Quib says

        So, if I’m understanding correctly you’re taking issue with a call to a specific action (taking a show off the air) that you think is inflammatory and not adequately justified or reasoned through.

        Caught up in that, and what I strongly disagree with, is asking that Park prove something racist happened. I get the impression that you’re speaking to how other people will evaluate the conversation and are not yourself questioning Park’s assessment, but it’s still not a good thing to engage with.
        It’s really important to recognize that people of marginalized identities are an authority on what’s harmful to them. If a person of color identifies something as insulting or harmful to their ethnic identity, that is self evident.

        There’s a Salon article
        http://www.salon.com/2014/04/03/cancelcolbert_activist_suey_park_this_is_not_reform_this_is_revolution/
        where she talks about the reasoning and motivation there.

        • says

          So, if I’m understanding correctly you’re taking issue with a call to a specific action (taking a show off the air) that you think is inflammatory and not adequately justified or reasoned through.

          Right.

          Caught up in that, and what I strongly disagree with, is asking that Park prove something racist happened. I get the impression that you’re speaking to how other people will evaluate the conversation and are not yourself questioning Park’s assessment, but it’s still not a good thing to engage with.

          No, and I have no idea how so many people are reading this into what so many other people are saying. Of course the remark is racist because it is satire of racism. That is how satire works – it lampoons by pretending to be a slightly exaggerated version of that which it mocks. This type of satire supports the anti-bigotry cause. But not according to Park, apparently, for reasons she doesn’t explain remotely to my satisfaction. And if it was just the Twitter remark being out of context, that would have been a valid discussion to have too – even Colbert agreed that tweet never should have happened. But that’s not what Park is arguing – she just keeps pointing out the words themselves were racist. Well, yeah.

          I assume you’re familiar with Jonathan Swift and his suggestion that we eat babies. If Park treated his essay like she’s treating Colbert, she would be calling for it to be censored because eating babies is wrong. She would be utterly failing to acknowledge that at no point did Swift or his readers seriously think anyone was advocating eating babies. She would be ignoring the fact that Swift’s essay demonized the anti-poor politicians and offered no practical solutions, and also energized those who were seeking practical solutions. Because, just as with today’s conservatives, you do have to wonder if anything short of a mass class purge (or race purge, or gender purge, or….) would satisfy them. Such appears to be their view of the world.

          But no – burn the essay, Park would say, because eating babies is wrong.

          I actually think Colbert, like Swift, makes conservatives look like the uncaring assholes they are. I feel his show exposes their venomous stupidity and energizes people who want intelligent solutions rather than just victim blaming whines. Can a satirist ever get it wrong? Absolutely – just like activist bloggers, like me. Can we discuss those mistakes and grow from them? Sure – happens all the time. But that’s not what Park’s on about. She won’t tell us how the satire was problematic. She just keeps telling us the words are racist. And that was kind of the point of the satire, so whatevs.

          I’m beginning to think based on the timing that the whole thing was a PR stunt to get him on people’s minds as David Letterman announced the following week that Colbert was his top choice for a successor. It just doesn’t make any sense.

          • Quib says

            You’re still mainly engaging with what the joke means. While that is a point to be discussed, it’s a separate issue.
            Explaining to your (or anyone else’s) satisfaction doesn’t matter.

            It would be productive for Park to discuss in detail what is problematic and what specifically should change, but she doesn’t owe that to anyone.

            Park calling out something as racist (both the single tweet presented without satirical context, and the practice of using racist remarks in anti-racist satire) , is speaking to her lived experiences. That isn’t something that needs validation or explanation.

            If someone says “these words are hurtful to me”, that’s not a debatable position. That’s not a place to say “no, here’s why you’re not upset” or “how do you really really know??”. There’s way too much of that attitude, and it’s insidious and terrible.

            That said, (and it can be a difficult to reconcile recognizing people’s authority on their own existences, with the importance of depth, critical discussion) she has commented on Colbert’s use of jokey racism and how she’s not okay with it, but still enjoys the show.
            There’s some interesting bits where she talks about how the reaction to her criticism has been, in significant part , accusing her of not getting the joke, at the same time people have trouble taking the words “cancel Colbert” at anything less than face value.

            • says

              “Engaging with what the joke means”? How are you still stuck on that? I’m evaluating whether any activist cause got served here. I don’t care if Colbert gets canceled as I don’t watch the show. I don’t care if Suey Park keeps tweeting. I care whether anyone learned anything from this and… oh, hey. They didn’t.

              The “Activist doesn’t owe privileged person an explanation” argument is reserved for activist safe spaces, when privileged people blunder into them and demand a full accounting of concepts the activists and their audiences have spent years developing and codifying into language. In public arenas, EVERYONE has to account for what they say. But Park didn’t really speak to her lived experience. She called for the show to be cancelled, and she did it for the same reasons trolls do: “”There’s no reason for me to act reasonable, because I won’t be taken seriously anyway. So I might as well perform crazy to point out exactly what’s expected from me.”

              Which helps who how? What good did this do anybody? She wanted to not be taken seriously, and she got what she wanted.

              Here is an Asian-American feminist making my points, only better. The entire article really deserves a read because she goes into exhaustive detail both about the problems with the hashtag event and some of Park’s opponents. Re: hashtags:

              I personally hold great value in thinking through opinions and writing them out (hence the long posts). Herein lies the problem and differences with social media activism: it encourages people to speak now and speak in short bursts, in ways that are subject to distortion and misinterpretation by tens of thousands of people. My issue with social networking and “hashtag activism” is that it’s far too easy for things to get exponentially blown out of proportion, straying from the original point. It’s like a twisted game of telephone: a hashtag can be distorted to fit the retweeter’s agenda, the effects of which are multiplied until the hashtag potentially loses its original meaning.

              And re: the effectiveness of the hashtag event:

              So no, I do not fear Suey Park because she “holds power”. In fact, I am not afraid of Suey Park because she have no legitimate power in this situation. She has an enormous audience, but what use is a loud audience with no credibility? The way she delivers statements do not have a good foundation, therefore failing to hold water against criticism despite her message for equality and justice. If there was any reason to “fear” Suey Park, it would be because inflammatory tactics like this that go unchecked are not unlike a spark in a drought-afflicted forest—quickly becoming a wildfire that is out of control and immensely dangerous.

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