The media has responded to the Stephen Colbert controversy as expected.
Stephen Colbert is under fire because his show’s Twitter account tweeted this: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” This is a reference to an old skit, in which Colbert performs a racist Chinese impersonation “accidentally” captured on live feed, and then apologizes for it in the laziest way possible when caught. The attack came soon after, from a 23-year old hashtag activist named Suey Park, who started the #NotYourAsianSidekick campaign last year, and it quickly trended.
Twitter has an extraordinary ability, more than any other media, to encourage speaking before thinking. Did anyone stop, for even a moment, to ask themselves the reason Colbert made that joke? Did anyone question, even for the briefest flash, the motivations behind it? One microsecond of consideration would reveal the following: Colbert plays a parody of a rightwing hack. Rightwing hacks make racist statements. Therefore Colbert is parodying the racist statements of rightwing hacks. It would be weird if he didn’t parody their fictitiously color-blind racism–it’s a major feature of their personalities. Look at Fox News.
I’ve never supported the notion that the audience is responsible if they don’t “get” the joke. When a joke falls flat, the comedian failed. Parody, which I’m glad they are calling Colbert’s show rather than satire, is complicated. Are Colbert’s statements less offensive because they aren’t in earnest? One can claim that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t believe what he says but is just attempting to amuse his audience with sexist, racist jokes. Megyn Kelly’s Santa Claus segment was hilarious if we extended to her the protection of “parody.” She later attempted the “just kidding” defense. Since parody involves exaggeration, does effective parody of Limbaugh, Kelly, Ted Nugent, or Sarah Palin involve making offensive comments beyond the scope of what they’d even say publicly? At some point, you’re no longer making fun of the messenger but merely parroting them.
I’d argue that effective parody does not make the offensive statements the joke but the person making the statements. Limbaugh’s pomposity and Kelly’s clueless defensiveness are better punchlines. I’m not sure who Colbert the brand is parodying anymore — if it’s a broad concept of what right-wingers believe, then it can veer into strawman territory.
The left often opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy from the right because of its defense of what has been called “hipster racism” and “hipster homophobia” and so on. The idea is that the person making the comment is obviously not a racist or a homophobe (he or she votes for Democrats and drives a Prius and, often stated in subtext, is not from the South). I was at a barbecue in Seattle a while back where a young woman protested a dog assaulting her by saying, “I’m not a dyke! I think your dog’s a dyke!” This woman met all the hipster credentials for essentially being able to say offensive things and claim she’s “just kidding.”
Maybe I’m just an old fuddy duddy now, but I do prefer more earnestness in my humor, and while
I obviously don’t want to #CancelColbert, I do think some self-reflection by the left is necessary.
In my Facebook feed, I have posts about how awful it is that gay kids can be bullied and the bullies protected because of “religious freedom,” yet if an avowedly liberal comedian were to say something similarly offensive about gays, that’s defended as satire. I suppose they are just supposed to be clever enough to understand the hurtful thing said about them is just making fun of the other people who say hurtful things about them.