CancelColbert fiasco is social justice gone wrong

Malaysia flight media coverage misguided (credit: Shijie Rao/) Malaysia flight media coverage misguided (credit: Shijie Rao/) CancelColbert fiasco is social justice gone wrong (credit: Kelsey Thompson/) CancelColbert fiasco is social justice gone wrong (credit: Kelsey Thompson/)
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Last week, one of my favorite shows, The Colbert Report, was harshly criticized because of a tweet: an out-of-context joke about the “Ching-Chong-Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Upon reading this tweet, Suey Park, a Twitter activist, sent out a tweet calling for Colbert’s firing with the hashtag #CancelColbert, subsequently creating a newstorm as various media outlets picked up the story. Damn it, news corps, you made me care about a Twitter hashtag.

Even out of context, the joke was not offensive to me, though that may just be because I’ve heard one too many Ricky Gervais jokes about child rape. In context, it is a stretch for anyone to call it offensive; it satirizes Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s charitable foundation for Native Americans, which has the term “Redskins” in it. In fact, it reaffirms that “Ching-Chong-Ding-Dong,” like “Redskins,” is racist.

Upon realizing that she had taken the joke out of context, Park told people that she didn’t actually want Colbert’s show to be canceled, and that she used the hashtag to raise awareness for her broader message.

Supporters of #CancelColbert claim that comedy should not use racial stereotypes, and that satire has to be completely clear about who it is ridiculing because people could misinterpret the use of subtle anti-racist humor as a green light to use actual racist humor.

There is no special reason why comedy in particular, along with every other kind of entertainment and speech that exists, should not use or discuss racial stereotypes. These stereotypes won’t go away if we stop talking about them. Furthermore, all speech can be misinterpreted. For instance, Glenn Beck used Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches for his conservative causes despite King’s advocacy for liberal causes. The value of any form of speech should not be determined by the people who misuse it.

Colbert’s critics also claim that white men should not comment on race, which is a fairly ridiculous assertion. Being white doesn’t mean you can’t make good points about race. Furthermore, conversation about race relations should aim at being inclusive rather than exclusive.

More disturbing is the number of people who claim that Park’s tactic of overreaction, calling to cancel Colbert’s show, was justifiable in raising these concerns.

Fox News pulled a similar stunt in 2010, when it took a quote from then-government official Shirley Sherrod out of context, painting the content of one of her speeches as a diatribe against whites, when in reality it was a personal story of racial healing. As a result, Sherrod was forced to resign from her position as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture.

It is unlikely that a celebrity like Colbert would be fired due to #CancelColbert, but suppose Park’s target had not been Colbert, but some business owner or teacher whose words were taken out of context. The tactics used by Park and Fox News are irresponsible and have the potential to damage the careers and lives of innocent individuals.

Some people may wonder why I’m not criticizing the commentators who sent rape and death threats to Park. Their behavior is vastly more reprehensible, but no reasonable person actually thinks such behavior is justified. On the other hand, a lot of legitimately influential people seem to agree with #CancelColbert on the views I have mentioned.

Also note that this is not a commentary on social justice in general, but rather on these specific viewpoints that certain members of the community hold. There is a place in the world for social justice, in a society where minorities are still culturally and politically underrepresented. However, insular and sterilized conversations peppered with knee-jerk reactions do not in any way advance social justice causes.