Monday, April 14, 2014

Suey Park and the Good and Bad of #CancelColbert

I read the Salon interview with Suey Park, comedian and social activist, who started the Twitter campaign to #CancelColbert in response to an ill-advised tweet posted on The Colbert Report's own official Twitter account. The tweet inspired controversy for a variety of reasons but principal among them was it offended many in the Asian community. I found Park's conversation with Salon enlightening. It was a phone interview, too, so I think it needs to be said that she was probably not at her most lucid or eloquent, at least if she's anything like I am when talking on the phone. So let's get to it. Here's what I think:

Firstly, I think certain leftist folks did successfully get taken in by Park's "trolling" or however you wish to refer to the CancelColbert hashtag (I get the sense, from what I've read in the interview, that "trolling" might be exactly the verb Park would use to describe her #CancelColbert Twitter campaign). All of this is to get to her bigger point, ripped from the context of anything related to Stephen Colbert (and the admittedly pretty weak Twitter joke and somewhat better but still weak Colbert sketch from which it was derived), that so often minority groups' histories of discrimination (and particularly East Asian and Indian Americans) are used with the ostensible hope of inspiring greater cultural awareness through irony (something Dave Chappelle found had exactly that effect on mainstream audiences when used on his eponymous television show -- people everywhere learned it was ok to use the n-word in whatever context they desired, or wait, no). So not to be that lefty, but worse than white liberal comedians' co-opting minority discrimination for ironic effect is mainstream American culture's inability to pick up on irony of practically any kind, as a general rule. But I can't ignore that Park's criticism of white liberals for borrowing too freely from minority groups' and the insults they've endured is completely spot on. I think it's also worthy to note that when the humor is employed successfully (i.e. the joke is funny, the satire hits precisely its intended target and without any obvious collateral damage) nobody seems to mind terribly much. This is a lot harder to do thoughtfully with the use of age-old stereotypes (though I won't say it can't be done), no matter how much irony lies in their use. (An aside, the thing that really gets me is, Stephen Colbert's sketch was successfully (and humorously) destroying the Washington Redskins and their outreach to "Original Americans" well BEFORE he referenced "Ching Chong Ding Dong.")

It's also important to think about why maybe Suey Park's campaign ultimately fails, or what it fails to do. I mean, white liberals could have been more self-reflective when the criticism was first leveled, instead of going batshit and immediately scrambling to defend Colbert and condescend to Park with all their ensuing "Do you even know what satire is?" mansplaining. What's worse, white liberals have apparently been guilty of the same doubling down we supposedly despise in our conservative counterparts.  That said, by its very nature (and Park, to her credit, doesn't attempt to argue otherwise in her Salon interview) this is a divisive campaign. It's a negative campaign. It's meant to hold the mirror to white liberals' faces and say, see what you're doing. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You think you're so much better, so totally all embracing of difference, than white conservatives. But you fall into the same egocentric traps, and think of different racial groups in the same stereotypical ways. I sympathize with white liberals (obviously). I see how maybe this "holding the mirror up" could be taken too far.

And so this brings me to my main point. My main bone of contention regarding the CancelColbert controversy. The power structure continues to be strongest in the sense of class structure. I think that we all sound like babbling, sniping idiots at each other's throats when the real problem gets ignored. I suppose how I differ from Colbert and that satire that inspired the controversy to begin with is, I have no desire to "use" certain groups as pawns or placeholders for some class-oriented issue I find objectionable. I just want to point my finger in the direction of the biggest societal ills and those forces that are most responsible. Park says some frustratingly absolutist things. "Whiteness will always be the enemy," "[Whites] have never been here for people of color," and "... all of the big historical figures in racial justice were never reasonable." Whether Park thinks it's pertinent or not (and based on everything she says in the interview I'd say she'd consider it, wrongly, irrelevant), I think it's worthwhile to note she's overlooking the true nature of who the "enemy" is -- that ever-dangerous label. In the interview Park also says,"... white liberals co-signed horrible things, like militarization, like drones, like stop-and-frisk." This to me is among Park's weakest arguments because it fundamentally misunderstands who white liberals are (indicating the danger of doing exactly what she is opposed to, broad categorization of an entire group of people based on things that have stereotypical or anecdotal truth to them). I think most liberals I know would be mortified to be lumped in with the Democrats of, at least, the last decade and a half or so (a party that has become nearly equal to the Republicans in its right-leaning economic policy). As Adolph Reed in Jacobin has noted, "The fact that those of us who consider ourselves on the Left must confront is that what the electoral options come down to are a choice between a neoliberal party that actively supports diversity and multiculturalism and a neoliberal party that actively opposes diversity and multiculturalism."

Do I think if everyone were equal racism and xenophobia would naturally, happily fall away, too? No. I think both (and many more societal ills) would still be huge problems. We have a way of becoming really clannish, as human beings. We're always trying to find that point of otherness, who's in and who's out. It appears to be an evolutionary safety mechanism but one rife with flaws -- for one obvious example, just because you look a certain way does not mean you're going to be anymore trustworthy than some other stranger whose difference is more apparent. I think that's where my culpability (or arguably cognitive dissonance) is completely obvious. Of course I don't see racism as the same problem as that groups marginalized by it do, and certainly not on any kind of regular basis. However, one thing I will add, I grew up with small eyes. This is stupid and a little beside the point, I admit, but it's true. I constantly was made fun of for "looking Chinese" so I know this shit is out there and it's fucking horrible. And to think there is any stigma for looking or acting a certain way outside "the norm" is insane and plainly wrong. But I still can't escape the fact that I see this divisive race-based stuff as a tool of the powerful. Distract those who look different with scapegoats, show them it's superficial differences that make us weaker as a society, ignore that people are living in greater class distinction than they have in a hundred years. And so with that, I would warn against white liberals co-opting stereotypes for some ironical and imprecise satirical end that plenty in audience are likely to misunderstand anyway (don't feel bad, Colbert -- Bertolt Brecht famously made the same mistake with his portrayal of amorality and greed in his play "Threepenny Opera"). But I would warn against minority groups (whoever they be) looking at everyone who is not with them as therefore being against them. "Whiteness" alone is not the enemy. Certain white liberals have revealed themselves to be horribly close-minded and to that end I hope this controversy has been a wake up call, but greater liberalism is on the side of the underclasses, whatever form they take. It's why liberalism is so easily maligned, the term itself turned into a dirty word. Powerful folks just seem to have an easier time getting their message out there. I suppose if I were allowed to offer any of my own advice to Park it would be this: when we stop hearing each other we all lose. The problem with radicalism found anywhere on the extreme ends of the political spectrum is, it often is too busy shouting for The Cause (admirable as it is, don't misunderstand me) than to allow for this self-reflection, this opportunity to consider how in some ways one could be wrong. That said, white liberals and comedians, let's avoid the race-based humor. It's going to alienate people, as we've seen time and again. Or don't and experience the consequences.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Matt. It may still piss off both ends of the intellectual spectrum, but I find your balance honest and admirable. People of color need more white allies like you -- small eyes and all!

    1. I suspect people will right find flaws in what I've written here. I had to contribute, though. I want to have the honest dialogue that's going to allow us all to come together with real understanding -- not the bs, lip-service kind. Heck, to continue my controversial streak, that' s what separates most liberals from conservatives (at least supposedly) -- an ability to honestly attempt to put themselves in someone else's shoes and imagine how their life/lives could be equally (or even more so) full of challenges and obstacles. Down with solipsism, I say, to whatever extent that's possible.

  2. Thank you, I've been compulsively searching for and reading articles since the day #CancelColbert started as I feel both sides have valid points. The media's been filled with opinions on the Left, Right, further left and further right and this is the most reasonable point of view on this issue I've read yet.