I often dream of the day when irony falls out of fashion.
Last week, parody-pundit Stephen Colbert was at the center of an Internet outrage over a Twitter gaffe. The tweet (sent from the show’s official account, not Colbert’s personal account) was a punchline he had delivered in a Colbert Report broadcast earlier in the day. Here’s the tweet:
And here’s the clip from the segment from which the punchline was taken, which was meant to lampoon the owner of Washington DC’s football team, Daniel Snyder, who’s been in the news lately for his repeated refusal to change his team’s “colorful” name.
Many people thought the tweet was offensive to Asian Americans, and thus, the #CancelColbert hashtag was born. Reporters, who make up about 80% of Twitter’s regular users, caught wind of the hashtag and turned it into a big story over the weekend. A debate ensued, phrases like “out of context” and “140 characters” were thrown around, and Colbert responded in his Monday show.
So here we are.
I’ve aired my grievances with my generation’s love affair with irony here a few weeks ago. In short: irony allows you to enjoy, participate in, or reinforce something (usually distasteful or embarrassing) while also allowing you to distance yourself from it. It’s like saying you “hate-watched” the Twilight movies. All five of them. Multiple times. Here’s your reality check: the only people you were fooling were other closeted Twi-hards.
In the controversial segment, Colbert satirically employed racist language in an over-the-top way in order to ridicule an ostensibly racist person. But the fact remains that he was still using racist language. We accept that Colbert isn’t really racist (at least not overtly) but was just employing racial epithets as satire against genuine racists. It’s the kind of “edgy” humor that young white liberals totally heart (yeah, that’s what those racists sound like!) and assume isn’t offensive because it doesn’t “punch down” at its target.
And to be fair, Colbert is a smart enough comic to be able to pull off this delicate style of humor. But maybe, for a lot of Asian Americans, the stereotypes and epithets that jokes like Colbert’s use as ammunition against “real racists” are actually saddening to hear, even if they’re not the “target.” I don’t know, and surely Asian-Americans have diverse opinions on the matter.
Feminist vlogger Anita Sarkeesian identified a similar tactic used by advertisers a few years ago and described it in her video on “Retro Sexism and Uber Ironic Advertising.” It works like this: say something outrageous, but with a nudge and a wink to ensure anybody who might be offended that you don’t really mean it and that we’re all – performer and audience – on the same page. It’s also the basis of the 80% of Family Guy gags that aren’t pandering regurgitations of establishment-left politics. “Can you BELIEVE Peter Griffin just plainly stated a racist stereotype as though it wasn’t controversial?” Yes, and…? Oh, that is the joke?
If you’re still unclear: It’s like when you jokingly tell your girlfriend that when you’re married, she’ll have to raise eight babies and make you bacon sandwiches all day. You know she knows you’re just joking, you think she thinks you’re funny, and I’m telling you there’s a good chance she thinks you’re annoying.
Like any comedian, Stephen Colbert is bound to have hits and misses. Colbert is a fantastic satirist—he (and other satirists) shouldn’t be barred by social convention from using discomforting language. At the same time, it takes a small-minded commentator to not see that racially-loaded, off-color language can deal collateral damage to people other than the intended “target.”
In situations like these, it’s common for fans to praise the “brave” comic who stands by his joke and refuses to apologize. This strikes me as a bastardization of the concept—I do not think that word means what you think it means. A brave comedian is somebody who’s willing to have his mind changed, or at least opened to the experiences of other people.