Food For Thought: #CancelColbert Meets “The Culture of Shut Up”
While I was planning on writing an article about CSI and other forensic crime dramas this month, something else caught my attention that I find to be a more pressing issue at the moment. By now, you’re all familiar with Suey Park, the 23-year old activist who launched the somewhat baffling #CancelColbert campaign, which was created in reaction to a joke Stephen Colbert made about Redskins owner Dan Snyder. Colbert ran a segment on The Colbert Report that made fun of Snyder’s choice to create the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation after receiving backlash for refusing to change the name of his football team:
After the segment ran, Comedy Central posted a tweet with Colbert’s joke, albeit without the context that would have indicated it was lampooning Snyder and the Redskins:
That is where #CancelColbert comes into play; while Colbert’s joke made sense when it was performed on The Colbert Report, it is understandable how people might get offended by Comedy Central’s tweet if they didn’t understand the original context of the joke. Needless to say, #CancelColbert caught on like wildfire, and its creator became a media sensation; Suey Park’s story was picked up by Time Magazine numerous times, and major news networks discussed the momentum behind #CancelColbert. However, despite the fact that Suey Park’s hashtag could have encouraged intelligent discussion about race relations and the problems with white privilege, the whole thing degenerated into something nasty and unpleasant; while Suey Park makes some legitimate points, she goes about addressing these issues in all the wrong ways.
The original #CancelColbert tweets
The first typical indication that the #CancelColbert movement turned into a fiasco is that there was an onslaught of people who tried to silence Suey Park with abusive messages such as this:
Even without the deleted racial slur, this is pretty bad.
We have all seen these types of backlashes before; the Internet is infamous for people using threats to silence individuals they dislike. Of course, this isn’t the only reason why #CancelColbert ended up being a disaster; where she could have taken the high road and tried to press her cause despite the backlash, Park instead acted just like her detractors. Throughout her campaign, what could have been a good opportunity to discuss the problem of white privilege or racial humor instead flared up into many off-putting moments where Park tried to shut down opinions she disagreed with, or flat-out dismissed people’s arguments because of their race. To provide an example, there was that one time she said gay people don’t deserve protection if they’re white:
Because being gay has never been looked down upon or criminaliz- oh wait.
And then, of course, there was Suey Park’s infamous Salon interview where she asserted that understanding the context of Colbert’s tweet was unimportant. To her, Colbert making an off-color joke is as much context as she needed to call for the cancellation of the Colbert Report.
The #CancelColbert controversy spun out of control, and any meaningful opportunity to stay true to the original intent of the tweet was lost. Near the center of the maelstrom of awkwardness was an interview that was conducted between Ms. Park and Huffington Post. If this interview serves any purpose, it acts as the perfect illustration for what happens when Suey Park and her dissenters butt heads:
By the end of that interview, both sides of the debate belittle each other, take their toys, and go home. What results is a pointless fight where nothing meaningful is achieved. For those at work who can’t watch the above interview, Joshua Zepp of HuffPo immediately got defensive, and tried to shut Suey Park down by calling her ideas stupid. On the other side of the coin, Park acted just as defensively as Zepp when she tried to shut him down by saying that, as a white man, he couldn’t possibly understand her cause; she doesn’t have to “enact the labor” to explain anything to him.1
By now, you may be wondering why this article is discussing something the world now considers very old news. The reason for this is because many commentators believe that Suey Park and #CancelColbert act as an appropriate cautionary tale, warning us about the dangers of shouting down people we disagree with. For example, this article discusses #CancelColbert, and the perils of making racial insensitivity a firing offense in light of our multiracial and multicultural society.
Unfortunately, the firestorm surrounding Suey Park is just one of numerous instances where people on the Internet irrationally try to purge dissenters instead of engaging in rational debates. I found an article recently on the Atlantic called “The Culture of Shut Up” where the author Jon Lovett (not to be confused with the actor Jon Lovitz) made the alarming claim that people of this day and age would much rather try to censor each other instead of understanding and accepting that everybody shares diverse points of view. So far, it may be simple to see how we can apply this reasoning to what happened with #CancelColbert. However, Lovett went further in writing that the Internet’s rise in intolerance has a chilling effect on free speech, where people are afraid to freely speak their minds and go outside their comfort zone to learn new things – instead, we would much rather live in a bubble where we can surround ourselves with only other people who share the exact same world-views.
[N]o matter how noble the intent, it’s a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other. And, ultimately, the cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott, will leave us with fewer and fewer people talking more and more about less and less.
– John Lovett, The Culture of Shut Up
To briefly touch on Lovett’s discussion of the First Amendment, this Constitutional value as a concept speaks to the ideal of being able to express almost any idea we desire, allowing us to nurture intelligent discussion about difficult subjects and growing as a society. Of course, that is not to say that we can say anything we please without consequences; for example, the NBA took action against Donald Sterling after his racist tirade by banning him from the league for life, and fining him $2.5 M.2 We need to understand that this freedom is not absolute, and we are going to be held accountable for what we say. With that said, there is a huge difference between being held accountable for saying terrible things, and being censored if somebody even mildly disagrees with you. If people are okay with censoring each other, then what happens is that we are less willing to discuss hard or sensitive issues out of fear of being attacked or silenced.
With that in mind, I can’t help but feel that Mr. Lovett’s assessment is 100% accurate, especially when you consider the amount of intolerance that both sides in the #CancelColbert controversy displayed. It was a strange feeling seeing everybody involved trying to silence opposition using social justice rhetoric. Having written this article on feminism and Call of Duty, and having been involved in offline activist efforts, I am very familiar with the language social justice warriors use. With that said, when I see them calling people they disagree with misogynists or racists, I hang my head in shame. Suey Park has done the same thing, even going so far as to call other Asian-Americans “asians in yellowface” for disagreeing with her.
So what is causing this problem? Why are people so willing to shut themselves into a safety bubble where they are only surrounded by people they agree with, and why do they feel compelled to silence dissenters who express ideas they don’t like? Nobody knows for sure, but one possible explanation could be the growing trend in people learning to think less critically. One article I read recently, entitled “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me,” provided a harsh critique against students for their lack of tolerance when it comes to ideas that they disagree with. The author, Stephen L. Carter, discussed the growing trend in students and faculty members “disinviting” speakers from graduation ceremonies, mainly because these speakers were conservatives or belonged to organizations that the students hated. For example, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was “disinvited” from speaking at Rutgers University because of her position in the Bush Administration; the protestors cited the war in Iraq, and the acts of torture committed by the CIA, as the primary reasons for their refusal to let her speak.
The First Amendment applies to everyone, even these guys.
A reason in itself for this type of intolerance may derive from the increasing acceptance of university students preventing themselves from being exposed to ideas that may make them uncomfortable. This is why student governments in more and more universities are calling for “trigger warnings” on academic syllabi, despite some professors and academics believing that this kind of attitude is counter-productive to learning to think critically:
Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives . . . It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.
“Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” – Jennifer Medina, The New York Times.
In a respect, this issue might shed some light on Suey Park’s approach to addressing racial issues, as she is unwilling to critically think about the holes in her argument. Instead, she attempts to shut out dissenting opinions because they make her uncomfortable and angry. The problem with this is that we need to be exposed to ideas we find unpleasant, as that is what motivates us to learn and grow as people. If we can accept that unpleasant or unpopular opinions exist, then we can broaden our worldview and start a dialogue with the opposing side in hopes of achieving something resembling progress. If we take on Suey Park’s approach and shut out everything that might make us squirm, then we achieve nothing.
A role model in how not to think.
At the end of the day, #CancelColbert and the woman behind it represents a bizarre and worrisome trend in our culture. Whether we can do something to address this issue is yet to be seen, but what the main takeaway from this discussion can be summarized as such: even if there are people whose opinions make your blood boil because they oppose your fundamental beliefs, that doesn’t mean that their opinions should be shut down and silenced. Certainly, as I mentioned before, free speech comes with an understanding that we can be held accountable for what we say. With that said, everybody has an opinion on something, and they are not all going to be the same. Suey Park reacted to other people’s opinions by trying to silence them entirely, and the #CancelColbert campaign resulted in a firestorm where nothing got accomplished (except make Park a celebrity overnight). If we can accept that diverse beliefs exist (no matter how repugnant), and if we live up to the expectations set by the First Amendment, then we can take steps forward as a society to grow if we can start dialogues and begin to expand our worldviews. Only then can we escape from damaging cultural trends like those encountered in #CancelColbert.
1: This article is not attempting to tone-police Suey Park or anyone else; instead, what this article is trying to promote is a healthier discussion on racial issues instead of acting in a way that discourages people from freely discussing tough issues out of fear of being silenced and attacked.
2: This does not violate Sterling’s First Amendment rights because the NBA is a private corporation; the 1st Amendment only prevents the government from suppressing people’s rights to free speech.