Late last week, Stephen Colbert had a bit mocking Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington professional football team (you know, the one with a racial slur for a team name). As you may have heard, Snyder has established the Original Americans Foundation, one of the most blatant PR moves in history, in which he's supplied some coats and the portion of the cost of one backhoe, to a few tribal groups in order to try to paper over the fact his team is named a racial slur (note: the charity is not named the Redskins Foundation, almost as if Snyder understands it's not a word one should be using).
In his patented way, Colbert mocked this by doing his own faux-racist schtick, claiming to start the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever (go watch the clip for why this makes sense in context -- in fact, the context is extremely, extremely important).
The bit was classic Colbert -- taking a ridiculous position and pushing it only slightly further to demonstrate how incredibly stupid that position is. Having watched the clip as it first aired, it could not have been more obvious the butt of the joke was Snyder and his hypocritical cashing in on a racist slur while trying to buy his way out of it. It was similarly obvious that Asian people were not being made fun of, but merely serving as a contrast to show how we wouldn't accept Snyder's racist shenanigans with any other ethnic group (why we accept it against natives is an entirely different post).
The problem came when the show's official twitter feed (not run by Colbert or anyone working on the show) tweeted out the name of the satirical foundation completely out of context. And out of context, it does seem pretty damn offensive. This led noted twitter activist Suey Park to call for the cancellation of the Colbert Report and made the hashtag #cancelcolbert trend.
And that, as this excellent commentary notes, is when the shit hit the fan. Especially as a number of people who had no idea of the context of the joke hopped on the bandwagon.
And here's where things get thorny for me. I'm very much of the school that holds it's condescending and basically an asshole move to tell someone they have no right to be offended by something (especially when you add the layer of race in, as a white dude I have no place telling a person of color something isn't racist and they should't be offended by it). This is both because a) emotions themselves are never "wrong," it's how you react to them, but more importantly 2) the thornier issues of status and privilege and all that.
Though while I'm never comfortable telling someone they should not be offended, I also have a problem with the blanket assumption that one's offense trumps all else (again, I'm typically on board with that position, just not as an absolute). Because this situation reminds me a great deal of a time I was googling around to see if there were any fun, short readings from popular media about the police subculture for a class I was teaching. There ended up being a link for a policeone message board, which are always humorous, so I decided to check it out (policeone is a news and quasi-social media site for law enforcement).
Anyway, someone had posted a message asking if anyone on there had good info on the police subculture for a continuing ed course they were taking. Another poster took extreme offense to this, writing something to the effect of "How dare you say the police are a subculture? We're not sub anything! Why don't you take your hatred of law enforcement elsewhere!"
So obviously that person was offended, but this starts to veer into the territory where they were empirically wrong to be offended. Because for the two of you out there who don't know the term, "subculture" is not a term that implies any judgement (positive or negative). It simply refers to a smaller culture that exists within a larger culture. Not only does the "sub" mean "smaller than" not "lesser than," but it's also a pretty widespread term that any American adult should have heard of and know. So while we may not be able to say that person was wrong to be offended, it's also pretty clear that person was in the wrong -- not only was no offensive thing actually written, but even a cursory google search for the meaning of the term would have let that person know what they were interpreting as offensive was actually a completely value-free term applied to widely disparate groups.
Where it gets tricky is that exact last point -- what responsibility does the offended party have? To bring it back to the Colbert example (which is admittedly much thornier than someone not knowing what the word subculture means), Park mentioned in her initial tweet that she was a fan of Colbert. Which means she has to be aware that his whole schtick is playing a clueless right-wing extremist in the mold of the Limbaughs and O'Reillys of the world. So seeing that (admittedly much more offensive out of context) tweet, she could have easily surmised that rather than Colbert suddenly turning unapologetically racist, maybe there was some context to what was going on (as if the "or whatever" at the end of it didn't indicate this was satire). And if you actually do watch the clip in context, it was so clear the butt of the joke is Snyder and the racism of the team name that they may as well have been running a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen reading "WARNING: this is satire. Obviously no one here believes these derogatory stereotypes of Asians. They are being deployed to illustrate how unacceptable racism against Natives is." But obviously Park (nor the many others making the hashtag trend) bothered to check in on that context. Context which completely changes the joke.
But this just brings us back to the beginning and how hard these things are to weigh -- is it me being a clueless white guy saying "no, person of color, you don't get to be offended by what the white guy said," or is it an example of someone almost willfully ignoring the context of what was said, taking offense at something clearly not doing what they claim it to be (that is, mocking Asian people)? Or can it be both?
To quote the authors of the commentary linked to above (who, like Park, both happen to be Americans of Korean descent), Park's reading of this "flattens out all meaning and pretends, in effect, that there is no
ironic distance between Jonathan Swift's satire and actual cannibalism." I like that comparison quite a bit -- obviously Swift was not at all advocating the eating of Irish babies. But not being Irish myself, were I to happen upon an Irish person who found Swift incredibly offensive for suggesting such a ghastly act, would/could/should I point out it really seems they're really misinterpreting the story?