Stephen Colbert's Joke, the Limitations of Twitter, and Society's Inability to Understand Satire

Much worse than the problems inherent in Twitter use, to me, is what this controversy demonstrates about many people's inability to digest satire and think critically about what it is saying.
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Stephen Colbert, host of the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, has found himself under heavy criticism today because of a joke he made on his show last night that was then sent out under a Twitter handle maintained by Comedy Central. The resulting uproar tells us plenty about both the limitations of social media as well as the disappointing inability on the part of far too many people to understand satire and appreciate the value it brings to social discourse.

For those unfamiliar with this issue, Colbert criticized Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on his show, addressing a now-familiar controversy: the "Redskins" moniker for Washington, D.C.'s National Football League team. Whether or not one finds the team name offensive, what matters here is that Colbert lampooned Snyder's recent decision to form a foundation to benefit Native Americans, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Believing this move to be less than sincere on the part of Snyder, Colbert offered the following comments on his show:

Folks, this move by Dan Snyder inspires me, because my show has frequently come under attack for having a so-called offensive mascot, my beloved character Ching Chong Ding Dong. ...

Offensive or not -- NOT -- Ching Chong is part of the unique heritage of the Colbert Nation that cannot change. But I'm willing to show the Asian community that I care by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. ... I owe all this sensitivity to Redskins owner Dan Snyder. So Asians, send your thank-you letters to him, not me.

If one is at all familiar with Colbert's sharply satirical brand of humor and with the way The Colbert Report works as a comedy show, one would reasonably understand his comments to be mocking Snyder's public gesture. Certainly, one would not jump to the conclusion that Colbert is racist, has negative views toward Asian-Americans, or is advocating the same. The controversy came from what followed, however. A Twitter handle maintained by Comedy Central (@ColbertReport) sent out the following message:

I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.

This resulted in a Twitter firestorm in which people using the hashtag #CancelColbert heavily criticized the tweet sent out quoting his show. A sampling of some of these responses:

There is a line between satire & offense that @StephenatHome cannot dance over. He tramples it. For transphobia& racism, #cancelcolbert

You think that Colbert's satire is OK? Um, no. It's disgusting & devalues the lives of Asian & trans folks. #cancelcolbert

When your "satire" targets oppressed groups and not the oppressors, it's no longer satire, it's oppressive and dangerous. #CancelColbert

Now, as an initial matter, note that Colbert himself did not send out the tweet in question. It is also relevant to point out here that a single tweet, limited to 140 characters, probably could not have captured the context in which Colbert offered the comments on his show; certainly, it could not have conveyed his mocking of Snyder's actions and viewpoint. One can chalk this up as a limitation of Twitter -- it does not always allow one to fully explain oneself, and therefore makes one's speech prone to misinterpretation or an unfair reading. However, perhaps those put off by the tweet could have considered the source of the statement, in that Colbert is a well-known satirist and comedian.

Instead, the individuals quoted above, and many others, flew off the handle (no pun intended), assumed the worst about the comment, and created a social media firestorm. This, too, may be fairly said to be a limitation of Twitter; its very nature makes its use prone to overreactions and jumping to conclusions. Before taking a moment to think and reflect, seemingly, these social media users had already handed in their verdict. They weren't simply criticizing the speech in question, either -- they were calling for the cancellation of Colbert's show.

Much worse than the problems inherent in Twitter use, to me, is what this controversy demonstrates about many people's inability to digest satire and think critically about what it is saying. To cite one of the responses quoted above, since when has there been "a line between satire [and] offense"? Should we consider the fact that satire has historically been used precisely to offend, in order to make a larger point and lead the listener to think critically about some element of the subject of the satire? Consider the Supreme Court's famous decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), in which the Court held that the First Amendment protected a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. I would love to see someone try to explain to the Justices who handed down that decision that there exists a line separating satire from offense.

Further, if we are going to entertain the idea that Colbert's comment is somehow "dangerous," I would submit that the inability to think critically and distinguish between satire and something that is truly "oppressive" is extremely dangerous -- at least, as far as our future as a nation and a free society is concerned.

The reason this controversy hits home for me is that at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), we have seen too many examples of university students and faculty members facing censorship or disciplinary action for engaging in protected satire and parody. At Syracuse University, a law student faced a chilling, months-long investigation over his alleged role in an anonymous, satirical blog poking fun at life in law school, despite the fact that the blog clearly marked itself as not conveying real news, and the fact that life in law school provides plenty of fodder for such humor. At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a professor who found his office door posting taken down put up a second poster satirizing the university's heavy-handed action in hilarious fashion, only to see the university double down on its censorship. The university's absurd response even included calling in the "threat assessment team" -- again, all over a poster on the professor's office door.

Many more campus episodes like these can be found on FIRE's website. What's more, even anti-racist speech can get you in trouble at a university. Just ask Professor Donald Hindley at Brandeis University, who, despite nearly 50 years of teaching excellence at Brandeis, was found guilty of racial harassment for using the term "wetbacks" in his Latin American Politics class -- in order to criticize use of that term. Evidently, it did not occur to the Brandeis administration that it is not easy to discuss or critique use of a word without specifying that word. At least Professor Hindley had uttered something; poor Keith John Sampson, a student-employee at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), found himself charged with, and found guilty of, racial harassment for silently reading a book by himself during his work breaks. His crime? The book happened to be about the Ku Klux Klan -- as in, it was anti-Klan and celebrated the Klan's historical defeat. No matter to the university, which took it upon itself to declare the entire topic abhorrent and off limits.

Episodes like these (and Colbert's) contribute to what FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has dubbed the phenomenon of "unlearning liberty," wherein students and others have internalized the lessons of censorship and intolerance toward views different from their own, and attempt to silence viewpoints they do not share. Sadly, as Greg points out in his book, this phenomenon is getting worse and worse, both on college campuses and in society at large, and it has the potential to rob us of a great deal of necessary discourse and dialogue. Ultimately, if Stephen Colbert cannot make jokes, professors cannot discuss controversial issues, and students cannot even read books in public, it won't be long before everyone has to suffer through their 15 minutes of manufactured shame.

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