The “#CancelColbert” mini-movement may finally be it.
After years of steamrolling toward this apparently inevitable conclusion, we may at last have reached the point wherein the universe of the offended folds in on itself. We’ve found our way to “snake eating its own tail” territory now.
It was just a matter of time, really.
In case you missed it, here are the basics. Taking issue with Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s effort to create a foundation addressing Native American issues, Colbert (tongue-in-cheek) “praised” Snyder. Colbert went on to say that he was setting up a foundation of his own to honor Asian-Americans after some were offended by an Asian character of his (dating to 2005).
The name of the foundation? “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
The idea behind the joke is obvious, spawning from the position of anti-Redskins critics that Dan Snyder has only nefarious, insensitive motives behind his latest move. But let’s table that topic for now.
What happened in the wake of the Colbert bit (or, more properly, a tweet from the show that included the name of the “foundation”) was the rise of the #CancelColbert hashtag, which has been a top trending topic on Twitter for over 12 hours as of this writing.
The responses have fallen into a few categories, both from the Left and the Right. Those on the Left have descended into a Twitter civil war, or at least a skirmish. One side is quoting chapter and verse from their sociological playbook, saying that “racism” to make a point about racism is still evil, especially when it comes from someone endowed with “white privilege.”
Other liberals, themselves huge Colbert fans, take issue with the first group. Their argument is that Colbert is “one of us,” and is actually using the joke to make a point about why something truly offensive should be eradicated from our society. Attacking Colbert is seen as a form of friendly fire.
A variation on this theme is that the Colbert Report shouldn’t go anywhere, but Fox News (obviously also super-offensive) should disappear. This sentiment is usually phrased in the form of “What Colbert said was a joke, but Fox News is genuinely racist every day! Why are they still around?!?,” or words to that effect. Still another sub-group consists of those saying, “Oh, this is a big deal now because Colbert offended Asians, but, when he offends [e.g.] black people, you’re silent?,” usually accompanied by the apparent shaking of heads.
Meanwhile, hypocrites (or disingenuous opportunists) on the Right have seen an opening to bash their longtime tormentor Colbert. Forming an unwitting alliance with one camp on the Left, these folks have made the argument that Colbert should be condemned and possibly be fired because he was so offensive. This is “another example” of how the Left are the “real racists.” And so on. See also: Pouncing on Alec Baldwin.
As a general rule, don’t believe these people, especially if they’re months removed from writing columns defending Phil Robertson.
The specific pickle in which we find ourselves is that many people at either end of the political spectrum have now broadly accepted the premise that offensiveness alone is grounds for firing someone. This is true even if the person is an entertainer, and, over and above that, even if the person is specifically using offensive speech to make a point.
This is a premise born of narcissism.
It is one thing to say, “I don’t like X.” It is quite another to say that, “Because I don’t like X, or because I think X is bad for our culture, it should cease to be.”
To believe that requires two things: A wildly inflated sense of how uniquely special and important one is, and, perhaps even more crucially, a firm commitment to the idea that feelings are more important than self-expression that may run afoul of those feelings.
I reject both of those notions.
If something offends you, stop consuming it. Don’t like Colbert? Change the channel. Think “Redskins” is racist? Don’t buy the t-shirt. A comic makes jokes that hurt your feelings? Avoid the stand-up club.
But just understand that the freedom to say, sing, draw, display, or otherwise use words, images, and ideas that may offend someone is far more important than your feelings—at least in an open society that values broad notions of free expression.
Being offended entitles someone to exactly nothing. Or, I should say, you are entitled to exactly the same things you would be if you were not offended: The opportunity to criticize, the opportunity to show your support elsewhere, the opportunity to create your own speech that’s in line with your values.
When that is done, I’m happy to discuss and debate intellectually. We can talk about whether there can be such a thing as free speech without offensive speech. We can talk about different conceptions of the value of expression in various cultures. We can talk about humor and irony and how emotional triggers intersect with those concepts.
But I am now fatigued. I’m fatigued from a decade of arguing on behalf of free speech, both in a specific legal context (which doesn’t apply in today’s example, obviously) and in a broader, cultural setting.
So, when someone’s response to hearing speech that offends them (or, more realistically, reading second-hand about it on an ideological news aggregation website they visit) is to say, “This speaker should lose his job and/or the vehicle for this kind of hurtful speech should be stricken from our society,” my reply today is much more succinct, curt, and primitive:
Stephen Colbert is a comedian, and a brilliant one at that. He’s artfully making a point (one with which I happen not to agree, by the way!) in an over-the-top manner. And let’s not forget that he’s essentially playing a character.
I think his bit was funny. Someone else may not. Fine. If that’s you, then stop watching his show. Or don’t! Up to you!
I want to make something else very clear. I mentioned earlier the hypocrisy on the Right over this. But there’s hypocrisy across the board over such issues.
Here’s what I mean: Whenever someone makes the argument that “X is offensive, and should therefore go away,” what they actually mean is “X is offensive to the ideas that I think are important, and should therefore go away.”
If you ask someone who believes Colbert should be fired or who believes that “Washington Redskins” is hate speech, “What about items from pop culture that offend, for example, Evangelical Christians,” those concerns may very well be dismissed. You know, because mouth-breathing Bible-thumpers have crazy ideas that need not be respected. Only certain people who believe the “correct” ideas have standing to ask for removal of those who fail to show appropriate reverence for their sacred notions.
Here’s my take: I don’t like reality television. I think it’s usually insulting to my intelligence, and, moreover, I could probably make a pretty good argument that a lot of these shows either highlight the worst aspects of our culture, contribute to the decline of our society, or both.
My solution is incredibly simple and imminently satisfying: I don’t watch them.
If people want to watch, why should I let that bother me? I mean, unless I were an insane narcissist who wanted to control others, of course! Then that would make total sense.
The point is that we’ve now entered an age when some smart (or at least prominent) people are making these sorts of arguments. That’s a problem. Taking as a given that someone’s feelings being hurt—even just one person’s—is a legitimate ground for curtailing speech in the realm of pop culture is a troubling, dangerous path.
Furthermore, a generation attending speech-coded colleges after being raised to believe in the supreme value of self-esteem has now largely transformed into young adults who think that feelings trump all. This is the Twitter army that comes out in full force on days like this one.
Coupling this willing, pliable audience with a few cultural, journalistic, and political leaders who point them in a given direction and whisper “sic ’em” makes for a poisonous environment—one that’s hostile to any idea that is contrary to the approved orthodoxy of the time, whether conservative, liberal, religious, environmental, or otherwise. That’s the case even if that verboten idea ultimately comes from a place of agreement with the orthodoxy, as is the situation with Colbert.
As I said, this impulse is a human one, and isn’t limited to any particular ideology.
People want their sacred cows kept sacred while they dine on steak.
After several decades of momentum against that idea, I’m pondering whether modern technology’s ability to foster and facilitate activity by the pitchfork-and-torch crowd is causing us to regress. It definitely seems like the idea that offensive speech isn’t worth protecting (except in a very narrow, legal sense—if that) has overwhelmingly prevailed in elite circles.
Either way, I’m guessing Colbert’s next new episode will be among his highest-rated ever.
I know that, for the first time in a while, I’ll be watching.
Hail to the Redskins.