TIME Race

The Tin Ear of the #CancelColbert Brigades

A key part of humans getting past, getting over, conquering, leaving behind, is minimization. And a key way to minimize something is to ridicule it.

So now Stephen Colbert is a racist for making fun of a racist, and it’s supposed to be a sign of higher reasoning to understand that.

Just what moral catastrophe are we holding off in pretending that making fun of racists is as racist as racism itself?His sin was in the course of ridiculing Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who has refused to change the regrettable name of the team. Colbert hearkened back to a skit where his “character” didn’t understand why his caricatured depiction of a Chinese person named “Ching Chong Ding Dong” was racist, and followed it up with a mock tweet “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

And quickly a certain Suey Park began a hashtag campaign to have Colbert pulled off of the air for “racism” — even though Colbert was mocking racism as backwards, not exhibiting it.

Some have said that the sin was the tweet’s placement outside of the context of the old skit, but that’s bending over backwards. The tweet alone is clearly meant as humorous — and it was. Except to a certain contingent who have decided that when it comes to racism, even ridiculing it is — wait for it — racist.

This perspective is offered up as a kind of higher wisdom. But too often it seems more like willful backwardness.

It’s a debate that pops up regularly. Remember the New Yorker cover in 2008 depicting the Obamas in Black Panther garb doing a fist bump, mocking the conservative pundits who had seen the Obamas do such a bump as a passing gesture of celebration and read it as evidence that Obama was a secret terrorist?

Good-thinking readers nationwide assailed that cover as, itself, “racist.” The idea would seem to be that bigotry can’t be deemed ridiculous. As such, layered humor — such as an extended in-joke where we assume we all consider the racism being depicted as ridiculous — is off-limits.

That may seem to make a certain sense. We don’t want to seem like we are trivializing something so hurtful. But this can only hold gracefully for so long. A key part of humans getting past, getting over, conquering, leaving behind, is minimization. And a key way to minimize something is to ridicule it. This is why this kind of joke about racism has become so common over the past few decades. It is a symptom of a society slowly but surely getting past the ways of the old days.

Few misunderstand this when we see it in the past, such as in cartoons depicting Hitler as a shrieking moron. Few misunderstand this when aimed at single figures considered menaces (think of South Park’s depiction of Saddam Hussein as a hopping, squeaky-voiced miniature). Few misunderstand this when aimed at white people in general. Note the complaint “That’s so white!” now regularly leveled by whites themselves, or do a quick web search to see the popularity among a certain writerly set of the wryly dismissive term “unfettered whiteness.”

But somehow, when it comes to the specific figure of the racist, we are supposed to suspend this natural tendency to ridicule that which we despise. Instead we are to shake our heads and surmise that the prevalence of jokes like these is just “racism” itself “in a new guise.”

But maintaining this view requires a mental gymnastics that will never be mastered by as many people as we might prefer. The jokes will keep coming, because people will continue being smart persons denigrating that which they look down upon, and racism will be included. We are asking Americans to pretend instead that in the particular case of making fun of racists, layered humor — i.e. wit — isn’t funny.

And that’s where we end up replacing backwardness with backwardness. We’re asking thinking Americans to dumb themselves down. When artists started painting with perspective, it took viewers some effort to comprehend it at first. People in Beethoven’s day heard much of his later work as noise. And a medieval person presented with that New Yorker cover would readily have supposed that the intended statement actually was “Michelle and Barack Obama are terrorists.”

But we’re supposed to be moderns. It’s time to ask: Just what moral catastrophe are we holding off in pretending that making fun of racists is as racist as racism itself? Anyone who read Colbert’s tweet as racist in any serious way either 1) has a strangely tin ear to how humor works, 2) would be better off spelling out just what society will gain from the willful humorlessness they are espousing, or 3) is exhibiting something one might title Progressive Puritanism.

At a bar’s stand-up open mike night in 1984, I recall a white college student getting up on stage and telling a joke to a room she assumed was all white (I was in the corner in the shadows): “What do you call 100,000 black people at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”

Now, that was racist. So, we must ask whether any of us really think that word “racist” really applies to Stephen Colbert’s depicting a character tweeting “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Progress happens. Preaching deafness to nuance is no way to keep it going.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser