Delayed Reactions: #cancelcolbert or The Art of Taking Offence


I suppose I should start this particular post with the acknowledgment that what I’m preparing to write about is already irrelevant. As you may know, The Colbert Report is now technically canceled (though not because of this hash tag nonsense). However, despite the lack of currentness in the affair, I’d still like to have my turn at beating the dead horse.

In my defense I did heavily consider writing about this subject last week when it was all prominent and trendworth and shit. But I thought better of it. I, perhaps foolishly, decided that the benefit of time would afford me some space to actually think of something interesting to say on the subject, rather than the knee-jerk “Psht, that was stupid. Am I right?” which would have most likely been the jist of my argument had I attempted it closer to the event. What I have sacrificed in hip, hot, viral traffic, I hope I have made up for in insight. That’s the plan at any rate.

Basically, for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, a bit of out of context satire was leaped upon by some internet people resulting in this thing-> #cancelcolbert, becoming what they call a “trend”.

I don’t actually feel like the details are all that important. Colbert, himself, has already responded perfectly. And a good number of different writers have already dissected this particular case and thoroughly probed the subject of risky satire, somehow managing to do so way back when it was all still relevant. What interests me about the whole thing is this popular example of how the internet offence offensive can sometimes get out of hand.

My background is in Anthropology, so as far as bleeding heart liberals go, I’m around one of the bloodiest. It’s not that I want to declare myself a liberal in order to cushion myself from any backlash for what I’m about to say. But I do want to make it clear that I am someone who has devoted at least a portion of her life and intellectual energy to a science whose highest purpose is to seek to understand the human experience in all its vast complexity and infinite perspectives. Part of this pursuit requires that you be more than usually sensitive to structural elements of society which promote a post-colonial cultural hegemony, or less pretentiously, I spent most of my college years exploring the ways racism is ingrained into the way we think.

It’s difficult coming from this background, or really any sort of well-read progressive state of mind, and not being in a state of high alert towards the structural violence that is genuinely all around us all the time.  But there is a difference between being able to sniff out bigotry and declare in a loud and clear voice “THAT IS OFFENSIVE!” and being able to engage in reasonable debate which might actually be capable of dismantling these forces of evil.

To once again draw from my inspiration Stephen Fry, simply saying that you’re offended doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of very valid reasons in the world to be offended, but offence is neither and action or a solution. Offence, when it is given the sort of sociological right if way we tend to give it, does nothing to solve the problem causing the offence it just fosters a society of intellectual traffic jams.

The internet, as everyone is constantly saying, is full of ephemera that has power for an instant and then loses all meaning. I’m not totally sure I get hashtags, but I think they count as a good example of this. Along with that, internet activism has had its bright and shining moments, but has also at times been reduced to a weak noise maker. Sharable causes can be like mono on a newsfeed. The amount of energy it takes to simply pass it on is so much less than it takes to be informed. To use the Colbert example, if the majority of people who had retweeted that thing had really thought it through, that is done any research whatsoever, they would have most likely understood the satire. Even if they still thought the joke was in poor taste, in the greater context of Stephen Colbert’s career, canceling him over one joke would be more than a bit draconian to the reasonable observer. But it’s these sorts of draconian measures that always seem to be the preferred action, because poorly thought out motives tend to mix well with poorly thought out consequences.

The core principle we are missing, both when we are offensive and when we are offended, is understanding. Whether or not I like it, I have to exist on the same planet as Sean Hannity. But I get nothing from ending all interactions with people who agree with Sean Hannity. Notice that I said “I” get nothing from it. That’s exactly what I meant to say. Because yes, there are people in this world who believe awful things, people whose beliefs legitimize all sorts of terrible bigoted behaviors. But I don’t become a better person or make a better world by shutting them out. I don’t change anything, and I don’t add anything. I just shut down an avenue of communication and I limit my capacity to understand what motivates and perpetuates those behaviors I hate. It’s not that you’re ever going to change anyone’s mind, it’s that you can’t know your own mind if you’re not exploring assumption, both your own and other people’s.

It’s important to remember that even the people who do truly offensive and awful things all the time do so because they feel justified. The feel justified because the causes of racism, sexism, and homophobia in our society are complex and systematic. And combating them effectively means taking the time to unpack the subtle ways they are coded into our language and our assumptions. Saying “that’s offensive” can be the start, but if we don’t follow that up with, “Why is that offensive?” “What are the factors in our society which allow the people participating in this behavior to feel justified in their actions?” “What can I do to challenge this behavior in a way that sparks inquiry and debate rather than any internet flame war?”

Basically, and unfortunately for the ADD sufferers among us, doing anything of value when it comes to changing the world requires more thought and effort than a hashtag. Being critical does not mean simply searching for faults it means not being satisfied with the surface and questioning everything. If you’re offended by this post, okay, so what?


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