Satire, Power, Criticism, and Ideology

I’ve been sporadically following the hostility leveled at Suey Park on Twitter following her criticism of a racist tweet by The Colbert Report (Storify here). On the one hand, I find it depressing, if unsurprising, that people are so incensed by these critiques as to respond with language that is unequivocally threatening and violent. On the other, I think that the critiques, from Park and from other people of colour (women and feminists in particular), highlight a conversation about satire, humour, and power that needs to go deeper than “You didn’t get it” or the “Punching down/up” dichotomy. And on the whole, I think there is an ideological debate happening about how, and whether, racist language can be used to make points against racism, and what it means for satirists to adopt different voices in communicating multiple levels of meaning and intent.

I wrote a draft of this post yesterday afternoon, using lots of nice big academic speak, then realized that Park and Eunsong Kim made all the points I wanted to without the benefit of jargon and theory, so.

Refocusing here, one point I find worth considering is how different people were focusing on different types of context. Broadly speaking, I would say that people who became hostile towards #CancelColbert – generally speaking, white people, though occasionally some non-white men popped up on that side – emphasized a very narrow form of context. The relevant points in interpreting the tweet were the writers’ intent and the relationship to the segment that had aired on the show itself, where the topic of discussion was the recent absurd PR move by Dan Snyder, owner of the Washingont RacistSlurs. Park, Kim, and other supporters – predominantly, but not exclusively, women of colour feminists – oriented towards a broader context, bringing in points about the (literal, non-satirical) meaning of the anti-Asian mockery and slurs that were used to make a satirical point, and the underlying presumptions (which were made explicit by several commenters) about how Asian-Americans should have reacted to the joke. This latter point includes recognition of the broader context of Asian-American “model minority” stereotypes, and invokes the assumption that they are not like other, easily angered or overly sensitive groups.

As Park and Kim point out in that article, no one thought that the joke should be taken literally. But the narrow-context people suggest that the satirical intent not only essentially reverses the connotative implications of the racist language used, but paradoxically, also basically erases the ostensible topic of the utterance (Asians or Asian-Americans) from relevance entirely. The broad-context people recognize that intent, agree with the criticism of Snyder, but do not accept the complete erasure of the literal referents or their being used as rhetorical points (even rhetorical points against other examples of racism).

The narrow vs. broad context difference works in another way among people who responded to the critical voices by initially calling them stupid for failing to realize that the @ColbertReport twitter account is not managed by Stephen Colbert (and in fact, Colbert himself made this type of a point in a tweet from his own @StephenAtHome account that feigned ignorance about the very existence of the other account and its connection to his program and character). From the narrow context view here, the relevant point was that Park and her supporters were targeting and naming Colbert as the source of the tweet and the racist ideas. This discursive narrowing works to suggest that if people are wrong about these elements, they are both factually and morally wrong about everything. It also works to again erase the bigger picture, which in this case is that the conversation is not really about Colbert as an individual and his beliefs, but about the degree to which racism is supported and sustained on corporate media outlets, even and perhaps especially among “progressive” voices.

It’s not just that satire is particularly difficult to do well – it is – and it’s not just that the objects of satire/humour should be the powerful and not the powerless – Colbert’s target was Snyder. The interpretation of the original comment as “not racist” depends on a narrow ideology of context – and I have a suspicion that this difference extends well beyond this particular incident into a much larger conversation not about the definition of satire (we are, after all, not talking about anyone who is “not getting it” on the level of those who wind up on Literally Unbelievable) but about the ideological and social meaning of satire. And at this point, I do think it’s worth examining whether satire is possible or can be effective in a corporate media supported context, and coming from voices like Colbert’s and Stewart’s, which have now undeniably become a part of that establishment.


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