I've spent most of my life loving satire and hating people who don't understand it. It was that love and hate that inspired me to write two prior columns about wrongly attacked satirists. But I'm pulling back on my animosity these days, especially because it has become increasingly clear that the percentage of humanity that actually appreciates satire is incredibly small. For many, it's like being color-blind. They just can't do it.
For example, some people can't see that this is a "42," or that I'm joking about that.
How hard is satire? Well, sometimes even people in the business of satire get it wrong. Respected publications miss the point all the time. It happened in the cases below, and it's even happened to me to a minor extent with my new novel, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, which in part satirizes bad online behavior. While I got more lovely reviews than I ever hoped for, a few accused me of justifying the behavior I was satirizing. While most understand that you can't critique boorish chat room talk without using the language of Internet trolls, some people are simply unable to hear "bad" words in any form or context. And they get angry.
And if you make satirists go away, then there's no proof of how wrong you were about their work.
And that's what's been on my mind recently as I examined three people in comedy who were attacked in the last year or so. As I studied the backlash, I realized something: Very often, people's problem with satire has nothing to do with a lack of brains or humor -- it's a lack of faith. They have either no faith that the artist is saying something less than horrible or no faith in humanity to hear ironic words and still appreciate the true message. Let's take a look at three people who might have escaped criticism if we just had a little more of that kind of faith.
#3. Stephen Colbert Gets Attacked by a Hashtag Activist Who's Wrong About Everything
Although Stephen Colbert will get to be himself when he takes over for David Letterman at the end of the year, for close to a decade he has made a career portraying someone else: a man who looks just like Stephen Colbert and shares his name, but who is not the "real" Stephen Colbert. With a fairly progressive ideology, Colbert routinely deconstructs and parodies conservative talking points while pretending to fully embrace them. Everyone with even a passing knowledge of his show understands that his words cannot be taken literally. Instead, in the classic satiric tradition, he espouses the beliefs he's attacking to show their flaws. Most people get it by now.
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And if they don't, they think he's stealing Bill O'Reilly's thunder.
A couple of weeks ago, Colbert was doing a story designed to criticize Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's refusal to change his team's offensive name. In a pathetic PR move, Snyder offered to found "The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation." Accordingly, Colbert pretended to support the idea. He referenced a deliberately racist character used on the show years earlier named Ching Chong Ding Dong and claimed he would open the "Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." If you watch the story in context, it's clear what's going on.
Then someone at the Comedy Central feed tweeted about the faux organization, but without a link: "I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." I should point out that, even on its own, the name of the foundation should give people the hint that it's not to be taken seriously. It does stand on its own as inherently ironic, and I hope that tweeter didn't have too much hell to pay. But in any event, enter hashtag activist Suey Park. She started a #CancelColbert hashtag that really started trending and got the news media's attention about this affront to the Asian community.
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"Ooh, wrongheaded outrage? Maybe we can take a break from reporting about that plane!"
Where's the Lack of Faith?
Park claims to be a comic herself, and you'd guess she'd know better, but she doesn't. Why? Well, I would encourage you to read this interview with her. In it, she describes how she "saw the hashtag as a way to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism." I read the interview several times, reading all the poorly chosen, unconvincing words. And maybe I'm wrong, but, quite simply, despite the loads of verbiage, I'm pretty sure Park simply feels that there are certain no-no words, bad words that can never be used to prove any point or be justified by any context.
I reject that out of hand, as should anyone with an active mind. Park's lack of faith is not with Colbert, of whom she claims to be a fan, but the rest of society. She does not believe people can hear uncomfortable or provocative jokes in any context that would justify their use without adding fuel to the fire of racism.
And that's really too bad, because satire as a form of social change is most effective when it raises a listener to a point of discomfort. There's a reason Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is held up as a pinnacle of satire. It's because he found a way to mock both indifference to the poor and wrong-headed social programs by suggesting that the babies of the afflicted class be sold and eaten. I believe in that kind of satire. Stephen Colbert believes in that kind of satire, although he only touched upon that lightly in his own defense:
Colbert defended himself mostly by relying on a technical argument -- specifically that a blogger for Comedy Central, unaffiliated with him or his show, tweeted something out of context. Maybe he knew he was in talks for Letterman's old job and there was no point in making more of this than others already had. And that's all true, but it's also true that Park did not care about the context. She derided the entire bit, having no faith that those who could appreciate a satirical message in support of Native Americans could have the same capacity to want equality for all minorities.
#2. Andy Levy Gets Mocked for Outrage He Was Feigning
Andy Levy is most known for his thriving Twitter account, and for being the most reliable source of humor on the Fox show Red Eye. Unfortunately, the Andy Levy example I'm going to use isn't his finest work. If you want to see Levy being funny, you can follow his Twitter or watch him tool on Chris Brown before everyone got in on the act.
The only people to give Levy a hard time for that bit were Chris Brown fans, and I'm sure he wasn't too concerned. It was another form of abuse that he took more personally, and it dovetails beautifully with our last entry. Indeed, let's let Levy provide the segue with this tweet about Colbert's Ching Chong debacle:
Levy is referring to what he felt was Colbert's previous unfair attack of him. Months ago, a photo surfaced of President Obama putting his foot on the Oval Office desk, and some horrible people like Matt Drudge decided to express their outrage. Colbert mocked this outrage, but also included a clip of Levy on Red Eye as one of the people he was mocking. The problem is, Levy was also mocking the outrage.
Where's the Lack of Faith?
As expressed above, this is hardly Levy's craftiest piece of satire. He and host Greg Gutfeld were merely commenting sarcastically on something they found absurd. Your only clue that they're joking is their tone of voice and, of course, that only a complete ass would be outraged. Except complicating matters is that Red Eye is on Fox News, a network that has absolutely run absurd stories of ridiculous right-wing outrage. This is a network that claimed The Muppets was a piece of Hollywood propaganda designed to brainwash children into hating capitalism and America. Compared to that, outrage over where the president puts his feet actually seems less absurd.
But that is not Andy Levy's fault. He reacted to a ridiculous story with sarcastic derision and was taken seriously by The Colbert Report, which lacked faith in Levy. They could not accept that the voice of a show on Fox News could break the lockstep of the Fox News agenda, and in this case they sold Levy short. He was pissed, and I don't blame him.
I'm also sympathetic to the Colbert writers, however, as I did the exact same thing in the worst episode of my Hate by Numbers video series (which I won't link here, because I'm embarrassed and a coward, and I linked a better one above about that Muppets story). Long story short, I used a clip of Red Eye commenting on a news story that Obama's tanning tax was racist toward whites because black people don't go to tanning salons. Like Colbert, I saw Gutfeld sarcastically repeating a far-right talking point and took him at face value. I was wrong, but Fox News casts a long shadow, and it has done a good job of destroying many people's faith in any semblance of equity, despite the channel's tagline. It's unfortunate and unfair, however, that that destroyed faith can lead to an unwarranted attack on those who resist the blind parroting of Republican talking points.