Intent vs. impact vs. content vs. context

Last Thursday, Stephen Colbert’s corporate Twitter account shared a questionable quote from the show. The 140 character message said, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The statement in question was made in response to the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation by Daniel Snyder, the owner of the team. After the offending tweet was made, Suey Park responded by launching a hashtag campaign against Colbert, #CancelColbert. There has been dialogue on how the statement should be taken, whether it’s offensive or not, and whether Colbert could beat Conan in a fist fight. People were offended, and then people were offended that people were offended and called those that were offended oversensitive. The predictable circle of public debate struck yet again. The rule of thumb, namely that of intent and impact, seems to be applicable. Colbert said something he intended to be funny, but impacted some negatively, and so the statement was in bad taste. And perhaps it was (spoiler alert: it offended people, so it was), but to stop at this superficial level of analysis would not give Colbert enough credit. I don’t mean to discredit the feelings  of those offended by the tweet and I do not intend to play Colbert’s bulldog, but I do feel the analysis can be deepened when examined in the proper context. Namely, that his use of hyperbolic language should not be stripped of its tone, purpose and context, especially as it was meant to make a pointed remark on Snyder’s actions.

Most of the examples I’ve heard that were meant to explain the concept of intent versus impact used the idea of violence, such as hitting someone with a Frisbee or slapping them. Those metaphors seem lacking to me because language (and especially language in social situations) isn’t so black and white and instead tends to lay on a gradient. Colbert is a satirist, so perhaps the closest fit is to say he hits people with Frisbees to show that hitting people with Frisbees is wrong.  The analogy falls short, and so I believe the issue of content versus context would be more appropriate in pursuing a complete analysis of the situation. The content is inarguably offensive, but I believe the statement can be interpreted on a deeper level. Colbert’s statement was inarguably self-aware, meaning that the joke was not something he agreed with on any level. I believe, on some level, that there is a difference between a joke that is racist and a joke about racism, with Colbert’s statement fitting in the latter category.

Jokes that are racist normally make broad, offensive generalizations about a race and trivialize their history (e.g. jokes about slavery, the Holocaust or hardships a race may face due to systematic oppression). Jokes about racism serve to point out how ridiculous the ideology of racism (or of racists) are. Using the language of racists (watered down to a hyperbolic extreme), Colbert hoped to point out the disparity between the act of charitable giving and the name of the organization. Sure, he could have used any other example that would have been less offensive. Perhaps he could have called it The John Smith Foundation for the Advancement of White Privilege and made an equivalent statement, though I think something like that would have been much less pointed. The use of hyperbole is an integral part of satire, and combined with words that imply apathy (Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever) highlight the apparent lack of thought given to such a problematic act by the Redskins owner.

Colbert responded to the controversy on his Monday show saying, “This was close, we almost lost me. I’m never going to take me for granted again.” He explained the situation with the corporate Twitter account and the quote that was pulled from the show. “To recap, a web editor I’ve never met posted a tweet in my name on an account I don’t control, outrages a hashtag activist and the news media gets 72 hours of content,” he said, “The system worked.” He added that Park was receiving negative and aggressive tweets, and asked those that were sending those tweets to stop if they were doing it to defend him. “Who would have thought a means to communication limited to 140 characters would ever create misunderstandings,” he added. While explaining the situation from his perspective and apologizing, he peppered in some jokes.

“I have my own racial misunderstandings with the Asian community over a long-running and beloved character on my show,” said Colbert as he gestured to a clip of himself, “Very important, he is a character. He is not me. This is the real Stephen Colbert. I mean everything I say on this show.”

1 Comment

  1. Michelle Goldberg at the Nation aptly connected the #CancelColbert outcry to the resurgence of the anti-liberal left, a force felt rather too well at Swarthmore recently. If people can’t understand context just as they can’t understand reasoned debate, then I’m not sure what the College is teaching. As a good social democrat (fist firmly held at mid-chest level) I’m ashamed.

    check out Goldberg’s piece:

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