Colbert, Park and Perspective

So, there’s a small bit of controversy going on around Stephen Colbert and a joke he made on his show that got turned into a Tweet on the show’s Twitter account (not his) and then spawned other Tweets and accounts and all sorts of other things like that. Now, I don’t actually watch “The Colbert Report” and so didn’t see it live, and only found out about it because P.Z. Myers talked about it on his blog, and I actually want to comment on one of the comments there because it exhibits an annoying trend that happens to irritate the heck out of me, but first I want to comment on Suey Park’s campaign because I think I can say something about it.

Before I start, I watched her interview with Josh Zepp, but I also want to reference this commentary by Mundane Matt, because even though I think his analysis is a bit shallow and more mockery than actual argument, it contains the complete clip from the show so that we can get the full context of the Tweet.

Anyway, the background is this: there has been a controversy for some time over the name of the Washington Redskins. Dan Snyder, the owner, hasn’t been all that willing to change the name despite protests from various people, including some native groups. However, as you’d see in Mundane Matt’s video, Snyder decided to try to make up for that by creating a foundation called … the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. After that, Colbert went on a tear talking about a character he had created for the show — which was, the best I can understand it, simply him in “Asian face” — that was an incredibly stereotypical and racist impression of an Asian person called Ching Chong Ding Dong. He pointed out that he had protests about that character and demonstrated with clips just why people would consider that character an offensive stereotype, and lampshaded that by saying “The point is, offensive or not — NOT!” which for a show like Colbert’s is essentially a wink at the camera to say “Yeah, it is”, and then said that to make up for it he was going to start a foundation called the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. The Tweet only gave that last part, prefaced by “To promote sensitivity towards Asians” or something like that (I can’t be bothered to look up the exact wording of the Tweet). And all hell broke loose.

Now, I don’t watch Colbert, but I know enough about him and his show that it’s obvious that this was, in fact, satire aimed at Snyder, taking something that everyone would see as an offensive caricature and making an obviously insane name if the foundation was actually supposed to demonstrate more concern and sensitivity towards Asian people. Even the Tweet was pretty obvious, because the name itself lampshades its own stupidity by adding on “or Whatever” at the end. So the whole message, then, is this: if you understand how it would be stupid to claim to be showing sensitivity to Asian people through a foundation that from its very name lacks sensitivity, you ought to be able to see how stupid it is to do that to Natives in Snyder’s case. And it’s hard, then, for me to see what’s wrong with that.

Now Suey Park talks a bit in the interview about that, and there are lots of comments in P.Z. Myers’ post about that. But for the most part, they all devolve into jargon and discussions of how whites shouldn’t make such comments or they need to listen more or they have privilege or … well, lots of stuff like that. But they tend to not really say — at least I don’t seem to grasp them saying — what the actual issue here is.

Now, from my reading and my thinking on the matter, I’m going to come up with a couple of possibilities that might be a problem. Yes, you can argue that this would be someone who is not Asian and is indeed white telling people what should or shouldn’t offend them, but I deny that. Instead, I counter that I’m arguing like a philosopher, trying desperately to charitably and yet rationally come up with reasons for a potentially opposing position so that I can either accept it or argue against it. Philosophical occupational hazard: if people are disagreeing on something, always assume that there are some sensible and rational points on both sides, and generate them yourself if they aren’t forthcoming. But first, I’m gonna tell you a story to start talking about perspective.

A long time ago, one of my better friends was an attractive Asian woman. At one point, I mentioned that I tended to prefer Asian women in terms of looks than some others. She replied with a statement question about a lot of the attraction for a lot of people being the impression that Asian woman were submissive and sexual. To which I replied that I certainly didn’t think that, because I didn’t want someone submissive, as since I had a fairly strong personality I’d run roughshod over any woman I was dating who couldn’t stick up for herself … and I really didn’t want that.

This did not end our friendship, likely because she believed me. But what I realized in remembering the story today is that the reason she might have brought it up was that, as an attractive Asian woman, she had indeed come across people for whom that was indeed the main attraction. This actually happened to her. There was no possible way that I, from my perspective, could know that — especially since the stereotype wasn’t one that I grew up with. But it was something she lived with, and while I didn’t get that then, it was a perspective that I could come to understand and should come to understand.

But on the flip side, if from her perspective it might even have been more likely that that was what the attraction was for me, from my perspective it made no sense. As I tend to comment when the topic comes up, I tend to prefer petite women with long, dark hair. The racial traits of Asian women fit that. If I liked blonds with large breasts, I’d probably find myself more attracted to those of Scandinavian descent. The fact that I considered Asian women preferable for dating — ie I had actual crushes on them more often than some others — was an indication of my lack of racism: their racial traits fit the traits I was looking for, and beyond that their race didn’t matter to me.

So, from her perspective, it might have looked like I was being racist, while from mine I was being the exact opposite.

This is why I hate the term “privilege” and prefer the term “perspective”. We all have a different perspective, which is informed by all sorts of things that happen to us and who we are, including but not limited to race and gender. You can’t assume that you know what things look like from the perspective of other people, even if you claim that they are the majority. Everyone has an individual perspective, coloured by various groupings but not identical to them. Thus, the right approach is to express your perspective and say that “From this angle, this is what it seems like” and be prepared to listen to their perspective and see how it looks from there. While many social justice advocates get the first part for the minority group they are trying to help, they tend to fail at the second part.

So, now, let me try to put on my “other perspectives” cap and see what Park et al could be complaining about here.

The first possibility is one that follows directly from my story above: Park and others are upset because those sorts of stereotypes are stereotypes that they actually encounter in their daily lives. For them, far too many people actually think that these stereotypes are true, and thus it looks like Colbert is relying on the perceived truth of the stereotypes and caricatures to give the humour. This is somewhat consistent with Park, and is the possibility that I’m the most sympathetic to … but it does run into issues when you understand the nature and purpose of satire. The humour here relies on people not thinking that those stereotypes are true; satire generally only works when the satirizing element is something that people would find ridiculous or absurd, and in this case that means that the fictional foundation is using an offensive stereotype. While Park in her comment on satire says that if only racists will get your joke you should rethink it, the key here is that racists — meaning those who think that Asians really are like the stereotype presented — won’t get the joke. They’ll say “What’s wrong with that?” or, at best “It’s funny ’cause it’s true”. But those who don’t think the stereotype holds will actually get the joke and find it funny and, hopefully, learn something about the Snyder case, if they didn’t already agree with that. But there is a discussion to be had here on whether using a common stereotype or caricature can hurt by promoting it as true, or not, and what can be done to allow for that sort of satire while ensuring that it doesn’t end up being an argument that the stereotype is true.

The second possibility is that they understand that Colbert chose that because most people will at least accept Colbert’s version as a complete caricature … but note that in the past it wouldn’t have been. And that those sorts of caricatures caused harm to a lot of Asian people. And that Colbert, then, is using those caricatures as a joke, which means not taking their harm and their pain seriously, minimizing it in the name of humour. Of course, the rejoinder from the other side is that with satire, you aren’t laughing at the stereotyping itself, any more than anyone who read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” could accuse him of making fun of baby eating and not taking that seriously enough. It’s missing the point of satire to claim that he’s laughing at the caricatures and the harm it causes in that case. The original Ching Chong Ding Dong case? Maybe (I haven’t really seen how he used it in detail to know). But, again, this is something that both sides can talk about … if they can do it without flinging “privilege”, “stupidity”, “political correctness” or “white liberals” into the mix.

Out of these sorts of issues, a mantra emerged: Shut up and listen, meaning “Shut up and listen to the perspective of minorities”. Then some dropped it to “Listen”. I want to change it to “Discuss”, or perhaps “Learn”; listen to others and their personal perspective, discuss that, and come to some conclusions based on that. You might learn something about perspectives that are not yours, no matter your race or gender, and that surely can only be a good thing.

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