Last week, Twitter overflowed with the hashtag #CancelColbert after a tweet posted by Comedy Central regarding a joke from The Colbert Report offended many. FIRE’s Azhar Majeed took a critical look at the debate in The Huffington Post on Friday, reminding readers that attempts to punish satire because it may offend some are a significant step towards censorship of core social and political commentary.
In case you missed it, Wednesday night’s Colbert Report involved Colbert (that is, the Stephen Colbert character) one-upping Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s formation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, his arguably inadequate penance for the controversial name of his football team. Colbert, in turn, stated he would address concerns about his mascot, Ching Chong Ding Dong, “by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The tweet by Comedy Central, however, said only:
I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.
The tweet earned heavy criticism from Twitter users, some of whom asserted that “[t]here is a line between satire & offense that [Colbert] tramples” and that Colbert’s statement was “oppressive and dangerous.” Azhar put things in perspective:
Much worse than the problems inherent in Twitter use, to me, is what this controversy demonstrates about many people’s inability to digest satire and think critically about what it is saying. To cite one of the responses quoted above, since when has there been “a line between satire [and] offense”? Should we consider the fact that satire has historically been used precisely to offend, in order to make a larger point and lead the listener to think critically about some element of the subject of the satire? Consider the Supreme Court’s famous decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), in which the Court held that the First Amendment protected a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. I would love to see someone try to explain to the Justices who handed down that decision that there exists a line separating satire from offense.
As Azhar notes, FIRE has seen too many examples of constitutionally protected satire and parody being censored and punished at colleges and universities across the country. Worryingly, students are becoming accustomed to such censorship and sometimes even demand it—just as those tweeting #CancelColbert did last week. But satire is often used as a tool for advocacy and change, and we should resist urges to block this time-honored tradition.
Read the rest of Azhar’s piece in The Huffington Post.