So apparently there’s a big controversy now about some things that Comedy Central tweeted out in the voice of Stephen Colbert’s character on his show on that network. As it is the age of Twitter activism, there is now a campaign to cancel the Colbert Report. Dave Weigel outlines the first act of the controversy, highlighting the essential role of Suey Park, along with the fellow-travelling of conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. In the wake of this there was a contentious interview of Park on Huffington Post Live where the host made no secret of his contempt for her opinions on this issue, to which she responded by stating that their respective genders and races made it so that he should withhold commenting on the topic in such a bold and aggressive fashion.
There are many layers here. But I’ll keep it concise.
First, the context of the Colbert tweet was such that it was clearly satire in the voice of his character. Though the nature of the online outrage machine is such that apologies and groveling are necessary, they shouldn’t be.
Second, there is a different standard for Asian Americans in terms what one can say about them and how one can depict them. For example, explicit stereotypes about Asian males which tend toward emasculization in the pop culture have far fewer analogs when compared to African American males than in the past (obviously the stereotypes about African American males are different, at the opposite extreme when it comes to sexuality) . And as the clip above illustrates liberals in good standing can say insensitive things about Asian Americans casually which wouldn’t be tolerated for blacks. “Ching chong” and the “N-word” are in different classes of insult.
Third, this different standard is defensible. American culture has a different, and sui generis, relationship to blacks when compared to racial and ethnic minorities which arrived later (Native Americans are also sui generis). This is a fact. You may attempt to bracket the prejudice experienced by Asians in the 19th and 20th centuries into the same class as African Americans, but it is not unreasonable to deny equivalence. This denial is implicit in the way people react to offensive generalizations about different minorities.
Four, classes of marginalized are not commensurable. The experience of women as a class is fundamentally different than that across racial lines. The experience of a ethno-religious minority which is coded as white (e.g., Jews) is different from that of an Asian American one, and these are different from the African American experience. Similarly, those who are physically disabled also experience the world very differently. Because of these differences it makes sense that not all responses to similar dynamics operating upon the classes should be the same. They’re not variables with a different value, they’re fundamentally different variables where the values have radically different outcomes in the calculus. Leftist radicals don’t seem to understand or accept this, and translate arguments and paradigms across all the classes assuming equivalency.
Five, activists like Suey Park do highlight a glaring hypocrisy among white liberals in terms of their attitudes. Conservative non-whites have long known this, because they (we) are subject to snide insinuations and attacks which in other contexts would seem racist. But since they (we) are not liberal, it is socially acceptable to an extent. Implicit is the idea that white people have ideological diversity due their values, while non-whites only have interests. Black conservatives who espouse race neutrality that might have negative consequences for blacks are traitors to their race, while white liberals who favor preferences which might hurt whites are idealistic. This patronizing attitude is probably why Michelle Malkin is sympathetic to Park’s outrage, as Leftist activists who are non-white are more conscious to the glaring blind spots of white liberals. If, for example, you have a group of white Republicans meeting together without many people of color in the audience there are often implications of racism bandied about by liberals. But if you look at the demographic profile of the neighborhoods many white liberals choose to raise their families, they are no different from that of white conservatives, except politics. But being liberal they have difficulty imagining how they could be racist. The identities, the essential aspects, of the individuals matters. Among the reactions to Miley Cyrus’ scandalous MTV performance white feminists began to decry the “slut-shaming” of the performer. But soon enough black feminists objected to her exploitation of the bodies of black women. Obviously who you are impacts what you see. White feminists saw Cyrus being unfairly targeted, but did not see objectification of black women (one can debate whether there was such objectification, but it’s not an unreasonable line of argument once you assume standard Leftist priors).
Six, so perspective matters. But different perspectives don’t mean that any one person has the One True Opinion. In the abstract Leftist cultural activists can accept this, but in the concrete real world scenario they tend to want to impose their own perspective in an almost Stalinist manner. This is one reason there is so much faction among identity activists, as they argue stridently for the superiority and dominance of their own narrative over that of rivals. In the discussion with the Huffington Post Live reporter Suey Park attempted to negate any blunt critique by her interlocutor by highlighting his identity as a while male. She attempted to object to being “silenced” by demanding that he be silent! One of the norms of the Leftist radicals is that one must always listen and not talk back to the more-oppressed-than-thou (though of course there’s often a long process of privilege checking and toting up in some cases; even egalitarians have their own aristocracy of oppression). This means that white males should be silent unless they can involve themselves in acts of more-Stalinist-than-thou radicalism, where their zeal for purging validates their participation.
Seven, this dynamic is a non-starter in the general culture, and Leftist radicals seem to forget that they’re a small subculture outside of the academy. Their Form of Life is not dominant or normative. Suey Park for example uses the stilted academic lexicon of a “grad school dropout,” which illustrates her own “privilege.” Axiomatic terms like “ally” and “intersectionality” are meaningless outside of this cultural domain, but they can’t help but sprinkle their “discourse” with terms which are more appropriate to a gradual school seminar. This in a culture where only ~25% have undergraduate degrees, often in vocational or scientific fields where Critical Theory is unknown. The irony is that Leftist activists forget that cultural diversity means that not all arguments are going to be won on their own terrain, with the terms of the game determined by their preconceptions as to the nature of how the world works, and how it ought to work. They are not hegemonic over the rest of us. Just as white liberals tend to assort with themselves (look at how many minorities there are in Flickr photos of young DC progressives), and develop blind spots, so Leftist activists like Suey Park lose sight of the reality that others see different skies at night than all of her friends (numerous as they may be on Twitter).
Finally, my conservative friends & I have observed the bizarre flame-outs on the internet between different sects of cultural Leftists, akin to the violent conflicts between radical Christian sects in the back-country of 4th century Anatolia over picayune theological or liturgical differences, for years. Watching the circular firing squads is like a guilty pleasure. An ideological “shark week.” But it is not healthy for a unitary society to fracture into so many incomprehensible clans. Many of my liberal friends on Twitter for example don’t realize, and can’t understand, that I don’t even share their presuppositions. When it comes to politics they start with assumptions that they think are universally held by all, but which I reject. By analogy, it’s when English speakers presume that everyone else in the world understands English. This isn’t a recipe for respectful discourse and any meeting of the minds. Perhaps in the end all is a raw power struggle, a brutal war of all-ideas-against-all ideas.
Addendum: Readers who are new should be aware that I’m a brown American male.