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Stephen Colbert should apologize

By Aaron A. Schiller
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
Stephen Colbert found himself in hot water recently over a tweet.
Stephen Colbert found himself in hot water recently over a tweet.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A controversial tweet from @colbertreport raised a firestorm over racial satire
  • Aaron Schiller: Though Stephen Colbert didn't post it, he should apologize
  • He says the tweet, taken from a line he spoke, is offensive for Asian-Americans
  • Schiller: Just because he is a comedian doesn't mean he can tell offensive jokes

Editor's note: Aaron A. Schiller is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and editor of "Stephen Colbert and Philosophy." Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Schiller. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Stephen Colbert plays a dangerous game.

He walks a tightrope every night, and it's amazing that he doesn't fall on a regular basis. He tells jokes about race, gender, class and people love him or hate him. Does everyone get a joke? No. But of course he does say, in persona, amazingly offensive things sometimes.

Last week things went south, and Twitter exploded in calls to #CancelColbert.

Aaron A. Schiller
Aaron A. Schiller

The offense? A 140-character long foot-in-the-mouth that came from the Twitter feed @ColbertReport. The tweet was a joke that played off of a show segment that mocked an attempt by the owner of the Washington Redskins to make peace with the Native American community without having to change the team's name.

"I'm willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Race, meet satire. But it didn't work.

The controversial tweet, it turns out, was not written by Colbert himself, or from anyone on his show. But it was a Comedy Central account that presumably had license from the show's producers to publicize and magnify Colbert's voice.

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But instead of repudiating the tweet, Colbert on Monday night made further jokes about how the incident almost silenced "my message of core conservative principles mixed with youth-friendly product placement."

Following the lead of Asian-American activist Suey Park, some have been demanding that "The Colbert Report" be canceled. These words perpetuate hateful stereotypes and bring up a history of very public repression and personal shame. To use them now is to call forth that history. And in calling it forth, these words create more racism.

Defenders say he's a "satirist" in the best Swiftian mold. He has a license to say such things, for he speaks in the name of truth and justice. They're saying that the tweet wasn't from him (even though they were his words). And they're saying that these words were perhaps taken out of context.

Colbert's responses on Monday night were uninspiring. The whole show was devoted to it, but it was the cold opening that people will remember: Colbert imagined a dystopian post-Report world. Think hell ... er Manhattan ... freezing over, before prominent Chinese-American actor B.D. Wong saves the day by explaining to him that it's all been a bad dream! This is still "The Colbert Report." #CancelColbert has failed.

I wasn't disappointed because I think the show should be canceled. It shouldn't. But I was hoping for something more sincere, perhaps even an apology or a sit-down with Ms. Park to let her issues be aired. (On the show, he made no mention of whether he tried to invite her to appear).

Instead, he invited Twitter co-founder Biz Stone for a mock apology to Colbert himself, and -- offering a tepid "I never want this to happen again"-- shut down the Twitter account, @colbertreport.

Many of Colbert's defenders have been asking why Park and her followers should get to decide what Colbert can and cannot say? Who cares what they think?

Colbert should care what they think. Park and her followers represent a point of view that Colbert takes himself to be speaking for, liberals, racial minorities, the underprivileged. As a privileged white male, Colbert (just like the character he plays) gets his license to use what would otherwise be outrageous language because of his associations to those communities themselves.

Colbert, his defenders will say, is a liberal with a history of fighting for the underprivileged. True. But white satirization of racial politics is conditioned on the blessing of the underprivileged themselves. This is why Colbert, in persona, sometimes cites the existence of a "black friend" and why Jon Stewart regularly discusses issues of race with his "Senior Black Correspondent." They know that it is precisely the underprivileged themselves that get to determine what should be done with the words that have been used to repress and embarrass them. Colbert, out of persona, should know that.

Without an apology, what we have here is a case of a white liberal comedian trying to have his cake and eat it too. He's saying: "I have license to say hateful things because everyone knows I don't mean them or because I have an Asian friend." But the way he should show he doesn't mean them is by being sensitive to how his saying them affects others.

If Park and the broader community are offended, he can't hide behind his liberalism. Liberalism is a license that comes with responsibilities that Colbert ought to abide by.

"The Colbert Report" was never in any danger of being canceled over this. But whether or not he ever recognizes it, Colbert owes Park, as well as the broader Asian community, an apology. At the very least he should consider dropping the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong character.

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