Skip to main content

Stephen Colbert should apologize

By Aaron A. Schiller
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
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.

Colbert under fire for security speech
Pope's resignation fuels jokes

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT