Flame wars heat up digital discussion

The feud between Stephen Colbert and Suey Park highlights the importance of meaningful opinion.

Brian Reinken

There is a war going on for your mind. Even now, the embers glow after last week’s multimedia dispute between the Stephen Colbert devotees and supporters of Internet activist Suey Park.

The conflict began when the “Colbert Report” parodied a new charity, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Satirizing the group’s offensive name, the “Colbert Report” Twitter account tweeted, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Colbert does not control the “Colbert Report” Twitter account and cannot personally manage what it posts. Nevertheless, the tweet soon drew the attention of Suey Park, a 23-year-old Internet activist famous for creating the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick.

Responding to the “Colbert Report” tweet, Park created another hashtag: #CancelColbert.

In the days that followed, Park contended that “white comedians and their fans believe they are above public morality and reproach.” Writing for Time, she argued that the tweet was deeply racist, calling it hate speech masquerading as satire.

In response, Colbert’s supporters accused Park of misunderstanding irony and satire, saying Park is trying too hard to be offended.

On both sides, the dispute escalated quickly. Park called for a literal revolution against white supremacy, and some of Colbert’s supporters threatened to physically harm her.

It should go without saying that by the time the interaction between Park’s followers and Colbert’s had reached this point, no one was saying anything of value anymore. Simply put, 140 characters are rarely enough to express an opinion that sufficiently considers situational nuances and an opponent’s perspective.

One of social media’s greatest strengths is that anyone can join any discussion. On the other hand, this is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Because the world of social media is an open marketplace of ideas, nothing filters opinions based on their ideological soundness or logic.

It’s an idea that’s almost totally alien to our modern life, but not every opinion deserves to be heard. For an opinion to be valuable, it must be more than a simple statement. By itself, “I am offended” is not a meaningful opinion.

In a flame war, there’s often little attempt to engage with the issues at hand or to convince an outside audience of your perspective’s validity. Rather, a dialogue between two parties quickly degenerates into finger-pointing and name-calling. Argument attains value in itself. The dispute between Park’s followers and Colbert’s quickly ceased to become a discussion about racism and satire. Instead, it became a question of which side was more personally immoral, illogical and incorrect.

The importance of meaning

We must intelligently express our opinions, no matter how radical they may be, if they are to have any value in society. Some people have a taste for Italian vinegar, but no one will digest a message made purely of battery acid.

The “Colbert Report” tweet had a firm ideological underpinning. Of course, the account’s true owners may have poorly executed it. The tweet did not include a contextualizing reference to the Washington Redskins scandal, and even in context, it could be deeply offensive. However, Colbert often caricatures racism and homophobia. As a satirist, his role is to make us laugh uncomfortably at our own shortcomings and then consider how we might work to improve our society.

Park, however noble and righteous her intentions may have been, highlighted a perceived wrong without expressing a meaningful alternative. Considering the popularity of the “Colbert Report,” to cancel the program is essentially out of the question. Moreover, censorship wouldn’t destroy the ideas Park finds offensive; it would only remove them from her range of hearing.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe took offense to the portrayal of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” Nevertheless, he taught the book at Brown University. “If you don’t like someone’s story,” Achebe said, “you write your own.”

From Achebe, we learn that it is not enough merely to say that we’re offended. If we dislike the old stories, it’s best to tell them again from a different point of view.

If Park had sought to open a meaningful dialogue with Colbert, she could have asked Twitter how, or whether, an Asian comedian would have told the joke. She could even have asked why there aren’t more Asian-American comedians or talk show hosts on television.

Without really saying anything of value, “perpetually offended activist” has become a stable line of work in American society. The proliferation of non-institutional voices has perhaps skewed our idea of what constitutes interpersonal debate or important news.

Worst of all, the flame war between Park’s supporters and Colbert’s has totally eclipsed the original meaning of the “Colbert Report” tweet. As the war ends and the smoke clears, no one’s opinion has changed, and no one remembers the Washington Redskins.