– by The Shitty Activist
Activists all too often get the reputation of being humorless malcontents taking themselves far too seriously, compelled to complain about something – anything! – in a vain effort to alleviate some of their own personal misery by spreading it to others.
I obviously disagree with this statement…except in the case of activists attacking creators of parody or satire, people using a sense of humor to raise consciousness on an issue.
Not everyone is convinced by protest marches, chanted slogans, or scientific studies. Many people believe what they’re going to believe, and a rational argument probably isn’t going to do much to change their opinion.
But what if, instead of getting in their face, you slip past their defenses by making them laugh? Wouldn’t they be more likely to consider an opposing view? Laughing is a pleasant sensation, and people are largely motivated by how they feel. If your issue makes them feel all tingly, might they not be more open to it, if only unconsciously?
Even if it doesn’t do all that, parody and satire are still effective ways for activists in the trenches to relieve stress and recharge a bit from the constant battle. A happy activist is an effective activist.
Naturally, a sense of humor is a subjective thing, so not everyone is fond of every attempt of humor. However, some activists find nothing funny at all to do with the causes they dedicate their lives to, and are automatically defensive at anything that appears to make light of them. But just because satire it isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean that others don’t enjoy it, or that it’s not a useful tool in the activist toolkit.
Still, it’s not unusual for activists to go on a rampage against satirists for their efforts to advance the exact same cause, simply using a different strategy. One prominent example of activists not getting satire involved a Twitter hashtag campaign to try to cancel the Colbert Report.
For those who don’t know, from 2007 until 2015, comedic actor Stephen Colbert played the character of a right-wing pundit hosting his own TV talk show, where almost everything out of his mouth was a parody of the often-emotional, conservative opinions of folks such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly.
In one instance in 2014, the Report decided to call attention to a campaign Native Americans had launched to change the name of NFL team, the Washington Redskins, to something not widely considered to be a racial slur. In obvious response to the controversy, the owner of the team started a foundation called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.
The silliness of using a name that many Native Americans find offensive in the title of the foundation that is supposed to help their cause wasn’t lost on the Report, and they sent out a Tweet highlighting its asininity by paralleling the same scenario using another ethnic group. The Tweet read: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
An activist who had previously been successful in using hashtag activism on Twitter to protest racism against Asian-Americans, was so off-put by the parody that she started #CancelColbert, an campaign to encourage Comedy Central to cancel the show.
Clearly, the activist knew the Colbert Report was satire – probably the most popular version of it in the U.S. – but still she said she was offended by the bit, calling it out as racism, instead of the clearly intended condemnation of racism.
Needless to say, Comedy Central didn’t cancel the show (though Colbert retired later that year), and instead, thousands of Colbert supporters came to the show’s defense (some of whom fuckheadedly issued threats against the activist). Did #CancelColbert advance the fight against racism? Hard to say. But one thing for sure is that it reinforced the stereotype of the humorless activist, someone so obsessed with their righteous role that they create imaginary enemies to give them someone to fight.
Of course, the worst thing #CancelColbert did was distract attention away from the campaign to change the name of the Washington NFL team to something not deemed offensive to Native Americans, an ongoing saga.
Now, it’s fine if the activist didn’t get the joke or just plain doesn’t like satire. But no one forced this person to watch the show or read Colbert’s Tweets. Still, instead of just ignoring something they simply didn’t find funny themselves, they felt the need to come out publicly against the satirical bit, mobilize thousands of other equally confused or misguidedly-outraged people, and demand the end to a show that not only delighted people around the world, but called attention to many of the campaigns the activist probably supported. All because they didn’t agree with the tactics of an ally in the fight against racism.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering how many people actually have a problem with satire. Well, probably not that many, but it happens…
Several years ago, when I was still an activist, a client I was working for on environmental issues terminated our contract after I created an unaffiliated satirical Facebook page, to call attention to some of the same issues in a creative way on my own time. I learned then how humorless and narrow-minded some people could be when it came to an approach that they themselves simply didn’t value or couldn’t appreciate.
You may also ask what’s the point of this long-winded rant against a supposed activist faux-pas that hardly ever happens? Nothing too profound, just a plea that if you’re online and you see an over-the-top statement about a cause you care about, before you start the Change.org petition or call your Congressman, consider whether or not it might be satire.