Our Days of Rage: What #CancelColbert reveals about women/of color and controversial speech

Content Warning: This article uses screenshots of extremely bigoted tweets to illustrate what it describes; thanks goes out to Twitter user @jennybaquing for screen-capping them, and John Weeks for Storifying them.

An actual petition started by one of Suey Park's many antagonists. Image sourced by Arturo Garcia at Racialicious.

An actual petition started by one of Suey Park’s many antagonists. Image sourced by Arturo Garcia at Racialicious. So much for freedom of speech, eh?

By now, online conflagrations seem to burn with an all too familiar cadence. The rhythms of cyber-fire rise and fall in predictable waves of 1s and 0s when a woman dares to speak her mind online. The monster with a thousand faces rears its Gorgon visages to counter such an outrageous violation of the expected order, each face becoming an intercepting antibody meant to obliterate the offending feminine virus.

The surge of online hatred directed at Suey Park (and many of the women of color who defended her) for her #CancelColbert hashtag this week has a formal resonance with other incidents involving outspoken women online. Taken together, they illustrate how women do not have a right to be controversial or equal participants in public discourse — or, put another way, that controversy for women must always be a profoundly mortal affair. To air an iconoclastic opinion, or to do something that reasonable people can disagree about, is, for a woman, a profound risk.

What Park’s travails this past week illustrate, as well, is how vaporous women of color’s “right to free speech” really is; when our exercise of speech begets not discussion, discourse, or reasoned debate, but a fungal proliferation of hate speech, serious questions need to be asked.

Civilization for Me; None for Thee

When tech evangelist Adria Richards controversially photographed men making lewd jokes behind her at the PyCon tech conference last year, she was deluged with racist, misogynist, pornographic threats — the latter being some of the most vulgar I had ever witnessed, up to and including pictures of a dismembered black woman with captions suggesting that this was an ideal fate for Richards, herself a woman of color. Her former company’s clients were similarly inundated, in a bid to enlist their pressure in firing Richards, which ultimately came to pass.

At the time many argued that publicly shaming the men in question (one of whom was also fired) was not the right way to deal with their locker room-ish lack of decorum. While this was not an entirely unreasonable argument, it rang painfully hollow as its boosters were largely silent on the question of how best to engage with what they viewed as Richards’ problematic behavior. If they criticized her vitriolic attackers it was only as a parenthetical to the meat of chiding her at length.

Civility and reason for the men; barbarism for Richards.

This serrated cognitive dissonance — which maps neatly onto easily identifiable patterns of discourse around Park, her fellow travelers, and the #CancelColbert hashtag — should worry us all. There was no shortage of people demanding civility and sensibility from Park, but precious few making the same claim upon her most vicious attackers — once again, any mention of it was as a disclaiming aside, “No one should be personally attacking Suey Park, but…”

“But” indeed.

The tacit conceit that Park (and every other woman/of color so vituperated) brought this hellfire upon herself underlies the shameful public shuffling on this question. Her treatment on HuffPost Live by Josh Zepps illustrates how even mainstream media decorousness could not restrain the impulse to publicly punish and shame a disobedient woman of color. In calling her views “stupid” to her face — to the rapturous approbation of many online — Zepps adopted the internet’s idiom (the very thing he was criticizing) and dispensed with all politesse in a bid to give Park what for. It is difficult to imagine Zepps saying the same thing to Lindsey Graham, John McCain, or Mark Zuckerberg, even though all of these men have espoused views worth a throatily impolite challenge.

Park, by dint of her womanhood, her activism, her race, and her youth, is accorded no such respect. To hear her critics tell it, this is because she was rude and impetuous, throwing Molotovs with glee and alienating all around her. During a different HuffPost Live segment, also hosted by Zepps, discussing the #CancelColbert hashtag, a blogger named Joslyn Stevens opined “and then she was getting all these threats. I mean, she asked for it.” Stevens, a woman of color who identifies as a feminist, makes clear how pervasive this attitude of learned helplessness against online hate mobs really is. It is easier to blame the target(s).

Indeed, Stevens herself became a part of the mob, in a sense, when she began writing blog posts attacking Park with amateur psychoanalysis, seeking more to prove that she’s “crazy” than substantively engaging with anything she has said or done (which was, of course, feted by Park’s attackers as a courageous exercise of “rationality” and “logic”).

SueyParkHate2The Tonal Red-Herring

But Park’s aggression, and the forceful demand of the (itself satirical and not literal) #CancelColbert campaign, merely provided a pretext for which any purported sin could have been substituted. This is the nub of the invidious notion that Park “brought it on herself” because of her rage. Park’s tenor had nothing to do with the noxious rape threats she received, nor the mounting piles of expressly racist/sexist tweets she was inundated with since the moment her campaign took off (culminating in the spawning of antagonistic hashtags like the unbelievably racist #ChopSuey). It was her claim to the public square and her audacity of expression — by which I mean her taking on a popular liberal comedian and using him to springboard into a difficult soul-search on the question of media racism among liberals — that made her a target, just as Adria Richards’ challenge to the cosy clubhouse of male impunity in the tech industry made her a target, irrespective of the merits of her methods.

This fact, that the much-vaunted issue of “tone” has little to nothing to do with this, is deftly illustrated by this case’s similarity to the experience of feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who infamously became the target of unending hordes of bigoted gamers for trying to crowdfund her online film project Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Her activism, while radical, is the polar opposite of Park’s in tone. She is conciliatory, and even placating in her Feminist Frequency series, deconstructing the role of gender in media. She is earnest in her desire to educate, and sympathetically laboring to cultivate allies with her work.

She speaks softly, while Park carries the big stick. Yet the online reaction to both was identical, each burst of outrage having the scope of a biblically apocalyptic pestilence.

SueyParkHate4

Like Park, Sarkeesian was antagonized by throngs of people on the internet who, instead of disagreeing with her constructively and compassionately, sought to destroy her project and, indeed, her. Once again, rape and death threats abounded, as did violent pornography – including a rash of edits to her Wikipedia page that combined racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and porn all in one efficient package of ‘civil discourse.’ A ‘video game’ consisting entirely of beating her to a pulp was produced. Threats were sent to her loved ones and the bottomless pit of cyber rage against her video game project threatened to spill over into the physical world.

The hellfire of the patriarchal id.

To aver that the register of Park’s Twitter activism bred hatred is not only a shockingly inhumane response to the terror, but empirically false.

SueyParkHate3Devastating Double Standards

The cyber mob that is still attacking Sarkeesian and Park is the virtual embodiment of patriarchy’s crowdsourced police; we should stop treating it like the weather — uncontrollable, if predictable; to be endured, not altered. To simply slough off responsibility and say, as some have, that “other” people, not “Colbert fans,” are attacking Park is to genuflect to the crowd and deny your own moral agency even as you attempt to demand an outspoken woman of color embody it for you.

It would behove those that believe in constructive political discourse and “building not burning” to begin with the undulating cyber crowd whose bigotry and threats are the screaming death-throes of democracy in a pit of its own directionless fury. To chastise Park and ignore what that monster with a thousand faces represents is a chilling abrogation of our humanity — women of color deserve better, and we proudly reserve the right to demand it.

SueyParkHate1Have we become so bereft of our sense of irony that we are willing to suggest a satirist cannot be criticized without their challengers being threatened and bullied into a compliant silence?

If we are so eager to defend Stephen Colbert’s right to be controversial and puckish, then Suey Park deserves the same right — and there is no doubt much of her recent tweeting is both satirical and saucily laced with cheerful offensiveness. Why the double standard where a woman of color’s racial comedy is concerned? Why should we be so quick to fall over ourselves defending any untoward statements made by Colbert in the name of comedy and justice while we flame a young woman’s similar efforts into oblivion?

The beauty of this perspective is that it does not presuppose agreement with Park’s tactics or ideas; it merely asks you if disagreement or doubt should be voiced in the way I’ve described, with things like the tweets I’ve shown here; it asks us to envision a conversation where we are not threatened or hyper-reactive to the voices of women and people of color. It asks us to reject the idea that disagreeing with a woman in the public square must entail arguing for her destruction, and asks us how we can get to that point using the very online tools currently used to deride us.

These are the questions raised by the bacchanal of online hatred that has gripped so many this past week — and they deserve honest answers.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross has wild notions about women and people of color being human.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted April 4, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    This whole debate has been draining, but I feel like regardless of what you think about the #CancelColbert campaign itself, there are things we can learn from this, including about the treatment of women and people of color on the internet. I wrote more about that on my blog: http://ow.ly/vr8cI

  2. Posted April 5, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Agree with all said in Park, and that Adria should not have had any death threats, abuse, racial attacks, sexist remarks and so on.

    I do not however think that Richards is a good example to use, because in terms of the initial altercation (which was also breaking the rules of the convention) she was acting in a very hypocritical manner. Just days before she had tweeted lewd references to penises herself.

    If you are going to fight so hard again these jokes you find offensive, don’t be telling then youself!

    Again, she did not deserve any abuse. But she is not a good role model or a good icon for feminism

    • Posted April 6, 2014 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      On the contrary. What you just said is exactly why she was a perfect example in the context of my article. You claim she was hypocritical and unreasonable– my point was that women are not allowed to be wrong, in essence, or controversial. Let’s assume your perspective is correct: does Adria Richards then deserve the abuse she received? No, she did not; you say so yourself.

      So what is your point, precisely? Point blank, that kind of vitriol is not how one should express disagreement in a civilised society. Furthermore, to your particular point, Richards’ tweet was on her own Twitter feed; the joke she challenged was made in person at a professional conference during a presentation. Time, manner, place. I make lewd jokes; I do not make them in professional settings.

      But the fact that you and others configure her as this censorious killjoy and then say she’s imperfect as a result, and “not a good role model”– in a discussion that is only about the fact that no one (*no* *one*) deserves the kind of vitriolic abuse she received– says a lot, I fear. That we cannot have a discussion about hateful abuse without us debating the moral merits of the victims is itself part of the problem.

      That’s what makes Richards an ideal example– as I said in the article itself, reasonable people can debate whether or not her tweeted photo was the ideal way to handle that situation– but that space of disagreement then metastasises into this whirlpool of misery that is wildly disproportional to the perceived offence. Instead of a sensible debate about dynamics of public shaming, we were treated to a parade of horribles that shut down any productive discussion.

      If your suggestion is that public defence should be reserved for those who are beyond dispute, debate, or imperfection, I have to disagree strenuously. It’s precisely because Richards’ actions were debatable that we *need* to discuss how disagreement has been, and should be expressed.

      • Posted April 10, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        While I completely agree with the final line of your comment, these recent phenomenon have ostensibly demonstrated that reasonable discourse and disagree is impossible on the venues chosen by those on what I feel is the transformative side of this incident. 140 characters appears to facilitate ideologizing that only pays lip service to important discussions that need to take place.

        Any attempt at meaningful discussion (read: disagreement) on twitter is so ephemeral as to be immediately buried by replies from the instant issue’s seethingly overzealous supporters, regardless of what side they are on (I find that little causes more revulsion than to witness those who share your beliefs make a travesty of defending them).

        I feel that use of twitter only reinforces these depressing realities, and leaves no room for the transformative advancement that we all crave. Is the goal of twitter-activism merely a gaggle of buzz-word happy sycophants that may one day attempt to influence their government representative? I feel that buzzwords are not enough.

        I apologize if this is off topic, but I would appreciate your opinion on whether the popular medium can facilitate the discussion that we both agree so desperately needs to take place.

        P.S. – You write beautifully, but simplifying your prose might lower the bar for other thinkers not as gifted as yourself. :)

  3. Posted April 8, 2014 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Could you please explain what you meant by the “death throes of democracy”?

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