It’s possible I overworked my brain in class on Tuesday, continuously thinking about Douglas Martin’s obituary for Yvonne Brill and Stephen Colbert’s ‘humorous’ comment about Asian Americans.
Obviously, no one found Douglas Martin’s obituary comical or even cute as he intended, but many did find Colbert’s joke intensely hilarious, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the implications involved within that. Stephen Colbert is not racist, or at least, the Stephen Colbert we know, outside of his satirical conservative character, is not racist. But he contributed to a racist stereotype by pushing it to the forefront and bringing it to the national spotlight, even though he was poking fun at people who are racists against the group.
Humor, I believe, can serve as social commentary, but I keep wondering now where the boundary lies. Where is the line between ‘Wow, that was both a funny and powerful message’ and ‘We get that wasn’t explicit discrimination from your part, but it was wrong’. Colbert’s tweet clearly toes the line for some. But where does that line lie? Does the line even exist, or is it impossible to create the line because, as Stuart Hill suggests, nothing has a fixed meaning, and thus you can never say an image is wholly offensive or wholly humorous?
If the line does exist, what, then, matters to the image’s meaning? Does intention count or does it not matter at all that Colbert meant one thing and it came out completely wrong? In Martin’s piece, intention didn’t matter. His platform, however, did. So, is the way the message sent important? Intonation, facial expressions, words, the speaker her/himself – are those important? Dave Chappelle’s skit about grape drink comes to mind here. If we were to use the same argument that’s being used for Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle is also contributing to a stereotype about African Americans. But his comment never came under fire. So, what was it about his skit exactly?
It’s important to note that Stephen Colbert didn’t say his offensive comment on his show; he tweeted it. Does that make it worse because his personal meaning is harder to translate through words? Beyond that, do the author’s meanings matter at all? Or is it the meaning people fix on the image that matters? Is it the meaning the media fixes that matters?
Whether Martin’s or Colbert’s writings were offensive or not, I can’t quite tell. It’s always tough to tell with humor, even though Martin’s case was just in bad taste. But in using humor as social commentary, I think it’s important to establish an uncross-able line. The issue, however, is that no image ever means one thing, and so, you can never explicitly say it crossed a line, because someone else will argue a different meaning that crosses no line. And so, all boundaries, across all cultures, will lie in a very different place, and all images across these cultures will have different distances from that boundary.
How can we continue to use humor as social commentary if we can never quite tell what our discourse means to others and where that line exists for them?