The #CancelColbert Controversy: Should Racial Insensitivity Be a Fireable Offense?

Yes. And no. It depends on what you do.


Twitter is one of those places where there is always outrage, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which part of the outrage war really has legs.

Last week, Stephen Colbert found himself in the middle of crossfire for a tweet from the Colbert Report deemed offensive to Asians.

Quickly, a #CancelColbert hashtag gained momentum in protest. Colbert has since acknowledged the tweet (which came from the show’s account, not his) in the same brand of schtick and satire, satisfying few:

Colbert is not the first comedian to come under fire for being insensitive to a particular group, and he certainly won’t be the last. The Atlantic ponders whether racial insensitivity should be a firing offense. And if the question were that simple, then the answer would be “yes.”

But it’s not quite that simple. If you work at a bank, or a school; if you’re a member of the law community, of if you’re a journalist, then yes, racial insensitivity should be a firing offense. Your occupational capacity holds power, and directly impacts the lives of others.

Entertainers? That’s another story.

Entertainment is a product or service that’s bought and sold just like any other. It is engaged by individuals that consume it, and though it, too, impacts public discourse, it is also audience-specific. Let me provide an example:

I don’t watch Fox News because it offends me. And I think it should be removed from the air — not because it offends me personally — but because as a purported “journalism” organization, it is irresponsible and willfully negligent.

I also don’t watch Chelsea Handler’s show because it also offends me. But I don’t think it should be removed from the air. She offends me more often than not, but she’s not claiming to be a journalist. She’s a comedian with a show. Somebody likes that brand of foolishness; that somebody just isn’t me.

A big problem with our pop culture is its homogeneity. It makes certain voices louder than others; it gives weight to one-off comments that may be offensive because there’s nothing actively working in contrast to them in the form of another show or headline star. And this is what’s really at stake when industry folks rally for diversity in Hollywood: an opportunity for their work to be the battle cry amidst the outrage.

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