Don’t #CancelColbert over that tweeted slur. Obviously not.

(AP Photo / Comedy Central, Scott Gries)
(AP Photo / Comedy Central, Scott Gries)

Man, remember context?

Context was great. I grew up in an era when we still had context, roving wild and free, emitting its distinctive bleat over the hillsides. You had context in schools and you had context on the television and you even had context in your daily life. Sometimes people would take remarks out of context, and those remarks would kill several promising political careers before they could be subdued and returned to their natural habitat. Remarks can be vicious when taken out of context. They lash out in all directions.

But hunting an out-of-context remark was such good sport that people started doing it more and more often, and we actively designed our lives so that we had to deal with as little context as possible. It’s all about sound-bites and gaffes. Twitter? 140 characters or fewer, and no room for context. We have, we frequently hear, the attention spans of coke-addled gnats, and so context is the last thing we need. We wouldn’t be able to pay attention to it anyway. Now the noble context, once the pride of this great land, is confined to the unnatural habitat of the Long-Form Magazine Piece, and it is not doing so well even there. (And don’t get me started on its difficulty mating in captivity.)

We should be a little worried about this, because some of our favorite things only can survive if context survives. For instance, satire. For instance, the Onion. For instance, the Colbert Report.

On the Internet, everything merges and blurs. Context fades. You keep accidentally sharing headlines from the Onion as though they were things that actually happened, quotes from the Colbert report as though they were actually gaffes, and tweets from everyone as though they merited the kind of outrage formerly reserved for Actually Offensive Things Don Imus Said One Time About Those Basketball Players.

And that’s how we came to the #CancelColbert hashtag.

#CancelColbert, people? Seriously? This is trending? Don’t we have anything better to do, like feed and nurture the quickly dying context? Maybe it’s dead already.

The Comedy Central account used to promote the show tweeted a quote from Wednesday night’s program, taken out of context, and all heck broke loose.

The program was aimed at Dan Snyder, of Redskins Owner fame, now starting something called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, as though two horrible wrong names for things somehow made a right name for something. The Colbert report was making fun of this, and on the show they had a much longer bit making fun of Snyder’s palpable insensitivity. The tweet was basically an excerpt from this, although, out of context, it looked a bit grimmer. “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” the account tweeted.

Colbert himself distanced himself from the tweet, pointing out that neither he nor his show ran the account, and the tweet was subsequently deleted, but the Indignation Machine revved up and is now racing around the Internet mowing down small animals. The Indignation Machine loves this sort of thing.

One of the skills or hobbies of the Internet is its absurd tendency to take things out of context and blow things out of proportion. Colbert is on the side of justice, folks.

 

Except it actually is satire. Colbert and his report have always been very, very good at aiming their punches the right way. This joke was punching the right way in context but, taken out of context, it punches the wrong way. That’s why you need context!

This time it’s not the faux-edgy knee-jerk jerk’s “oh, it was comedy, your criticism is invalid” defense. (See: Daniel Tosh.)  That doesn’t always hold up. In fact, it rarely holds up.

It’s a tough area of comedy. It’s hard to make fun of Racist Things To Say without saying Something Racist yourself in the process, and that’s why context is so critical. Even when we sort it out, this can leave fodder for discussion.

Broadly speaking, the Colbert Report’s brand of humor depends upon a shared understanding with the audience that This Is Satire. The tweet robbed him of that. It was a poor call. But there’s no need to #CancelColbert. #SaveContext, instead.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | March 27