I’ve been trying to keep notes on potential topics for posts and one of my notes reads “Twitterage: #CancelColbert”. My original intention was to write something very general about the whole brouhaha, and I’m sure I will write other posts under the Twitterage banner in the future. Today I won’t write about #CancelColbert itself, but rather use it as a platform from which to dive into memory. For those as don’t know, #CancelColbert is a Twitter hashtag campaign started by Suey Park (@suey_park on Twitter) in the wake of a contextless blurb tweeted (and subsequently deleted) by a Comedy Central-controlled account which was construed to be a racist utterance on the part of Stephen Colbert. (Colbert’s original satire from which the misfired tweet was derived had to do with Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. This will be important later.) A Google search on the hashtag will yield and assortment of articles written about the controversy, with this post at The Raw Story offering a good primer.
While considering what I might write about #CancelColbert I remembered to employ a personal heuristic which may be stated as: “When considering the negative actions or qualities of others, look for the same negative features in yourself and temper your thoughts with this introspection.” Employment of this heuristic dredged up an old memory that doesn’t hold up well in retrospect.
It was Autumn of 1984 and I was a junior attending Medford Senior High School. Homecoming week was approaching and our opponent in the week-ending football game was Roseburg High School. Our team’s name was the Black Tornados. Theirs, the Indians. (Already, you might see where this is going…)
Various student organizations at my school were directed come up with designs which would be painted on the windows of various downtown business: designs intended to insult, embarrass or otherwise make fun of Roseburg’s football team. I was in the school band at that time and somehow got involved in this effort, even to the point of taking the lead on the project. I came up with a design which everyone liked, drew the design on a very large piece of paper, and used the design as a guide for a group effort in which myself and several of my bandmates painted the window of a clothing store.
The design was a riff on the Ghostbusters logo. Imagine the logo altered to make the ghost look like a caricature of a female Native American wearing fringed buckskin, a headband with a feather sticking out of it, braided black hair. The logo included what could’ve been mistaken for the title of a movie: Squawbusters.
I can recall how proud I was of our work. I thought our design and end result far superior to that of the other student organizations who’d painted other windows in town. I thought of how enervated Roseburg’s football team and fans would be by such a masterful insult. I can also recall precisely no one other than ourselves taking real interest in the painting. The band didn’t win the award for Best Window that year. No one approached us to tell us how much they liked (or disliked) what we did.
Thirty years later, all I can do is recognize my own profound ignorance (then and now). The difference between now and thirty years ago consists precisely of this recognition. I do my best in these middle years of my life to relieve myself of some small amount of that ignorance by learning about injustices suffered by others, by deepening my empathy for those who society treats ill.
It’s only with the passage of these years that I’ve come to regret what I did. Clearly in that past moment I was incapable of connecting that emotion to what I participated in. I am guilty of having done wrong to people I didn’t know and could not have known. I have no idea if anyone was hurt by what I did. I may hope that I didn’t hurt anyone, but even if that hope maps to reality accurately, the stain of what I did remains. I’m sorry.
As for #CancelColbert, I will not claim to know who is truly on the right or wrong side of that controversy. I do think that the energy spent on #CancelColbert has, to a significant extent, been misdirected. The original target of Colbert’s satire was Dan Snyder and the name of the football team he owns, and Snyder is a target entirely worthy of our condemnation. But when I condemn Snyder, I must also condemn myself.