The #CancelColbert defense: Does it matter who tweeted Stephen's joke?

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Let’s put aside whether the tweet was offensive or not.

I know that’s difficult. Judging by the reactions on Twitter and the comments on last night’s post, you probably have strong feelings, one way or another, about Stephen Colbert’s joke about Asians — a joke that wasn’t supposed to be a joke about Asians at all, but about Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

First, here is the context (in a story that is all about context): During a sports-themed segment of Wednesday night’s The Colbert Report, the host mocked Snyder for responding to complaints about his team name by announcing a foundation to help Native Americans. Then on Thursday, The Colbert Report‘s Twitter account echoed his on-air punchline: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Twitter exploded with #CancelColbert outrage. The tweet was deleted. Later that night, Colbert tweeted that he does not control the @ColbertReport feed:

@ColbertReport noted as much around the same time:

(Yes, there is nothing like a coordinated message between two social media accounts to prove a lack of coordinated messaging between two social media accounts.)

So you probably think either one of two things about his joke: Either it’s clearly in-character satire meant to skewer racism, the same schtick Colbert has been doing for a decade…or that using the stereotype to make the joke was offensive regardless of intent. Again, this post isn’t about that, and I know that’s a rather key aspect to remove from the conversation. But let’s try to do it, because there is another element here that will probably have future ramifications as Hollywood (and the rest of us) navigate social media.

This is the question: Does it matter if Colbert didn’t tweet his own joke?

I suspect only a small percentage on Twitter last night — those who are the least familiar with Hollywood and social media — actually thought Colbert was personally spending his free time aggregating his own jokes on his show’s account. But think of it this way: Colbert is the co-creator, executive producer and host of the show. He told the joke on the air. When his show’s official Twitter account repeats the punchline, for him to say, essentially, “Whoa whoa whoa! I had nothing to do with that craziness!” it feels weirdly detached, regardless of what you think of the joke. Plus, many of those offended by the material, again, do not care about its absent context.

Let’s frame this another way. If Comedy Central used an out-of-context punchline from a stand-up’s upcoming special in an on-air promo and the joke offended some viewers, who is responsible for that offense: the comic or the network? I’m not trying to steer you toward one answer or the other, but rather get you to think about the question. (And here’s a third possible answer, the Zen approach: Neither; the person being offended is responsible for their own feeling of offense).

Personally, I think this is a more interesting debate than “was a comic’s punchline offensive,” a periodic online scrimmage. We’re all adding layers of avatars to represent us online, personally and professionally. Each distills our thoughts, words and likenesses. Many of them strip our representations into smaller and smaller portions, gradually filtering away context, tone and nuance. So at what point are our avatars considered separate from us? And at what point are we are no longer responsible for what they say?

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