“This is when things got weird. And ugly.”
Words describing Suey Park and her campaign in the last three paragraphs of Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Campaign to “Cancel” Colbert“:
self-promotion race hustling ideological motivation distasteful silly dumb wrong distasteful shrill misguided frivolous annoying infuriating disingenuous and self-aggrandizing incite this particular riot mess she leaves in her wake cheapened by the ease, and sometimes frivolity
And this is a column which is explicitly suggests that Park is probably smarter than she seems, more savvy than she has been made to appear; Kang acknowledges, at the end of the piece, that “after speaking to Park about what she hoped to accomplish with all this (a paternalistic question if there ever was one), I wonder if we might be witnessing the development of a more compelling—and sometimes annoying and infuriating—form of protest.” He acknowledges the paternalism of his own framing, says some smart things, and does a much better job of actually listening to what Park is saying than most who have commented on the whole thing (a low bar, but still). This is one of the good articles on this issue.
Yet what is this column saying? What is its “thesis”? There isn’t an easy answer to that question, because the ambivalence towards Park is almost explicit, and threatens to overwhelm whatever else might be ostensible in it. Indeed, that parade of negatives at the end of the column might be an attempt to maintain and demonstrate “objectivity” towards the subject, to show by disavowal that though he became more sympathetic towards her, after speaking to her, he still recognizes how she seems to us, who haven’t. Our rational sense of the objective facts can remain respectable, and we can gently speculate about whether we might possibly be seeing a new form of protest (compelling, though also annoying and infuriating), as long as we also acknowledge that it sure seems awful (and be a “we” by reference to that apprehensive recoil). It just might not be as bad as it seems! Just maybe!
I’m struck, in other words, by the way the background rises up to overshadow the foreground. This is a column which is mostly sympathetic to Suey Park (or at least charts a trajectory towards sympathizing with her), but its urge to sympathy runs aground on the urge to reinforce and renew the writer’s own objectivity. Phrases like “If we are to take Park’s explanation in good faith” work to stage her as a possibly not-untrustworthy witness–since her good faith cannot be presumed, but must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt–and yet doubt seems to remain the default reasonable position: “I do not know if I believe that Park set out to.” Meanwhile, a phrase like “I am ten years older than Suey Park, and, like her, I grew up in a suburban Korean household” positions the author as a reasonable version of her; one who is older, wiser, sympathetic to her passion, but skeptical of her reasons. That gender marks the difference is not explicit, but it sure as hell does mark the difference.
Gender also marks the difference in a post at Deadspin, which apparently sets out to offend in its very title (but satirically!):
The two authors of this post happen to be Korean-American—one of them, like Suey Park, is a Korean-American from Illinois. We find Suey Park’s reading of the joke to be, as the activists like to say, incredibly problematic; it flattens out all meaning and pretends, in effect, that there is no ironic distance between Jonathan Swift’s satire and actual cannibalism, not to mention that it’s tighter-assed than life itself.
I am left, then, with Park’s own statement that “There’s no reason for me to act reasonable because I won’t be taken seriously anyway.” For one thing, this is obviously true. When we are told that Suey Park “does not make any claim to objectivity or fairness,” we are seeing a sharp limit to how much a journalist in a fact-checked journalism publication can fully see from her perspective, or allow himself to, without bringing his own narrative frame into peril. Sympathizing with an activist makes it hard to make claims to objectivity or fairness; it makes people wonder if you might be an activist too, and therefore untrustworthy. Quick, better make her unsympathetic!
But there’s also a flip-side to what Park said, there, and that’s that she will be taken seriously; or, rather, she will be taken seriously, by serious dudes, as un-serious. The Deadspin dudes will pretend to be mimicking activist discourse–“We find Suey Park’s reading of the joke to be, as the activists like to say, incredibly problematic”–but, of course, they are not: most of Park’s schtick is pure performative critique, and placing her in the position of humorless activist is just cheap recourse to stereotype. After all, Park didn’t drily observe that it was problematic; more recently, in fact, she’s attempted to show that it was by adopting a male persona (Stewy Park) and observing how differently she was observed to be. She satirized her mansplainers, in other words, who have been meanwhile soberly and reasonably explaining how jokes work, to the humorless feminist she must be, as a consequence of being an activist. Which brings me back to something @millicentsomer likes to observe: nothing will more quickly and reliably transform male defenders of comedy into humorless, pearl-clutching neo-Victorian mansplainers–defending reason and propriety–than a woman observing that their joke isn’t funny.