Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Curling Parents, Colbert, and the Politics of Hurt Feelings

The #CancelColbert says a lot about a new generation of political activists.

At the risk of sounding like just another cranky GenXer, let me be clear: baby boomers and GenXers may be the worst parents ever! It is possible that my generation of parents messed things up big time for the young adults who are now entering the world. Many of these 20-somethings don't know how to play hard and take risks and get hurt. Even, apparently, hurt feelings are too much to bear. As Hannah Rosin points out in her piece in the Atlantic, The Over Protected Kid, we organize every minute of our children's day so that they never, ever face risks of any kind. Rosin herself admits to not having let her own daughter spend even 10 minutes unsupervised in her first ten years.

Today's parents hover even more than previous helicopter parents, earning the name “curling parents.” Like a curler at the Winter Olympics, carefully sweeping all the snow out of the way, we remove all obstacles so the precious little child can go through life without even a bump. That's why:

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even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to.

Yet all of this over protective parenting has produced a lot of young adults who are unable to endure even the slightest push without going completely off track. Case in point is the #CancelColbert campaign that went viral last week. The campaign, started by activist Suey Park, came in response to a tweet from the Colbert Report that announced the founding of the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. This was a stupid tweet given that it was completely out of context and easily read as racist. Although the tweet does refer to a racist viral video from a few years back and has the words “Orientals” and “whatever” in it, and therefore is clearly a "joke," it was not seen as funny. Many, including Ms. Park, interpreted the tweet as the sort of incredibly insensitive “white satire” so popularized by shows like South Park. This sort of white satire allows those in powerful positions to make racist, sexist and classist jokes as a way of positioning themselves as not racist, sexist or classist. A lot of people don’t find that sort of white satire funny and rightly so.

But this is Stephen Colbert, a man whose entire show is, in an absurdist way, dedicated to promoting progressive politics. In fact, the tweet was part of a larger send up of the actually racist Washington Redskins Foundation for Original Americans. That's right- the football team that refuses to get rid of its racist name and mascot has a foundation for Native Americans. This foundation is cynical, but not at all ironic. Sadly the actually racist foundation and its founder were not the target of a twitter campaign and instead the #CancelColbert feed went viral as the Colbert Report and Colbert himself were labeled as racist.

I am sure that tweeting a piece of a satire without context is stupid. I am far less sure why a comedian who regularly turns racism on its head is now widely being accused of racism. Colbert is part of a long tradition of political commentators who create a theater of the absurd to make the absurdity of the current system more visible. Colbert does this in a way that can only be described as brilliant. Want to understand just how bad Citizens United was for American politics? Watch his series on creating his own super pac, Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.  Want to understand the plight of migrant farm workers? Watch Colbert’s fake but deadly serious testimony before Congress about his Take Our Jobs campaign where he tried to get Americans to do the hard work of farm labor in order to show just how bad conditions and pay are for these workers. 

And when it comes to race, Colbert consistently schools white people by showing how absurd a white commitment to being post-racial is in a society so thoroughly structured by racism. During his apology for the offending tweet, Colbert said, "I don't see race.” That’s right, because he doesn’t have to because as he pointed out on the show, the white male is the American standard. You can “add melanin or a vagina” but the white male remains the unexamined cite of American privilege.

Sadly, none of the incredibly good and progressive work that Colbert has done matters among a generation of Americans who are only moved by the tyranny of emotions. Because something stupid was said on the Colbert Report twitter feed, that is all that matters. People were offended. And in this tyranny of emotions, structure disappears.

Some commentators are calling on people of color to boycott the Colbert Report. At Black Girl Dangerous, Mia McKenzie writes:

Whether you like The Colbert Report or not, whether you were offended by that joke or not, the question I’m asking is why anyone—particularly people of color—is invested in The Colbert Report in particular and in white racial satire in general. What is white racial satire doing for us that is so important? Important enough to outright dismiss, at best, and rail against, at worse, people who speak out when they are harmed by it?

Not to diminish the lasting effects of unexamined symbolic racism, but they pale in comparison to the effects of examined and structural racism. Yet because a generation has been raised to not get hurt, they turn away from real and potential allies because those allies were not careful enough with their words. This is the same impulse that leads students to demand trigger warnings in classes for any material that might upset them. As I wrote over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed,  

Some students and professors argue that nearly everything should come with a trigger warning. Mrs. Dalloway? Trigger warning: suicidal tendencies. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: suicide, domestic abuse, graphic violence. Think I’m making this up? I’m not. Those warnings come from a student op-ed in Rutgers’s The Daily Targum. It seems absurd, like an article in The Onion. To add to the Kafkaesque irony of it all, some people want The Onion to come with trigger warnings too.

During a discussion about the #CancelColbert campaign, someone told me that no emotion is too small not to produce a political response. This perversion of the feminist “the personal is political” is dangerous because it misses the big picture. When feminists said the personal is political they meant that we cannot ignore how power operates in the everyday world. It was about structure as well as our selves. Now it is just about our selves. Precious and delicate selves careening through space demanding that all the difficult things be moved out of our way.

Curling parenting has produced a generation of special snowflakes who seem not to know that you do not throw your allies under the bus even while you ignore the people and structures that are actually standing in your way. 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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