The internet's grudge against Suey Park goes far beyond #CancelColbert

Come again?

Sure, #CancelColbert was widely mocked. It was a particularly ridiculous and misguided attempt at hashtag activism. But people aren’t holding a grudge towards its creator, Suey Park, over a hashtag.

At The New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes,

… The Internet has not forgiven Suey Park. A quick online search finds that the #CancelColbert hashtag still riles a certain kind of online misanthrope, even today. It has been cited as evidence of the censoriousness of “social justice warriors” (a pejorative term that nods to the superficiality of online social activism); as proof, in the words of one @sherlocklestat, that “feminism poisons EVERYTHING”; and as substantiation, according to another Twitter malcontent, of Park’s alleged racism against white people (“Count # times @suey_park says ‘white liberals’ in this video & ask who has an agenda and who is racist”).

These arguments — that #CancelColbert had anything to do with the feminist movement and that there is such a thing as racism against white people — are, frankly, stupid. #CancelCobert was criticized, not only by anti-feminists and racists, but by most intelligent people as being yet another example of the kind of speak-before-you-think, attention-seeking behaviour exhibited by Park and for being wholly misguided, based on an extremely superficial and inaccurate reading of Cobert’s joke.

Erin Gloria Ryan summed up the joke at Jezebel, in context, last year:

One of the reasons The Colbert Report is so fantastic is that Colbert and its writers have figured out how to skewer the seemingly unskewerable ridiculousness of American conservative media by creating parallels between reality and Colbert’s brand of “truthiness.” Colbert exposes the absurd by acting as a more literate, self-aware mirror to that absurdity. He does what he mocks, but bigger and sillier, thus exposing the silliness of the source material. Satire!

The episode tackled something so incredibly over-the-top — the owner of a billion-dollar NFL team with a racially offensive name defending his staunch insistence on keeping that name because “heritage” by starting a halfassed charity for Native Americans that contains the word “Redskins” — that Colbert’s skewering didn’t have much room to get any bigger or any sillier; when it comes to stories like the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” you can’t get much bigger than truth without veering close to racially offensive territory. This is surgical-precision satire, right here, and he pulls it off.

The bit only works as a whole; it doesn’t work in parts. Colbert’s character is saying here that naming a charity “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” is just as offensive as naming a charity the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” That’s the joke.

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So, taken out of context, the joke didn’t fully work. Of course, part of the problem with Twitter is that almost everything is taken out of context, particularly when Twitter is on the attack. Tweets, screenshots, one-off comments, and individual words are all removed from essays, speeches, sentences, and entire bodies of work (never mind the intention behind the words) and used as ammo to destroy.

As an example, in recent weeks I was accused both of calling actress, Laverne Cox, “cartoonish,” and describing prostituted women as “a series of holes.” I did neither of these things, as evidenced by the fuller context below.

What I actually wrote, with regard to Cox.

The critique, with regard to Laverne Cox, was a critique I’d made many times before — that is that there is a huge amount of pressure placed on women to conform to a particular ideal, one that is very much shaped by porn culture. I do not believe, in any part of my being, that Cox looks “cartoonish.” She looks lovely — I said as much in my piece. That said, my analysis of the beauty industry, capitalism, porn culture, femininity, and patriarchy is that no woman will be empowered in any true, political/radical sense, by objectification. Not Laverne Cox, not a teenage girl posting belfies on Instagram, not Kim Kardashian. Certainly I could have chosen my words more carefully or been more sensitive, but my analysis would have remained the same. It is what I have argued for years.

And what I said, with regard to prostituted women being seen as “a series of holes” was that johns (quite literally) see and talk about women and girls in the sex industry in those terms. And that we — women — are not a “series of holes” — we are more than that and we deserve to be treated with humanity.

My words, taken out of context and circulated on Twitter for the explicit purpose of harassing, attacking, and, eventually, launching a full-blown smear campaign against me in order to silence my (and, consequently, other women’s) critique of the sex industry, sounded bad. But like Colbert’s joke, when taken as a one-off comment and separated from my body of work and the paragraphs within which these particular words were placed, it could be implied I meant something entirely different than that which I intended.

I am not the only one who has experienced this particular form of attack and misrepresentation. Not by a long shot. This is what Twitter does for fun and kicks: finds a target, paints them as evil, smears, bullies, and tries to silence them completely. Usually there is an effort to have the subject in question fired from their job. Twitter dehumanizes people and Twitter reacts before thinking, often en masse.

But let’s get back to Park.

While #CancelColbert was emblematic, in terms of the trouble with “hashtag activism,” it isn’t the only reason, as Bruenig puts it, that “Twitter won’t forgive Suey Park.” Twitter “won’t forgive” Park because her behaviour on Twitter was atrocious and her “activism” was narcissistic and lacking in substance. She was cruel, insulting, self-serving, dishonest, and seemingly more interested in gaining followers than she was in working within any kind of actual social justice movement. Despite this, I think many watched with concern, imagining Park would eventually regret having leapt into Twitter wars with such intensity, burning bridges at every turn. She was young, very new to “activism,” and seemed very quickly sucked in by the sense of validation we get in the form of “likes” and retweets that feed our online behaviour. In Park’s particular case, her online “activism” consisted primarily of tearing people down in order to build herself up, behaving similarly to a high school bully, Mean Girls quotes and all.

She quickly gained recognition online for hashtags like #NotYourAsianSidekick and, through that recognition, tried to spin Twitter activism into a career. What was transparent to most was that she appeared to be creating a brand — both for herself and her hashtags. Unfortunately, though, branding social justice movements doesn’t appeal to those who actually are involved in and understand radical politics and movements… It’s unlikely you will gain much respect in activist communities when it’s clear your primary goal is to become “Twitter famous” by spewing out quotables and by cruelly attacking and misrepresenting other writers and activists in 140 characters.

Trapped in “any publicity is good publicity” mode, Park didn’t appear to have thought through strategy. She didn’t seem to have many connections with actual social justice movements out in the “real world” and had fallen for the idea that to “trend” is to effect change. No one was holding her accountable for her actions and behaviour. She needed a community of older, wiser women to guide her or, at very least, a mentor. Instead, it was The Suey Park Show. And people quickly started to tire of that show.

None of this is to say Park deserved the torrent of sexist and racist abuse and threats sent her way. I had, truth be told, not realized she had been subjected to this level of harassment until now. Bruenig says Park was receiving death threats on her cell phone, was being stalked, and that, after “a group of online trolls found out where she was living, she cut her hair, left Chicago, and headed to New York City to stay with friends.” This is horrific stuff that no one deserves, no matter how much you dislike their online behaviour, opinions, or hashtags.

Nonetheless, her complaints about online engagement and the undertones of a Christian redemption story that root Bruenig’s piece are hard to digest.

Park seems to recognize that the lack of leadership and accountability in her life, during this time, as well as her age and inexperience was a problem in terms of her online behaviour. Bruenig writes:

She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”

But the way she reflects back on what happened to her seems, still, lacking in any actual self-reflection in terms of her own behaviour. Most of us don’t have PR people. There are certainly a few mean tweets in my past which I now regret, but I believe I’ve managed to avoid actively defaming or launching massive bullying campaigns against other women without the help of a paid professional. Park now reiterates exactly what others, myself included, have said before about toxic behaviour on Twitter but which she reacted to, in the past, by engaging in herself:

“It’s a lot like purity politics in the church,” Park observed, referring to the tendency of Twitter groups to attack perceived wrongdoers. It is, she pointed out, a strategy that works for activists until it turns on them. “You do one wrong thing,” Park said, “and you’re tainted. You’re out forever.”

Coming from the ringleader of these attacks, aimed explicitly at anyone who was critical of this very behaviour, her comments feel insincere.

She’s since deleted tweets that invented quotes in order to frame people as saying things they did not say, in order to encourage others to pile on. But it wasn’t so long ago that we’ve forgotten. This bullying was not only aimed at famous white men with TV shows, but at feminist activists and writers.

Bruenig points out, correctly, that “If a person’s reputation is perpetually tied to one thought or remark, it is likely thanks to the efforts of a specific group of people who tweet, retweet, blog, reblog, tag, retag, and otherwise create the terms on which a person will be understood, whether or not he or she likes it, whether or not they have changed.” I know this to be true because it’s happened to me more than once. And Park was most certainly part of the group of people who perpetuated and fed this, in the past. So it’s hard to feel sympathy towards someone who is complaining about the very same kind of behaviour she engaged in with enthusiasm and built her platform on, when I’ve heard nothing close to remorse or understanding from her. It’s hard to forgive someone when they haven’t apologized for their own behaviour. Everyone has the right to change, but without acknowledgement of misdeeds, people will continue to be skeptical.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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