In Defense of truly free speech: South Park at 21

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Satire is one of the most powerful weapons of speech in a free society. It stirs the collective consciousness against oppressive governments and laws, rulers, the rich and powerful (look at Voltaire and the rich tradition of political cartoons in the modern world, all the way to the biting social commentary of freedom of speech warriors like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin), and moreover points a mirror at we ourselves as individuals: exposing the hypocrisies and frailties of our individual positions on issues — hopefully getting us to see where others are coming from in how they view the world. Thus, satire also takes tremendous steps to opening up dialogue on the issues where it had otherwise been stifled — penetrating that wall through a universal language of humor: if we are only willing to give a little introspection and laugh at ourselves.

Indeed, this stifling of well-meaning dialogue seems to be all too prevalent in the modern world, especially in the United States in the age of Trump, with people on the right (whether consciously or not) complaining about “political correctness” on the left, and people on the left (whether consciously or not) often complaining about what has been called “patriotic correctness” on the right. Most people, I firmly believe, tend to sit somewhere in the middle of these two positions.

I do not particularly like talking about my politics, especially in my capacity as a writer — it is not my responsibility nor prerogative to give you my opinions there when I am reviewing the merits of a film. That said, I do not hold it against people who do, or people who think differently from me. I am with these people in the middle, yet it is only fair I divulge my views here because of the nature of this editorial. I consider myself a small “l” libertarian (meaning I subscribe to the philosophy of “libertarianism” but not the national party). This means that I believe in maximum freedom for the individual (provided he does not directly hurt another person), and further that I agree with positions both on the left (gay and transgender rights, immigrant rights, civil rights principally) and on the right (some economics principally).

This further means that I see craziness on both sides, and also pay very little attention to party affiliation believing it to be more destructive than good for collective dialogue. This is relevant because it ties into one of my all-time favorite television shows, one that has been around for 21 years this year, and one that also tends to take the tact the both sides have wisdom, and both sides are flawed: Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s (creators of Team America: World Police and The Book of Mormon among other projects) South Park — a show that has been a part of me literally since I was in elementary school and saw the first episode: “Cartman gets an anal probe” — making fun of the ideas we as a culture have about extra-terrestrials.

South Park, in my view, is one of the finest examples of political satire in the modern world. It is also one of the most ideologically consistent: lambasting the hypocrisies of both conservatism and modern liberalism — giving them hilarious air in the situations of 4 boys (Cartman, Stan, Kyle, and Kenny) from a small mountain town in Colorado where creators Stone and Parker are from.

South Park has consistently touted zero political affiliation. This has buoyed, confused, and angered many, with everything from a “South Park Conservatives” book being released to Stone and Parker getting flak from everyone from the conservative Christian and Catholic lobby, to leftist groups and atheists, to Comedy Central even altering an episode visually depicting the Prophet Muhammad (of which episode Parker and Stone turned into a brilliant commentary on censorship by merely placing a big black bar over the animated character of the Prophet in the show, and even bleeping about 30 seconds of Kyle’s speech at the episode’s end, summing up the lesson it was supposed to impart), to South Park’s epic war with scientology.

Stone and Parker are unapologetic about their unwillingness to fall into any partisan or religious camp. Stone tells the Huffington Post, “I would never want the show to be a Democrat show or Republican show, because for us the show’s more important than that. It isn’t for everybody else in the world, but it is for us. We don’t want you to come to it thinking, ‘These guys are going to bash liberals.’” While Parker said in 2005, “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.”

That all being said, should conservatives or liberals be turned off by what South Park has to say? Absolutely not. This kind of anti-partisan satire is vital to the intellectual vigor of a free society. It gets us to think about our ways and ideas as people, albeit through a little shock value. In that way, it carries that proud banner of free speech lifted by such luminaries as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Besides, laughing at ourselves is never a bad thing, and often quite healthy — fostering freedom of thought, and an ability to look at things in a different way: characteristics that are even more vital in the Age of Trump, when we are even more divided.

At 21, South Park is more vital than ever — and, I believe, if we give it a chance, can foster dialogue where we as a people seem hopelessly broken. The show still stands as an anti-partisan bulwark in what is a hyper-partisan political era. I encourage everyone to catch the new season (which started September 13) Wednesdays on Comedy Central.

See the Season 21 Trailer below.

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