While a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, most would agree a “butt” or “rear” by certain other names are not as inoffensive. But what justifiable rationale makes the “a-word” unacceptable to speak, but “butt” perfectly acceptable? Removing words and concepts from socially acceptable discussion doesn’t cleanse society of ill thought. Rather, it restricts discussion in a way that prevents us from saying what we mean and think. South Park’s 18 seasons effectively make the case for all to speak candidly — and that includes politicians.
South Park has long been a proud pioneer of televised profanity. There is a Wikipedia page dedicated to the show’s extensive list of controversies. But to judge the show on diction and shock factor alone is to overlook the compelling ethical, moral, and logical arguments made despite — or maybe because of — the vulgarity. Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason.com, has similarly noted that South Park “edifies because it offends.”
The purported goal of South Park’s founders was not to air as much profanity as cable will allow — though it often seems that way. Rather, they seem to encourage people to focus on what matters. In a 1998 interview, one of South Park’s founders, Matt Stone, dismissed the idea that the show’s vulgarity alone made it better or worse than other comedy, as well as the idea that it attacks political correctness. Instead, South Park is more of an “equal-opportunity offender.” Stone remarked, “I don’t give a s— about being PC or anti-PC … We tackle subject matter that we think is funny and unique.”
In other words, South Park’s founders see profanity neither as a requisite nor inhibitor of comedy. Rather, they see four letter words as just more options from which to choose when deciding what diction to use. Swear words make a different impact than their socially acceptable counterparts.
There is no doubt that South Park’s popularity is due in part to its shock factor. What is off limits is often more thrilling, exciting, and, in South Park’s case, funny. But its mission is to candidly make fun of everyone and everything — nothing is off limits. As Paul Cantor, a professor at the University of Virginia notes, comedy “derives its energy from its transgressive power, its ability to break taboos, to speak the unspeakable.”
Some might assume this would lead to depravity — just putting the worst of humanity on display. And those who look only at South Park’s profanity might think that. But when you look deeper into the show, you see cerebral concepts — both historical and new, often ethical and capitalist — explained in hilarious ways.
Cantor expertly explains the economic concepts displayed in the episode in which the Underpants Gnomes regularly steal people’s underwear. He notes that “gnome” is actually historical reference finance and capitalism, and, likely, the “invisible hand.” The Underpants Gnomes don’t seem to understand why they collect underpants. They explain their business operation: “Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Collect Underpants. ?. Profit.” Cantor notes this is a likely reference to Americans’ economic illiteracy and lack of understanding of their important respective roles in the economy — concepts from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Cantor also explains how the episode as a whole is a brilliant defense of capitalism.
In other episodes, South Park has made the case for ride-sharing services [S18 E4], for tort reform [S3 E6], for NSA reform [S18 E5], for capitalism and the free market [innumerable episodes], against Obamacare [S17 E5], and against purported environmentalists who actively reject reason in favor of dogmatic rhetoric [S5 E5]. They often make these deeply intellectual arguments in more relatable ways than many politicians and others who work in policy and politics.
South Park’s extreme profanity may actually help them make these ethical cases. While most would avoid using swear words — so as not to offend — South Park’s writers speak without filters, not cautious of offending. Accordingly, their points are clearer, more creatively presented, and focused on humor and message — uninhibited by political correctness.
Imagine if politicians were to speak half as candidly. If people were able to look past profanity and at the larger message, and politicians could speak without filters, maybe they could convey messages as effectively and relatably as South Park has.
Of course, that is unlikely and unwise, as their careers depend wholly on the approval of Americans, many of whom would be offended by such language and unfiltered presentation of ideas. This holds a special irony, as politicians are supposed to help protect freedom of speech, while they may be among the most censored.