Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Conservatives on South Park's self-censorship

Nina Shea, in National Review, and NYT's Ross Douthat both wrote critical articles this week on Comedy Central's decision to censor an episode of South Park because of recent threats due to a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed. At issue in both pieces was the fact the threats had worked in silencing free speech.

While I agree with them on this particular point, it troubles me that they failed to express what Stanley Fish calls the "rhetoric of regret." Nowhere in either piece do they declare "distaste and even revulsion" for the contents of the show. On the contrary, Douthat praises it in glowing terms: "Across 14 on-air years, there’s no icon “South Park” hasn’t trampled, no vein of shock-comedy (sexual, scatalogical, blasphemous) it hasn’t mined. In a less jaded era, its creators would have been the rightful heirs of Oscar Wilde or Lenny Bruce — taking frequent risks to fillet the culture’s sacred cows."

As in the previous post, Carson Holloway's critique of a similar argument by Brett Stephens is instructive here. Shea and Douthat, like Stephens, fall into an "understandable but unfortunate human tendency: the desire to distinguish ourselves as completely as possible from our enemies[Radical Muslims], even to the extent of defining our own identity in opposition to theirs. We see our enemies’ vices with perfect clarity, and we spontaneously desire to distance ourselves from them as much as we can. The problem with this impulse, however, is that, as Aristotle reminds us, virtue is a mean between two vicious extremes. Thus, in fleeing unreflectively from the failings of our foes, we may run right past the virtuous mean and into an opposed, and vicious, extreme[Degraded Popular Culture]. "

I would add Aristotle does not think opposing vices are always equal e.g. a brash action is better than a cowardly one. Thus, Radical Islam's repression is worse than South Park's vulgarity, but that doesn't change the fact the latter is still a vice.

Holloway gives a few instances of what he means here: "In the depths of the Cold War, for example, America, despite its need to distinguish itself from Communist collectivism, did not dismantle its social safety net and embrace a thoroughgoing individualism that held that every man was on his own. Similarly, our revulsion at Nazism’s militarization of society did not lead us to reject the draft as a necessary tool of national self-defense. By the same token, we should not let our (quite proper) rejection of radical Islam’s repressiveness lead us to embrace an equally problematic permissiveness."

That South Park's creators were censored under the threat of physical harm is terrible, but to say that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to see South Park censor itself more often.

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