South Park and Open Society: A Response

An essay I recently wrote. Loved reading about Karl Popper, didn’t really like the essay.

South Park and Open Society: A Response

            When examining a democratic society there should be ample evidence of open expression, where ideas can be examined and critiqued by the people as a whole. Professors David Curtis and Gerald Erion investigate this evidence in their essay South Park and the Open Society by presenting the controversial cartoon show South Park. South Park gained popularity in the nineties, and has since built the reputation of parading society’s most controversial topics for the public eye. Curtis and Erion provide examples of how the open examination found in South Park was intentionally designed to exercise and preserve the health of liberal democracy. To support their case and qualify the importance of an open society, the authors cite twentieth century political philosopher Karl Popper and his critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            In the opening paragraphs of their essay, Curtis and Erion reference media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s position that many social criticisms are intentionally interwoven into seemingly harmless entertainment mediums and serve to illustrate the fundamental principles of democratic philosophy at work (para 1).  South Park, they instance, does this explicitly by portraying its characters as ‘overzealous political activists’. The show openly offers up caricatures of extremism on the right and left for ridicule and derision. Because South Park finds no person or subject taboo, it has been constantly targeted for censorship and cancelation. Curtis and Erion believe that the creator’s decision to allow open discussion of such extremism places them in a position safe from the extremists who threaten to shut down the show.

            While South Park may come off as a crass cartoon filled with crude humor and ‘tasteless’ jokes, authors Curtis and Erion create convincing parallels between serious social and political gestalts that allow for deeper considerations of South Parks methods of free expression. What has protected South Park from much of this ridicule is that by silencing the shows message, many people would effectively be silencing their own. What lends credibility to the show is that it rests on the ideals of open society that are needed for critique and criticisms. It is just as natural that the show is a critic that it is producing critics.

            Curtis and Erion cite South Park cocreators Trey Parkers and Matt Stone in a PBS interview as they remark on the importance of openly recognizing that people screaming on both sides of an issue are the same people, and that it is ‘OK’ to be in the middle and laugh at both of them (para 3). What is paramount here is that these extremists don’t stifle the message of one or the other. Curtis and Erion refer to Karl Poppers principle of intolerance for intolerance to support Parker and Stone’s position (para 14). This principle emphasizes what Popper saw as a necessity in a democratic society in order to ensure open discussion on all subjects that call for critique and lead to progress. While the creators may not intentionally have society’s best interest at heart, they are most definitely furthering the healthy process of examining controversial subjects so that progressive ideas can be exchanged.

            When looking at the heart of this type of free expression in action, twentieth century scientific and politic philosopher Karl Popper provides the best framework for examining the system. As a major proponent of liberal democracy, Popper championed the notion of open society while criticizing the controls of government and customary myths perpetuating closed societies.  

            In order to avoid being subject to criticism from one extremist group or another, the creators of South Park opt to bash all sides, playing it safe in the middle ground. Referring to the remarks of the co-creators about the importance of extremism being expressed, Curtis and Erion find evidence of Poppers open society framework in the countless characters of South Park who openly embody this extremism and portray stereotypes of all kinds. Each of the main caricatures of SouthPark, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, encapsulate characterized beliefs within our culture.

            Through the character Cartman, the obnoxious overweight authoritarian, the co-creators exhibit the abhorrent stereotypes associated with the right wing fanaticism (para 11). Curtis and Erion describe the qualities and character defects that Cartman poignantly displays in characterizing ‘un-democratic’ conservatives. He has no issue berating anyone with his foul mouth and fascist opinions and most often takes his anger out on Kenny, a character that best represents the poorer class.

            With his coat covering his mouth and inhibiting recognizable speech, Kenny’s role usually consists of random muffles here and there, followed by his eventual death in most episodes. His lack of speech is similar to the lack of voice and influence within the poorer class. His regular deaths, and the utter lack of concern his friends share when he dies, represents the constant struggle within the lower classes that is often overlooked or ignored as a whole.

            With just as much ease, Curtis and Erion reference the characters identified with the extreme political left. An episode with their teacher, Mr. Mackey, portrays the hypocrisy of the watered-down leftists as his attempts to get the students to stay away from drugs lead to his own addiction.

            For middle ground the creators introduce Stan to exemplify the every day American middle class Christian populist. Along with Kyle, they represent an open and diplomatic approach to problems which allows the audience to receive him easily. While similar to Stan, Kyle is Jewish and embodies the prejudices as a minority.       

            The friendship between these four not only illustrates the volatile dynamics within American culture as they interact, but creates a satirical stage as they encounter other residents and extremists within the show that demonstrate extreme beliefs and opinions. What makes the show so popular is how these characters encounter these extreme ideas and the scenarios they contain. As an audience we witness our own behaviors, biases and prejudices exhibited through the characters.

            Curtis and Erion present convincing evidence in their essay South Park and the Open Society that South Park creators Parker and Stone share Karl Poppers political philosophy of an open society. By actively identifying and discussing the extremism on all sides, they offer themselves up as an extreme, and legitimize an important stake in open discussions. If Popper were alive to witness South Park on the air, he would rest assure that the health of American Democracy is alive and well.