A Plea for Political Politeness

Still from ‘South Park’ episode ‘201’. Image: newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media

Recently, South Park aired their infamous episode, ‘201,’ in which they depict the prophet Muhammad. South Park has a real knack for satire of the unjust use of power, inequality, hypocrisy etc in the public realm, but they are sometimes careless too, and despite all of those that have sprung to the show’s defence (especially after Comedy Central heavily censored the episode), I personally can’t see how the content of this episode is defensible.

The intention of the show was, make no mistake, to cause offence (while the prophet was not personally shown, he was depicted in a goofy mascot outfit). They wanted to show that nothing should be sacred in a world where we have freedom of speech. This is an acceptable point, and one that is seen as synonymous with democracy and freedom. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have, over the years, been given free licence to offend. But I think this comes with an important caveat. By far the best South Park episodes are those which mock distasteful social trends or self-important antagonisers, a case in point being the recent episode “Sexual Healing” criticised the elitism present when celebrities (Tiger Woods is the prominent example in the episode) defend their infidelities with the excuse of ‘sexual addiction’ and are enabled to do so by the media and the cult of celebrity that maintains them.

It seems to me that ’201,’ however, has little claim to the same social significance. While drawing Muhammad should have no legal or violent repercussions, the question remains: why would you want to? The positive aspect of political correctness is really political tact: the desire to express views in a way that avoid needlessly offending sacred sensibilities. While some sort of legal censorship of the cartoon would be wrong, the fact remains that drawing the image is simply tactless. While I may not personally feel the offence caused by drawing Muhammad, I can certainly understand why it is offensive. Muhammad is considered such a holy entity that any attempt by a human to render his image necessarily depreciates from his status. With this in mind, I can’t think of any situation in which there is an urgent need for anyone (especially a non-Muslim) to draw Muhammad. Matt and Trey’s point is valid but a little platitudinous, and it seems to place the dogma of the satirist – that nothing should be above mockery – above the equally important need to respect the sincere beliefs of others, even if we don’t understand them. The questions raised by the episode seem to be something like ‘Why is it wrong to draw Muhammad? And why can’t the Islamic community just accept, like anybody else, the mockery of their religious figures?’ The answer to this is that it isn’t necessarily ‘wrong,’ but that it is needless and insensitive, and seen as it’s hardly a huge sacrifice, you should respect Muslim discomfort at seeing their prophet drawn. Returning to the Tiger Woods example, he is a worthy target because it is unreasonable for him to ask to be excused from the moral codes of fidelity, whereas with this episode, there is nothing unreasonable in the Islamic community asking that no-one draw Muhammad.

There is also a dangerous generalisation implicit in the episode. Though there are (as ever) an unrepresentative band of Islamic extremism that have been inexcusably violent towards those that have depicted Muhammad in the past, and though the South Park episode suggests this, there is nonetheless a sense of an instant and omnipotent threat posed by the Islamic community in general in the episode, a suggestion that the sight of Muhammad will put the whole community in instant danger. This is clearly not the case as – though it is a well-trodden point – the vast majority of the Islamic community are peaceful. Unfortunately, the only general consensus between the Islamic viewers of this episode will be one of hurt and marginalisation.

Like in so many cases that are deemed ‘political correctness gone mad’ the Islamic community are criticised for their censorship when, in fact, they have no part in anything of the sort. Indeed, the episode depicts the Islamic community as some sort of global malevolent censor. This is highly objectionable and incorrect. Indeed, the only group censoring the episode were Comedy Central. This has come in for huge amounts of criticism from the show’s satirical brethren (e.g. The Simpsons, Jon Stewart), but what it really shows is what I’ve called for throughout this article: if not political correctness, then a more personal application of political tact. I don’t believe the creators of South Park needed to use the image of Muhammad to make their point, and it is therefore a shame that they couldn’t exercise some self-censorship when making it.

by David Jackson

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22 responses to “A Plea for Political Politeness

  1. The First Amendment:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    While Viacom can censor whatever it likes as a private entity, the government here has a duty to aggressively protect the right of any citizen to exercise freedom of speech.

    Further, the Qur’an dictates that Muslims are forbidden from depicting Muhammad. I don’t believe Stone and Parker are regulars at their local Mosque. Any Muslim getting bent out of shape over the cartoon should spend more time reading the Qur’an and less time listening to the demagoguery pouring out of the radicalised factions within the Islamic world.

  2. But this is my point: i’m not saying that censoring the episode is wrong, and i’m certainly not saying anything should be legally exempt from the usual notions of freedom of speech, I am simply saying that excercising your freedoms in a way that is deliberately offensive and has no real objective behind it other than to undermine a reasonable desire to not have your beliefs respected. To twist a well-known saying: I will defend with my life your right to say something, but that doesn’t make what you say morally right.

    As for your second point, it is at best a loophole. I think it’s a fair conclusion that if the Koran forbids it’s followers from depicting the prophet, then any depiction of the prophet will be deemed offensive.

    And again, just because those that get the attention for their disapproval are the more radicalised among the Islamic community, doesn’t mean that any Muslim offended by this is only offended because of the radicalised.

  3. Sorry, just for clarity, my first sentance should have been: “But this is my point: i’m not saying that censoring the episode is RIGHT, and i’m certainly not saying anything should be legally exempt from the usual notions of freedom of speech, I am simply saying that excercising your freedoms in a way that is deliberately offensive and has no real objective behind it other than to undermine a reasonable desire to not have your beliefs respected.”

  4. If I remember the episode correctly (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s not in fact Muhammed ‘depicted’ in the bear outfit but Santa. This might seem a pernickety point to make given the seriousness of the potential offence made, but that is specifically the point that South Park writers seemed to be making in my eyes.
    Muhammed was only ever depicted as a blacked out “censored’ box, a joke that has been used in a previous episode without nearly the same level of press furore. The writers intentionally lead the viewer to momentarily believe that that Muhammed had been dressed up in a mascot’s outfit and their reasons for doing so can be interpreted in two ways.
    It could be argued that this was done to further insult or enrage the Islamic community; not only has their most holy prophet been depicted but he has been humiliated and debased by portraying him in a comical form. The other argument, one I would follow holds true given the revelation that it is not Muhammed at all but, in equally surreal fashion, Santa who steps out of the bear costume, is that the writers are baiting those, Muslim or otherwise waiting excitedly for outrage or controversy. It seems that it is not the religious significance of graven images or those offended by them that are being lampooned but the very controversy itself; that one exists without a serious depiction of the prophet ever taking place.

    I very much agree with your assessment of the role of discretion and tact in relation to sensitive religious or political issues and agree that this episode, while in my own opinion, pretty damn hilarious, lacked the usual satirical awareness that South Park is renowned for. The representation of Muslims as a homogeneous group of angry and vengeful terrorists is never made. However, there is enough suggestion of Islam being an unpredictable ‘other’ to give the episode a slightly unsettling tone.
    In South Park, everyone is a fool. However the programme is usually pretty good at portraying every culture or religion it satirises as a multivalent and diverse, often self-contradictory, group of fools. I don’t think the show has reached that level of sophisticated deconstruction of Islam that it has with other religions. But I doubt this is the last episode to tread that fine line between humour and offence regarding the subject.

    A couple of asides not directly related to my point…
    I for one don’t buy for a second the idea that it was Comedy Central who ordered the significant ‘bleeping’ of the show’s concluding speeches. It was all far too hilariously timed.
    Also, even had the prophet been the character inside the bear costume, I’m very curious to know where the line is drawn as to what constitutes a graven depiction of a religious figure, Muhammed or any other. If I draw a pebble, or a fire engine, or make a hand printed lino-cut of a ship at sea and then write “A depiction of the Prophet Muhammed” at the bottom, does that cross the line into sacrilege. Or does it just make me… y’know… a wanker.. Answers on a postcard please, any reading religious scholars!

  5. I’m afraid the comic timing is coincidental. Comedy Central have admitted to censoring both the image of Muhammad and the sound of his name, and indeed, South Park have shown him, in all his glory so to speak in previous episodes.

    I agree that the intention may be mock the controvercy behind depicting the prophet, but that doesn’y excuse it in my eyes, because that suggests that it being controversial is worth mocking, which I don’t think it is (for the reasons i’ve put forward in the article).

    As for the final question, in my personal view, the answer is both.

  6. David, the argument you’re defending is that it’s somehow ethically obtuse to mock a religion for the purpose of entertainment. Fuck them – all of them – I hope that having a stupid rule they made up for themselves being broken causes them a great deal of anguish.

    Why? Because simply, it’s a ridiculous global delusion they are sharing, complete with stupid rules that make no sense and are based on fantasy and ignorance. What if I decided that Thing A could never be depicted again because I idiotically believed there was some mystical Sky Daddy who’d be most upset with other people seeing a drawing? You’d probably tell me that I was being a fantasist and a weirdo. There is no difference, aside from scales of time and participation.

    I applaud the South Park team for doing its damn job and pointing out how unacceptable this situation is. To have a tiny fraction of deranged and dangerous demagogues dictate what can be made fun of (under a thinly-veiled threat of violent retribution) is not acceptable in the modern world. There’s also the simple fact that 99% of all Muslims – real Muslims who are moderate normal people – think the entire notion is hysterical.

    Look, I know it’s seen is deeply progressive to be sensitive to the needs of Islam. However, the need that is most overlooked is its urgent need to oust fundamentalists who have a provably poor understanding of the religion in the first place. Further, please don’t think my ire towards religious bullying stops at the gates of Mecca.

    Finally:

    “As for your second point, it is at best a loophole. I think it’s a fair conclusion that if the Koran forbids it’s followers from depicting the prophet, then any depiction of the prophet will be deemed offensive.”

    Rubbish. There are countless things that are forbidden by every religion. None believers are free to ignore such dictates at their leisure, with believers usually just observing what is their perception of the damned masses failing to save themselves.

  7. Stefan: I would say that, firstly, you are being just as dogmatic as followers of religion in your vehement denial of their beliefs, and quite frankly, I find the Islamic faith far less objectionable than the atheistic fundamentalism that is also prominant today. Secondly, if that’s how you feel, can’t you just ignore them? If you don’t understand their belief, why give them any acknowledgement? What possible benefit do you get from deliberately trying to offend them?

    In response to your hypothetical question: ” What if I decided that Thing A could never be depicted again because I idiotically believed there was some mystical Sky Daddy who’d be most upset with other people seeing a drawing?” The answer depends on what form Thing A would take. If it’s something I might have cause to draw in some other sphere, and would therefore infringe on my live in anyway, I would call it wrong or unfair. But this isn’t the case here. People have no reason to draw the prophet other than a sadistic desire to offend. It’s just a matter of tact, good will and humanity.

    ” There are countless things that are forbidden by every religion. None believers are free to ignore such dictates at their leisure.” True, but I don’t see your point. I am an agnostic, and over the course of my life I have blasphemed several times. This is against the teachings of most religions, and would certainly offend any followers within earshot (as it has my Catholic mother in the past). Just because i’m free to do something, and followers wont stop me, doesn’t mean that I should do it.

    • David, this is becoming tiresome. I’ll offer a phrase-for-phrase breakdown of your last comment if you choose, but I’ll just close in saying that I think you’re labouring under too heavy a burden of miscomprehension to make this a valid discussion.

      Regular Muslim people don’t care about the episode of South Park. Many of them find the notion of daring to flirt with this taboo hysterical. The only people who care are journalists looking to rake some muck, Islamic extremists and beard-stroking leftelectuals.

      Since when has comedy of any kind been expected to be polite? In fact, isn’t it more realistic, and far more entertaining, when comedy serves as a platform for escaping polite normality? Isn’t much of the best comedy deeply and gloriously impolite?

  8. You’re right, this seems like an ‘agree to disagree’ moment we’ve reached.

    All I will add is that I am perfectly aware that comedy always has a victim of sorts, but I reiterate that these are usually either fictional/non-distinct characters or people that have become acceptable targets due to an infamous trait or action. While I’m not asking for some sort of clean/unchallenging comedy, I am uncomfortable with a climate in which groups of people can be comic foils just because they are a distinct group. Neither of us can speak for the Islamic community, but I think it’s a much safer conclusion that there will be lots of people (fundamentalist or otherwise) who will have been needlessly affected by this.

    And there I shall end it.

  9. I don’t think there’s much for me to add.

    I don’t believe people should offend for the sake of it but I do think this episode made a comment on the sillyness of it all, and the fact that fundamentalists such as those who vow to kill Rushdie should have no control on who is or isn’t allowed to be mocked.

    I think Stefan summed up my view in:
    “I applaud the South Park team for doing its damn job and pointing out how unacceptable this situation is. To have a tiny fraction of deranged and dangerous demagogues dictate what can be made fun of (under a thinly-veiled threat of violent retribution) is not acceptable in the modern world. There’s also the simple fact that 99% of all Muslims – real Muslims who are moderate normal people – think the entire notion is hysterical.”

    Aside from that, I found the blasphemous aspects of the episode hilarious i.e. Buddha’s coke addiction and Jesus’s internet porn.

    According to wiki Muhammad actually was depicted in the original Super Best Friends episode. I’ve not seen it.

    Here he is with his fire powers. I’m not sure if this is what Duncan referred to and they cut his image out of the release?

    • I think this is where the pivot of the argument is. I agree with the premise that it is unacceptable for a violent few to dictate what can and can’t be made fun of (my main problem being the violence that accompanies it), but I don’t think this is what has been hapenning. Surely it is acceptable for reasonable people to have a reasonable request (i.e. that people don’t depict Muhammad) honoured by people with nothing to gain from defying it but a laugh.

      It doesn’t follow that just because more ‘moderate’ (for lack of a better term) Muslims aren’t threatening anybody, means that thay aren’t offended by this. It’s not my place to speak for the Islamic community, but common sense tells me that this is the case.

      What is more, surely the best was to overcome the extremist elements is to ignore them. But what has hapenned is South Park have acknowledged them with this action, and led to more hate. In the past it has made a kind of sense to show Muhammad, for instance, when they showed him as a member of ‘The Super Best Friends,’ in a setting where he at least fitted in without much question and that made sense. Though that use is still questionable, it was no where near as outwardly as provocative as this use. This episode was basically saying ‘Look, we’re drawing Muhammad. What you gonna do, muslims?’ I think it is the sheer bombastic approach they took that made me uncomfortable when watching and led to the furore that wasn’t present in the previous example. And while I defend their right to do it, I think they should not be able to hide behind their role as satirists and be free from criticism. Just as people should be free to challenge any community, they should also be free to criticise satirists and the like without the counter-challenge that they are seeking to undermine freedom-of-speech.

  10. “This episode was basically saying ‘Look, we’re drawing Muhammad. What you gonna do, muslims?’ ”

    I still would argue that this assertion is incorrect. As I pointed out (maybe not too clearly) in my first response, Muhammed is only ever shown as a blacked out box with the words ‘censored’ written on it.
    Now I know that both the South Park writer’s and Comedy Central have suggested that it was not Stone or Parker who made this decision, however, they have used this joke in a previous episode (1004 – Cartoon Wars Part II) and would have known full well that an image of Muhammed would have never been broadcast whether they genuinely wanted one to be or not. I would argue that with the knowledge that Comedy Central would genuinely censor them were they to actually draw Muhammed as he was shown in the Super Best Friends episode, they set out with the intention to have a black box broadcast as part of their larger joke within the episode.

    Now the argument then comes down to whether this ‘censored’ box can be regarded as a depiction of the prophet Muhammed. I would argue that it is not, particularly when compared to the genuine and shocking depictions of other religious figures (as Grant says, Buddha is seen snorting cocaine while Jesus looks at internet porn). However, again, I am neither a Muslim or well versed in the teachings of the Qur’an. Either Muhammed is never once depicted in the episode, or his depiction is so abstract and non-controversial to pale into near insignificance.

    I know that you have argued that joking about the controversy itself is offensive as it legitimises an outside view of Islam as reactionary and violent. However, I would suggest that the writers of South Park have been unusually tactful when it comes to a ‘depiction’ of the prophet. While it is not offensive to create images of Buddha or Jesus within the Buddhist or Christian faiths, it is pretty damn blasphemous to show them enjoying recreational drugs or hardcore pornography. South Park could have really pushed the boat out equally as far when it came to the ‘depiction’ of Muhammed but have instead provided something that barely constitutes a depiction, and in doing so created a meta-joke on the whole situation.

    I still think any wish on the part of Parker and Stone to assert their right to free speech or to offend whoever they please is very much secondary to the wish to satirise the situation they have found themselves in and that it is other commentators and supporters/opposition that have foisted these aims on them.

    • As far as who intended to have the black box, you may be right, but it is nonethless speculation (albeit logical). The question of whether it is a depiction or not is still, as you say, central. Earlier in the discussion you asked ” If I draw a pebble, or a fire engine, or make a hand printed lino-cut of a ship at sea and then write “A depiction of the Prophet Muhammed” at the bottom, does that cross the line into sacrilege[?]” Well I think this also applies to the black box. Personally, I think that does consititute a form of depiction, but as you again rightly say, that is perhaps more a question for Islamic scholars. However, I would add that it is undeniable that the personage of Muhammad is clearly present, whether or not it is censored, at least in the form of his voice (which appears in ‘200’ though I can’t remember about ‘201). Even being as kind as possible to Matt and Trey (too kind, in my view), and saying they haven’t showed the image of Muhammad, doesn’t excuse them from this undeniable rendition of the entity of Muhammad.

      I also agree with you when you say it is quite a inoffensive (in itself) depiction of Muhammad, in the sense that he isn’t seen doing some of the questionable things the other religious figures are doing. However, does this make the depiction of Muhammad inoffensive, or does it make the depictions of the other leaders equally offensive? My answer would be, roughly, the latter. Making fun of others doesn’t reduce from offense, but compounds it, and though there are fewer taboos about the rendering of figures like Buddha or Jesus, it doesn’t make them (or the rendering of Muhammad) any more acceptable in my eyes.

      I would just like to add, after everything i’ve said in the article and comments, that I don’t think Matt and Trey are racist, or intended to marginalise anybody, but more that they were simply careless in how they went about making a point.

      • Ah! The voice! That’s a very good point and does somewhat negate my argument…

        I guess in terms of the relative offence of the depictions of the different deities portrayed, well it comes down to personal sensitivity. It all does hark back a bit to Stefan’s point of non-Muslim’s defence of the religion and its followers. I find the image of Jesus as an internet porn addict and Buddha a coke fiend as hilarious and perfectly legitimate jokes. However I often wince when confronted with jokes targeted towards Muslin’s with the direct intention to offend. Doubtless it’s a hypocrisy on my part…

  11. hi david,
    You make an interesting and convincing argument that it is, if not morally wrong, culturally insensitive for comedy networks to air a supposed depiction of the prophet Muhammad, albeit hidden from view inside a bear costume.
    But with this in mind, is it wise that your on-top-of-the-text art work is a supposed depiction of the prophet Mohammed, albeit hidden from view inside a bear costume?

  12. hi Rob,

    it wasn’t David who made that call – it was a purely editorial decision. i agree, given the all that’s been said above (and, moreover, how it has been said) that this particular decision now seems a little misguided. nonetheless, although it may be an example of the sort of cultural insensitivity that David effectively argued against, i don’t believe it can be considered in the same league as ‘201’. the most views this blog has ever had was around 300 (yesterday, as it happens), compared to the audience of millions that Parker and Stone would have envisioned in the creation of their episode. so, while it was perhaps a little careless (i just needed a picture to fill the space and didn’t really weigh up the repercussions), i feel that its overall effect is pretty negligible within the context of this article (i didn’t create the image after all, i merely deployed it in a discussion of its ethical ramifications).

    best,
    Luke

    • Ha! I know I keep banging on about this… But the bear isn’t Muhammed! I know it’s something of a moot point (as David has pointed out above, the prophet is represented at the very least in a vocal form and perhaps as a black box, depending on the strict interpretation what constitutes a ‘depiction’). However if you follow the narrative development of the episode, it isn’t Muhammed in the mascot’s outfit but Santa.

      I say this just to reassure you that you needn’t worry about putting the title image up. The only people that might be offended are native Laplanders….

      • I think i’m going to try and find time to make time to watch both episodes again. I have a feeling you’re right about the bear outfit, but there is still a niggle that he’s in at some point. This may be pedantry on my part though.

  13. Rob: *Internethighfive* x

    Luke: You claim editorship here, yet your keyboard doesn’t have a ‘shift’ key?

    David: Fail. *smirk*

    ;-)

  14. If I recall corretly, Muhammad is in the bear costume at first but they reveal that they changed him to Santa when handing him over.

    • I re-watched parts of the episodes last night. In 201, just after Santa steps out of the Bear costume Stan says, “We promised Jesus that *Bleep* would stay safely in the U-haul…” “..If we were going to have someone in a bear costume why would we actually have it be *Bleep* you *Bleep*ing idiot”…

      • Alright, I think we (all of us) may be slipping into pedantry here. We’ve established that at least in some ways (though we can’t quite agree on the extent) Muhammad was depicted. I would add that even if he wasn’t in the bear suit, this certainly wasn’t clear throughout the first episode (‘200’), though the importance of this is something i’m unsure about.

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