As of this writing, the most recent episode of South Park is called “Safe Space”, which, as one could probably guess, is the incendiary cartoon’s send-up of the phenomenon behind “safe spaces” and campaigns against “shaming” particular sections of the population that is prevalent on college campuses and certain online sections. I have watched South Park for a long time and I think the show has been past its prime for at least the last few seasons. With that said, one thing I like very much about the show is that even as the quality of its episodes declines (particularly in its most recent parody and topical episodes), it is still able to sparks my mind and makes me think further about the issues it takes up. That’s more than I can say than pretty much any other cartoon series I can think of that ran for more than ten years. This is the reason I write about South Park so often on this blog. “Safe Space” did that for me once again and I want to discuss it a little more.
Something that is funny to me about South Park is that although I just admitted that its tackling of current affairs and topics stimulate me intellectually, I more often than not find the point of view the show takes in many of their episodes juvenile, sophomoric, and even somewhat mean-spirited. This is consistent throughout many episodes I find quite funny regardless, absolutely love, or totally despise. “Safe Space” is no different (personally, I’m ambivalent towards this episode). I think the biggest reason that South Park’s socio-political statements come off so callow is that the philosophy behind it is simply to be Devil’s advocate. Besides (or sometimes regardless of) Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s own personal political views, this is the reason why so much of the show’s content derides perceived or stereotypical paragons of liberalism. I read a few reviews of “Safe Space” on other sites that suggested that the episode took a middle of the road because while the show mocked the idea of campaigns against shaming in Cartman’s story line, they sympathized with Randy being shamed by the Whole Foods cashier into donating money for charity. I disagree with those reviews. Every aspect of this episode takes a jab at liberalism and “political correctness”. The Cartman story line goes without saying, but the Randy story line is a jab at liberal hypocrisy that decries shaming in some contexts but shames people into doing and thinking the same way they do while simultaneously co-opting certain causes to make it all about them instead of the people actually suffering (the commercials against shaming dressed up with impoverished children from some third-world country). The big soapbox moment at the end of the episode when a character named Reality (subtle) called them all out on it.
The thing is, I think there is a valid critique against the idea of “safe spaces”, campaigns against shaming, and things like “trigger warnings” that has been raised by people across the political spectrum. The concern that has been raised about both of these is that they are often used as tactics to screen out differing points of view and stifle debate, which is intellectually debilitating.
Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trigger warnings and I don’t see a difference between them or older content warnings or viewer discretion advisories. I don’t necessarily think that warning people that may have some sort of psychological discomfort with violent or sexually explicit content is coddling them or some mild form of censorship. I also think that most of the vitriol against trigger warnings is little more than a reactionary response against a perceived liberalism or political correctness.
I’m of two minds when it comes to growing number of terms being coined with “shaming” as a suffix. I completely understand it as a way to define tactics that further marginalize groups of people that are always marginalized in some way by our society. However, I also agree that this terminology has also been used to reinforce a certain identity politics that isn’t so much concerned with intersectionality as it is with a libertarian-esque individualism. It all depends on the subject at hand for me, I guess. For example, I think the term “kink-shaming” was coined to silence very valid critiques of BDSM and the eroticizing of violence, domination, and degradation in our society. However, the jump-off point for this particular South Park episode was what is called “body-shaming” (or “fat-shaming”), which I do think is a real thing that exists in our society that needs to be pushed back against.
She doesn’t deserve anymore attention, but does anybody still remember Nicole Arbour and her “Dear Fat People” video? Her video is a perfect encapsulation as to why there is such a push back against body-shaming. Her mean jokes, her visible disgust, her concern-trolling, and her assumption that being overweight can only be symptomatic of an unwillingness to exercise or eat healthier don’t exist in a vacuum. People that struggle with their weight hear things like this all the time and besides lowering their self-esteem, it’s unsurprisingly counterproductive in actually getting them to lose weight.
I don’t know what to think about “safe spaces” on the other hand. I think attempting to create an area for marginalized groups of people to get away from the daily micro-aggressions and abuse they go through is valiant and certainly not something I disagree with on principle. But the lines of who is and who isn’t marginalized and what kind of statements are hateful or further marginalizing gets a little blurry, depending on how or who is framing it. Oftentimes the consequence, for better or for worse, is to de-platform people or have them arrested if they hold opinions considered controversial. Last year, there was a petition to keep comedian Bill Maher from delivering the commencement address at UC Berkeley on the grounds that his constant criticisms of Islam/Muslims is hate speech. At another college, an anti-pornography group run by activist Sunsara Taylor was evicted from the premises during a public conference after some conference goers who either worked in the sex industry or disagreed with Taylor’s group’s views complained to the organizers that their assertions no longer made the conference a safe space. Just to put it out there, I strongly disagree with Maher’s views on Islam and I strongly agree with Taylor’s views on pornography. I heard about the Maher story first and at the time I agreed that the students had a valid reason to speak out against his appearance. I don’t agree that the students had a valid reason to get Taylor and her group vacated from the conference. To get beyond my own views and biases, the issue people have with Maher is that his statements further marginalize Muslims, who deal with a lot of discrimination in this country. The issue people have with Taylor is that her statements further marginalize women in the sex industry (be it pornography or prostitution), who do often come from impoverished or traumatic backgrounds in their own right. Maher and those that agree with him would argue that that he is simply criticizing the religion and the doctrine itself, not the actual people. Taylor and those that agree with her (including me) would argue that she is criticizing the way the sex industry operates and profits off of the ideas it perpetuates, not the individuals who work as performers within it. I could go peruse through the content of both of their statements and offer evidence of Maher’s derision towards Muslims and Taylor’s lack thereof of women working in the sex industry. However, others could look at the same content and offer evidence that is contrary to mine. Regardless of who is wrong or right, you see how this issue gets hairy? I have heard various stories of speakers across various ideologies that I either totally agree with or find completely objectionable that have been de-platformed from colleges across the country. This made me question my initial support for protesting Maher’s appearance at UC Berkeley. Would barring him (or anyone that’s controversial) actually be productive for the students? Maybe it would. If so, what is the line of what is too controversial to allow on college campuses? Who is the arbiter of which views are too controversial to expose to students? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.
Oh wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a discussion about South Park? Well, the thing about this episode is that it doesn’t even begin to raise these questions about how safe spaces could be ethically and intellectually stifling. It simply frames the people that seek out safe spaces or campaign against shaming as “cwybabies who don’t want their fee-fees hurt” and takes a “what do you expect?/if you don’t like it, suck it up or get off social media” point of view. It’s one of the more on-the-nose and self-satisfied South Park episodes I can think of. As with most of the socio-political views South Park expresses, the point being made falls short because Stone and Parker don’t consider the issue outside of their own point of view.
As just one example, it is sadly too common for women to face abuse online simply because they’re women. When I say abuse, I don’t mean some occasional mean comment, I mean constant misogynistic insults, inappropriate sexual advances, disregard of their intelligence, death threats, rape threats, doxxing, etc. This happens to women regardless of what they look like, what they do, or how incendiary they are. Not to say that Matt Stone and Trey Parker haven’t faced their own threats, but they don’t experience them to the same extent that many women do.
This was a picture posted on the Instagram account of the independent journalist Abby Martin. Not unlike what South Park has been doing for almost 20 years, Martin was purposely being provocative with this Instagram post. This was response was also met by death threats, which Parker and Stone admittedly have experience with. But they don’t have experience with getting rape threats and having their’s and their parents’ personal information shared on various online sniper forums. The point of view of “Safe Space” would have been “well maybe you shouldn’t have prodded Chris Kyle fans by posting that picture”. Besides the fact that I don’t think that an inflammatory t-shirt is worthy of death and rape threats, let’s humor that argument.
Anita Sarkeesian has gotten a deluge of death and rape threats on a daily basis for more than three years. Her reputation is constantly defamed, her and her parents’ personal information has been shared online, and her public speaking engagements have gotten bomb threats and massacre threats. And what inflammatory thing did she do to invite this? She asked for funding on Kickstarter to do a video series that assessed video games from a feminist perspective. Abby Martin and Anita Sarkeesian are not the only women to experience death threats, rape threats, and doxxing online. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
I think the funniest thing about “Safe Space” is that you could use Reality’s profane soapbox speech against Stone and Parker themselves.
What a lovely [cartoon], I suppose you’re all feeling pretty good about yourselves, hmm? What have you done, you’ve [made a career off of mocking the powers that be while living in a wealthy Hollywood bubble]. Look at you… [Trey Pooper]. You say [you go against the status quo] so in response you [mock various ethnic groups for 20 years]. You’re [reinforcing the status quo], idiot!! What’s a matter with you people?! You sad that people [are trying to be polite and considerate]? Well I’m sorry, the world isn’t one big [4chan thread]! [You’re often racist and more often homophobic], feel a little bad about it sometimes! No, you wanna put up all your shit on [television] and have every single person say ‘[you’re so edgy and honest]’; fuck you! You’re all pricks!