South Park is in the news again for having offended a group of people.
Their running gag this entire season has been that after one of the show’s characters runs for president on a violently anti-immigrant platform (sound familiar?) the town of South Park tries to save its reputation by taking on an absurdly over-the-top series of measures to appear like a more progressive, liberal, and open place. This involves filling the poorest part of town with restaurants and lofts that the poor cannot afford, encouraging two straight students to become a gay couple, paying starving people in the third word to delete the mean comments off of rich people’s twitter profiles, and increasing diversity in town by bringing Mexicans to South Park so as to attract a Whole Foods.
Even with all of that material to work with, however, many are finding the most offensive aspect of this season to be its newest character, PC Principal. PC Principal and his cohort of white frat bros go around beating up people who use politically incorrect language that could be perceived by some as offensive — something that PC Principal employs at South Park Elementary by constantly yelling “Check your privilege” at eight year old kids after giving them such violent beatings that they have to go to the hospital.
Besides the general criticism that South Park gets simply for coming off to some viewers as stylistically distasteful, this most recent string of episodes have emboldened some to suggest that they are actively promoting hate speech. Some are claiming that attacking people’s efforts to be more politically correct is a call to validate not just offensive content, but also the continued oppression of disenfranchised groups of people. It’s part of a larger narrative going around right now that South Park, among others, hides behind the idea that their right to free speech is under threat and then employs this idea as an excuse to attack, for lack of a better word, ‘PC principles.’ Making this assertion is supposedly designed to strengthen their ability to create evocatively hateful content without caring about the damaging implications it could have on society.
Such criticism is better reserved for the talking points of Donald Trump , the rants of Nigel Farage, or even some of the more recent editions of Charlie Hebdo — but not South Park. In South Park’s 19th season, as in many other South Park seasons, you see people rallying behind ideas without appreciating or understanding them in full. That is where the subtext lies. The characters are interested in being socially accepted and bolstering their own sense of self-importance more than they are interested in understanding the complexities of their world. It’s a microcosm of American life.
Because of this, it should be apparent that South Park isn’t mocking well-intentioned political correctness with their PC Principal character. The implication is that it’s a desire for status, not moral motivation, that drives many people to enforce politically correct language. A mechanism created to break down barriers of class and creed ends up ironically reinforcing them. This is embodied by PC bros using the very fact that they are college-educated, economically privileged, and white as a means of oppressing people while they claim to be doing the opposite. Such a statement is more than just non-hateful. It’s a profound piece of social commentary. It argues that we as people embrace social trends far faster than we can develop a complicated appreciation for those who are different from us.
Those who still insist on placing South Park’s storyline in the same ideological camp as libertarians and right-wingers like Donald Trump must not have seen the first episode of this season where Donald trump is not only mocked, but brutally murdered after ruining an entire country with his idiocy. Many have also been particularly upset at how South Park chose to depict Caitlyn Jenner this season (it was…not kindly). But again, however viscerally horrifying South Park’s style can be to some, it’s still clear from the episode’s context that the show is not mocking Caitlyn Jenner’s choices. The mockery is of every-day people who are endorsing whatever is popular. The South Park characters only care about transgender rights because there is now a famous person who is transgender. They don’t really understand why transgender rights are important. They just don’t want a punch in the face from PC Principal for saying the wrong thing. Throughout the episode, the fear of sounding ignorant or politically incorrect ends up censoring people rather than opening up a complicated dialogue.
This is why, in the minds of South Park’s writers, politically correct language shuts down more conversations than it enables. That does not make them infallibly correct about this. Even so, if someone wants to meaningfully challenge this notion, they have to first acknowledge the complexity of South Park’s points instead of merely trying to simplify and discredit them. Some critiques of South Park are so utterly inconsistent that it makes one wonder if the writers of such criticism knowingly ignore the show’s subtext for the sake of selling content — an irony that South Park’s are well aware of — or whether many of these critics actually didn’t understand the show’s more complex points to begin with.
The debate about how much political correctness should exist in society is an important one. But if we really want to fight the prejudices that our politically correct language aspires to eradicate, we must first acknowledge the irrational and selfish motives that exist within ourselves, and the economic incentives that others have to stir them up. Doing that depends on making the effort to become more informed. Informed people who really do have valid arguments about why politically correct language is worthwhile should be heard out. But they should be trying to voice those ideas in ways more eloquent than taking cheap shots at South Park — a tactic that’s doomed to fail.
The difference between developing meaningful ideas and attacking the ideas of others is exactly what differentiates having PC principles from being a a PC Principal.