Thursday, July 07, 2011
On South Park And Bullshit
Many may be familiar with Harry G. Frankfurt's unlikely bestseller On Bullshit, published some few years ago. As someone who greatly enjoyed that work for more than its cheeky title, I soon began to see its applicability everywhere, as one would expect to in a world almost overflowing with the substance.
However, I found it not just in the usual places: Fox News, CNN, The “History” Channel, etc., but also in more popular media, and none more popular than the animated program South Park.
Frankfurt roughly defines bullshit in contrast to lying. A liar is someone who believes they know what is true and purposely mislead. A bullshitter does not care whether what they say is in accord with the truth or not: “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truths – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”
“So they're bullshitters, so what?” you say. In that we know we are being bullshitted it can be harmless fun, but to those more invested in the message (South Park Republicans for instance), more susceptible to unthinking persuasion, and those of us who just plain care about the truth, things get more complicated.
This is certainly the view Frankfurt would, I believe, support. For: “Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides...[e]ach responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does...[he] pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
To demonstrate what Frankfurt means if we apply his definition to the program, in one famous episode, “All About Mormons”, Stan is befriended by a Mormon boy named Gary, whose family has recently moved to South Park. Stan becomes increasingly irritated by the boy's good humor and the loving relationship he has with his family, in comparison to the one Stan has with his own.
Stan researches the history of the Mormon Church only to become irritated all the more by the ludicrous nature of the Churches founding and the incomprehensible idea that anyone could take it seriously.
Finally, enraged beyond endurance, Stan calls him upon the lies his life is apparently built upon. Gary then explains how it doesn't matter what his family believes essentially, that the point is it works for them and Stan has: “got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.”
In another episode, “The Biggest Douche in the Universe”, Chef takes the boys to New York and the Crossing Over TV show to have John Edward talk to the spirit of Kenny. As the plot unfolds Kyle, believing his late grandmother has spoken to him through Edward, joins a Jewish school thinking it would be what she wanted. Stan then confronts Edward and teaches himself cold reading to demonstrate its invalidity. By the end we find it revealed that John Edward is a fraud, and Kyle returns with Stan to South Park, but not before Edward is abducted by aliens to be awarded his prize as biggest douche in the universe.
In contrasting these two episodes I wished to demonstrate not only the relativism Matt Stone and Trey Parker would appear to endorse, but the deeper ethical question of being swayed to the view's of individuals who are clearly not consistent thinkers, if not conscious bullshitters. In the first example they seem to be arguing that if something works for you, makes you feel warm and fuzzy, regardless of its external truth, is good enough. But in the second example they clearly argue that a lie is not alright even if it brings comfort.
It will be objected that in the first instance the lie did not involve business but family life, and that in the second Edward was taking advantage of the deluded for financial gain. However, it can be argued just as strongly in reply that religions are lies which make millions, both from their followers and their tax exempt status. But, the larger issue Frankfurt's argument would support is that a lie is a lie, and in any situation is corrosive of our respect for the truth.
The final nail in the coffin confirming their complete disregard for truth of any kind is demonstrated by the “Insheeption” episode. Here they were at last called to account by their audience when it became obvious that they were mocking a movie they had not even seen, and what is more, stole what they did for the episode from a sketch on the comedy website College Humor. A perfect illustration of Frankfurt's observation that: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”
Of course again, none of this is of the slightest importance to the viewer who wishes to be merely entertained. However, it does cast a shadow over their credibility as honest people.
This all leads us perhaps to some disturbing conclusions that reflect upon the present mindset of our society. In a world where bullshit is preferable to hard truths, those same hard truths social satire is tasked with exposing, the greatest bullshitters of all may be ourselves when we come to value entertainment over honesty.