I have to confess: I'm a long-time South Park watcher. Like, since 1997.
I'm not sure why, really. Being over the age of 14, I don't find great humor in foul language or bodily fluids. Trey Parker and Matt Stone tend to hit at easy targets with obvious jokes. Nine times out of ten, even if an episode starts out strong, they have trouble bringing it in for a solid landing.
Still, I used to laugh hysterically when poor little Kenny met his inevitable, gruesome fate. And even though Kenny now lives through most every episode, there are those occasional moments of sheer creative brilliance that make it worth coming back on a regular basis.
Team South Park has been much in the news this last week, after a two-part episode that featured a character based on the Prophet Muhammad.
Shortly before Part Two aired this Wednesday, the website of a fringe group called "Revolution Muslim" vented their umbrage. "We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show," said Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee in a post on the site, since removed. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
This, and the posting of the addresses for both Comedy Central headquarters in New York and South Park's California studios, prompted Comedy Central to insist on on running a heavily-edited version of the this week's episode. They have also prohibited the posting of the show online.
Parker and Stone released a statement on Thursday. "In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We’ll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we’ll see what happens to it."
Actually, the whole thing was a massive meta-joke....perhaps just not an intentional one.
It's a joke to think that the South Park creators are all that upset over the censoring of the episode. While they like to come off as typical slacker-stoners, Parker and Stone have survived for 14 years in a industry that doesn't necessarily reward longevity. They're smart guys: they know controversy means coverage. Without the "Revolution Muslim" story, Episodes 200 and 201 were fairly weak offerings that highlighted, primarily, the amount of low-hanging fruit they've picked over the years. (Tom Cruise! Scientology! Mormonism! Brittany Spears!) Instead, they get to portray themselves as free-speech -- well, I'm tempted to use the word "martyrs," but that may be inappropriate in this particular instance.
It's equally funny to argue that it's not a win-win for Comedy Central as well. They get to look like they're responsive to the Muslim community (who do, theoretically, buy stuff from network advertisers) and the safety of their staff and content providers (who are still many more times likely to be injured or killed by a car on their way across the street to Starbucks than by a Muslim terrorist). Meanwhile, their other flagship shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, can make some comedy hay and keep the story running for a couple more days...all of which brings in more viewers.
The real joke is, as always, on the public at large. It drags us back into a increasingly meaningless argument about Free Speech vs. the Evil Muslims.
Zahed Amanullah, associate editor of altmuslim.com, points out in a blog post on The Guardian's "Comment Is Free" that this has thus far not much of a topic of discussion in the Muslim world, evil or otherwise. He describes the situation as a controversy "manufactured by two Muslim converts who have been reduced to sidewalk rants because they are not welcome in any mosque in New York City," helped along by legitimate media outlets like CNN, who "dutifully treat them as representative of Muslim opinion."
"I am not at all insensitive to the strong feelings most Muslims, including myself, have of depictions of Muhammed," he explains. "And yet, we are seeing this issue exploited to absurdity. The traditional aversion to show the likeness of Muhammad has its roots in avoiding idolatry, which is explicitly prohibited. For many Muslims, pointing to a cartoon, a teddy bear, or a voodoo doll and saying it's the prophet, doesn't make it so. We know better than to worship them."
Amanullah certainly doesn't deny there have been acts of violence against those who have been seen as giving offense to Islam. Filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered; novelist Salmon Rushdie did live for years in fear of a Iranian fatwa; Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has survived two murder plots in the last two years for his 2005 depiction of Muhammed in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. "But that's three incidents over a 20-year period from amongst 1.6 billion people," he says in a response to a comment left on his blog. "These things do happen. But we all need a bit of perspective."
We also, I would argue, need a bit of perspective on free speech.
Was the right to free speech really abridged here? Matt Stone and Trey Parker have the same right as any American to say anything they want. They can't put anything they want on their show, because they have to conform to their contractual arrangement with their network. As individuals -- and world-famous ones at that -- they have any number of platforms they can utilize outside network control, to portray Muhammad (or anyone else) in whatever way they choose, if they were interested in doing so. Who knows? They still might.
Freedom of speech means you have the right to say what you want. It does not mean you have the right to expect others accept your point of view. Whenever you put something out into the world, you have to be aware that there may be consequences, both positive and negative. It doesn't matter if you're talking about Islam or Christianity or Judaism, whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, a vegan or a carnivore. Because we are human beings living amongst other human beings, even in a free society there is a level of risk to speaking one's mind.
It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It doesn't mean you shouldn't expect the full protection of law enforcement or the courts. It simply means that, like anything worth doing, it involves an element of risk.
We all pick our battles, and our battles define us.