Francis Bacon and South Park: Gather ‘Round, Children
Brian Gongol
Ethics in Communications: Dr. Chris Martin
September 20, 2000

At times, it would be tempting to exchange the distractions of the post-modernist media-saturated world for one of limited communication, except by what one gleans of the political machinations of the royal court or the intrigues of the local bishopric. Such is the world in which Sir Francis Bacon established his ethical philosophy of seeking out information and employing talents in order to arrive at the "best" reasoned decision. In the absence of the constant and densely packed distractions of the modern day, I suspect that ethical qualms were more easily sated than would ever be possible in the present.

While it may be difficult to apply an ethical uber-structure to any questions of morality or "right" behavior in the post-modern world, it requires little imagination to dismiss the television program South Park as a flashy but insubstantial effort at satire. South Park's creators and viewers argue that the program represents the world as it might be viewed through the eyes of commonly-sensible youngsters living in a world of delusioned adults. Thought it may be credibly argued that many "adults" have little more sensibility than that of a child, it is not the same to argue that South Park effectively delivers a truly satirical message – and it certainly fails Bacon's test for the application of reason and understanding.

South Park, it would seem, tries to be The Simpsons with dirtier language and more childish jokes. Both shows are rife with satirical pokes at the condition of society today, and valid observations about the sheer silliness of some of our closest-held habits, beliefs, and fears are occasionally delivered in both programs. It must be noted, however, that both shows fail to seat themselves on the requisite intellectual plane to qualify as true satirical works.

Certainly, characters like Mr. Burns (The Simpsons) and the Mayor (South Park) are presented as effective caricatures of unfeeling business titans and careless political hacks, respectively. Without question, we are often healthier – both as individuals and as a collective public – with the occasional swipe at the high-and-mighty in an effort to keep their attention close to the "ground," where the "little people" in life go about their business. On the other hand, the constant foolishness exhibited by the characters does little to create the necessary environment for a reasoned debate about the importance of government intervention or unrestrained capital markets.

As Bacon would have it, we require a sound understanding of the issues and of our abilities in order to effectively arrive at the just solutions to our problems. In order for satire to help us arrive at this better understanding, we would need to derive some form of learning or understanding from the satirical texts (electronic or otherwise). While some may claim to recognize the problems of society reflected in supposedly satirical programs like South Park, it must be understood that there is a considerable gap between education on a topic and a mere nod of recognition. Just because we recognize falsehood or pomposity when we see it does not mean we have reached a better understanding of its causes -- or its effects. Bacon would certainly agree that there must be a furthering of our understanding -- some form of learning or intellectual rigor -- in order for "satire" to have taken place.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone claim eminent domain over the rights to determine what should or should not be presented in their program; while they do (and ought to) retain full authority over the creative process, they do not reserve the right to apply high-minded titles (like "satire") to their work. It is certainly original; few could doubt that. It could hardly be said, though, that their work creates intellectual understanding. Innuendo and scatology have hardly been reserved as the province of intellectual debate in the Western tradition, but those are probably the defining characteristics of the program.

Satirical works often take what we recognize and exaggerate or lampoon only ever so slightly in an effort to help us recognize how truly exaggerated the reality of the situation is. Orwell's Animal Farm did this beautifully; while we recognize that the pigs are more dramatic than the Russian revolutionaries they portray, it's really only by a slight step or two. It is through the reserved dramatization of reality that we see how easily "equality for all" becomes "some more equal than others." In this case, consistent with Bacon's dictum, Orwell helps us see our human nature more clearly than would have been possible without the story.

South Park, on the other hand, rarely has anything more significant to illustrate than the facts that people are often arrogant and hurtful, that stereotypes exist and are perpetuated unthinkingly, and that a little bit of closed-mindedness can do a lot of harm. Why, then, the anal probes, the scatology, and the untimely (though recurrent) demise of a major character? Nothing about homosexual pets or cross-breeding among species has anything significant to say about the human condition.

To those who would claim that South Park is redeeming under Bacon's respect for "imagination," it can only be said that the creativity of a child with a few boxes and a marker likely creates more intricate imagined realities than any intentionally-underproduced television cartoon. Bacon's other human tools for ethical decision-making -- understanding, reason, memory, appetite, and will -- are so far removed from Parker and Stone's work that they require no real defense. Cartman's "I Hate You Guys" soliloquy hardly manages to refine the intellect in any way that would be recognizable to even the most neophyte of logical thinkers. Further, to argue that South Park reaches for Bacon's standard of bringing the passions under the control of reason would be positively ludicrous.

Is the human condition advanced in any way by the contributions of Parker and Stone? It is doubtful any argument to the affirmative could ever be advanced. While they have the opportunity to push forward a reasoned debate about the temperance of the human condition, they instead exchange it for appeals to the "lowest common denominator." They certainly possess the right to make such decisions -- and in the spirit of free speech, ought to be afforded that right without delay or hindrance. Yet it is disappointing to see that an opportunity to reach so many impressionable minds is wasted on base appeals to low humor. Bacon would certainly find that South Park misses the intellectual mark entirely.