Censoring South Park
Andrew Sullivan has been up in arms lately over Comedy Central’s recent decision not to air the 201st episode of South Park — which apparently includes depictions of the prophet Mohammed, forbidden by the Muslim religion. Sullivan’s anger is partly directed toward Islam (he praises South Park for helping to “illuminate the unique intolerance of Sunni Islam among world religions today”), but even more so toward what he perceives as the cowardice of Comedy Central. Sullivan is, in fact, so enraged with the network that he is now urging readers to embed the episode in their blogs and participate in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!”
I, for one, will not be joining the crusade. For one thing, to accuse Comedy Central of cowardice is to assume that it acted on moral principles and not solely for the sake of profits — which seems unlikely, given what we know about corporations. Nor is “censorship” an appropriate word to use in this context. Comedy Central did not censor South Park any more than NBC can be said to have censored Conan O’ Brien by canceling his show. For better or worse, this was a business decision.
With that said, even if Comedy Central had censored South Park, I still wouldn’t object. There are, in my view, plenty of reasons for the public (and, on rare occasions, the state) to place restrictions on speech. We don’t want coworkers making lewd jokes or propositioning us, so we forbid sexual harassment in the workplace. We don’t want our children viewing obscenity, so the FCC has rules about what can be said and shown on network television. We were outraged when Don Imus referred to a black girl’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos,” so NBC took him off the air. And so on.
Censorship is ultimately a values question. We are no more open-minded or tolerant today than the U.S. Post Office and Customs Service was in the 20s; Joyce’s Ulysses has simply ceased to offend our sensibilities. Social conservatives seek to ban pornography, while liberals have sometimes wished to suppress speech offensive to religious or ethnic minorities (the Hate Crimes Act goes so far as to punish intent). Libertarians profess to rule out values by tolerating all speech, but “anything goes” turns out to be merely another contestable value. For it is not at all self-evident that freedom and non-interference are synonymous. A working-class single mother is unlikely to experience lax minimum wage laws or the private health insurance industry as freedom. A Muslim, likewise, does not experience depictions of Mohammed as liberating.
As far as South Park goes, I certainly wouldn’t want the government to intervene. I would, however, support a principled decision on Comedy Central’s part not to sacrilege Islam — which, in my view, would be on par with choosing not to air racial slurs or blatant misogyny. But the point is moot, since — as everybody knows — corporations don’t make principled decisions.