Friday, April 14, 2006

South Park vs. Self-censorship

South Park has attempted to take a stand over the cartoons of Mohammed. It appears that when they put a show based around the cartoons to Comedy Central they were told that the network would not show any episode depicting Mohammed. In defiance the South Park staff put out a show based around censorship of a fictional Family Guy episode which offends Muslims. Over two episodes they make a pretty complete, and utterly correct, case for freedom of expression.

South Park can clearly not be accused of victimising Muslims. Early in the first part Cartman asks Kyle how he would feel if a cartoon made fun of the Jews; South Park has endlessly done so. Equally, it is clear that the same self-censorship is not being applied to the sensitivities of Americans; at the end a fictional Islamist response is shown which has Jesus, the President and the US flag defecating and/or being defecated upon. By contrast the censored image of Mohammed is of him passing an American football helmet with a salmon on top of it to Peter; hardly dynamite stuff.

For a while after the airing of the show there was considerable confusion. Ed Morrissey and many of those posting on the South Park Studios BBS thought that this was all a joke and that the South Park staff had not wanted to show an image of Mohammed at all. However, reliable reports and statements now indicate that the censorship came from the network. There were good reasons to suspect that Comedy Central would not prove a worthy partner to South Park Studios as they had removed an episode concerning Scientology from the rotation just a few weeks earlier but even so it is a shock that they would prevent an unmodified episode seeing the light of the day at all.

If a show as famous as South Park is not able to express itself clearly then there can be little doubt that one of the West's fundamental principles is in danger. Freedom of expression is a right which has important functions in enabling creativity, proper debate and accountability as well as being a value choice. Fear of terrorism cannot be allowed to endanger free speech.


Anonymous said...

How about South Park having Muhammad taking a crap on Moses? I can hardly wait to see the ACLU defending South Park's freedom of expression.

Matthew Sinclair said...

One of the most frequent responses to the Danish cartoons was that they picked on Muslims in a way that other groups (Jews, Christians, etc.) would not be picked on. That this charge cannot be levelled at South Park is important and not remotely a red herring.

Islam's stand on iconography is questionable (it's designed to stop idolatry and there is no indication it was ever meant to apply beyond Muslims) but regardless that is just another reason why they find it offensive. Being particularly offended is no grounds for infringing the rights of others.

Your final bit about Charles Clarke is vapid. Charles Clarke is subject to democratic accountability. While he can, and does, infringe civil liberties that is a separate issue and best responded to through democratic dissent. The threat of terrorism scaring people away from free speech needs to be confronted by individuals in the media demonstrating that violent protest cannot be successful. That Comedy Central have stopped South Park doing this is important.