The trolls, the game-theorizers, the “both sides are equally bad” cynicism that had spread from the 2016 election into today — all of it had a flavor too familiar to me, a TV and comic-book writer who spent her middle-school years watching Comedy Central too late at night: It was the ethos of “South Park.”
“In retrospect,” I typed, “It seems impossible to overstate the cultural damage done by South Park, the show that portrayed earnestness as the only sin and taught that mockery is the ultimate inoculation against all criticism.”
Since its premiere in 1997, the animated series has always been gleefully nihilistic in its politics, skewering both the left and the right — and anyone who believed in anything — as equally ridiculous. The smart people were those detached enough to know that everyone was full of it, that every election came down to “giant douche” vs. a “turd sandwich” and “South Park” gets to be the voice of reason for pointing that out.
“Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right,” the show declares smugly, spewing racial slurs and casual homophobia. Any criticism of the show is cast as hysterical: “Why are you taking it so seriously? They’re just jokes!”
South Park soothes away any self-reflection to protect a worldview that is safely unchanged. Shhhhh, it whispers, rubbing your back. No one is better than you. Deep down, everyone is as bad as your own laziest, most selfish impulses.
I wasn’t making a particularly novel point. Last year, Lindy West wrote about “South Park” in her book, “The Witches are Coming.” AV Club writer Sean O’Neal wrote an article the year prior with the headline, “South Park raised a generation of trolls.” Shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Emily Nussbaum cited “South Park” in the New Yorker in an article contextualizing Trump’s rise to power.
And so, when I tweeted some of this casually on my way to work, I wasn’t expecting the tsunami I unleashed.
By my lunch break, massive alt-right accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers had sicced their sycophants on me, claiming that I was trying to “cancel ‘South Park.’” By the time I got home from work, nearly half a dozen videos on YouTube had popped up like poisonous mushrooms, in which men raged that I was a fat, ugly social-justice warrior liberal snowflake who couldn’t take a joke.
If you’ve never experienced online trolling, there’s not much I can do to describe for you what it’s like. In the abstract, it seems like it shouldn’t be able to hurt you. In reality, it’s hundreds of thousands of people calling you an idiot, a bitch and worse — tweeting at you faster than you can block them. You’ll receive emails, a good chunk of them death threats, nearly all the rest vicious anti-Semitic slurs. You’ll get notifications that strangers are trying to hack into your personal accounts. People will bombard your employer with complaints to get you fired from your job. All the while, you’re implicitly barred from publicly sharing what’s happening to you lest people criticize you for a) whining or b) making it all up for attention.
I didn’t call for “South Park” to be canceled. I didn’t even say I hated the show! But the nuances of my point didn’t matter. Painting critics as prudish, finger-wagging scolds is the go-to defense mechanism for those who subscribed to the show’s fragile worldview. They have to be the brave victims, the enlightened underdogs under attack by the hectoring, anti-freedom censors.
Ironically enough, “South Park” itself has attempted to reckon with its own nihilism. In the 2011 episode “You’re Getting Old,” the show’s most frequent voice of reason — the closest to an audience analogue — begins seeing everything around him as poop. In spite of himself, Stan can’t stop criticizing everything he formerly enjoyed: video games, ice cream, movies. His friends begin avoiding him. But when they confront him about his constant complaining and negativity, he protests: “I haven’t changed, the world has. Don’t you see it?” The episode ends on an uncharacteristically somber note, with his former friends playing video games together, and Stan all alone.
“You’re Getting Old” offers an important reminder that cynicism can be caustic, that nihilism leads nowhere and changes nothing. When you’re the only one who sees that the world around you is a mess, you might get to feel smug, but you also might end up by yourself.
At least in this episode, “South Park” makes a good point.