In the episode “Fatbutt and Pancake Head,” Cartman performs a ventriloquist act, using his hand as a puppet of Jennifer Lopez. The “Hennifer Lopez” puppet sings about running for the border, burritos, and taco-flavoured kisses. Soon after, the real Jennifer Lopez—Ben Affleck in tow—shows up in South Park and has a showdown with the puppet Jennifer. Ben falls in love with Cartman’s puppet Jennifer, and the adventure ends with Lopez’s arrest, an identity thief’s confession, and a puppet’s suicide.
“Fatbutt and Pancake Head” may be one of the more ethically objectionable South Park episodes. Puppet Jennifer’s distorted accent and seemingly insatiable appetite for tacos is racially insensitive, if not downright racist. Yet one can barely suppress a grin as one thinks of all of these shenanigans.
And so it is with much of South Park, as we laugh and snicker at everything that is wrong and twisted. But could it be morally wrong to laugh, or, is it just moral prudishness to even suggest that it might be so?
How can we decide whether it’s morally wrong to laugh at South Park? We might employ the device of the moral saint. By imagining and reflecting on what a moral saint would be like, we can draw out answers about how we should act and be. Susan Wolf presents two characterizations of the moral saint: the loving saint and the rational saint. The loving saint is someone who cares only for the interests of others. The rational saint cares for her own interests while recognizing that her duties to others outweigh or override the pursuit of her own interests. For both, the welfare and happiness of others is paramount. The difference lies in the sense of sacrifice that only the rational saint will feel. Would either saint laugh at Terrance and Phillip’s farting or the image of Nurse Gollum with a dead foetus attached to her head?
Wolf would probably say no, suggesting that “although a moral saint might well enjoy a good episode of Father Knows Best, he may not in good conscience be able to laugh at a Marx Brothers movie or enjoy a play by George Bernard Shaw”. Why? Because the humour in the Marx Brothers and Shaw typically occurs at someone else’s expense. People are made out to be idiots, or are insulted, or find themselves in some awkward or nasty situation and, because of these misfortunes, we laugh at them. Being considered an idiot, being insulted, or finding oneself in an unfortunate situation can cause emotional and psychological harm to the “victim” and, consequently, the saint should not take joy in these harms through laughter. But even more than the potential for harm, the saint’s attention to the interests of others makes it doubtful that she would ever feel enjoyment when others are feeling pain or are otherwise facing adversity. If nothing else, the saint’s efforts and energy will be so dominated by trying to help the “victim” or feeling sympathy and compassion for the person that it wouldn’t occur to the saint to react with ridicule, glee, or pleasure.
If a Marx Brothers movie is too sordid for these saints, then surely the loving and rational saints would be incapable of laughing at South Park. Even if they could laugh, they certainly shouldn’t laugh and, so, we shouldn’t be laughing either.
But Wolf’s two saints are not the only characterizations of the ideal moral person. Aristotle puts forward a conception of the ideal moral person who is courageous, generous, self-controlled, just, reflective, and able to associate with members of society in a friendly manner. Unlike Wolf’s saints, it’s likely that such a person could laugh at South Park, as there is nothing in this saint’s character that rules out a slightly wicked sense of humour. Because humans have rational capacities that distinguish them from all other kinds of animals, Aristotle thinks that the life of intellectual contemplation and moral virtue are what humans really should be striving for. Such rational qualities would also include understanding the relevance of the rhetoric, innuendo, analogy, and incongruity associated with humour, even more “wicked” forms of humour that result from the misfortunes of others. So in the end, the Aristotelian saint probably would sit around and laugh at South Park once in a while.
So, who’s right, Wolf or Aristotle? There seems to be something true in what they both have to say. So, at this point we’re still not sure if it is morally appropriate to laugh at South Park. We need to know more about how a morally good character can or can’t accommodate this salty sense of humour.
Ronald de Sousa may help us here, as he presents an explanation of how amusement works. De Sousa claims that in order to be amused by something, we have to endorse the attitudes and assumptions that are represented in the thing we find humorous, as well as the background context for the humorous thing. Merely having knowledge of these attitudes and assumptions is inadequate. De Sousa offers the following joke as an illustration: “M. visits the hockey team. When she emerges she complains that she has been gang-raped. Wishful thinking.” Some of us may find this joke funny, while others will not. The difference is in whether one endorses the attitudes and assumptions attached to the joke. Only those who are sexist can laugh at the joke because they have the attitudes and make the assumptions necessary to get the joke.
In this way, to be amused by this joke “marks” someone as a sexist. Thus, it would be immoral to be amused by this joke since to find it amusing is to be sexist. Indeed, to enjoy phthonic humour—humour that endorses an element of malice directed toward the target, or butt, of a joke—in general is morally wrong. For, in order to find phthonic humour funny, one must actually share in the nasty attitudes and assumptions that are necessary for the uptake of the phthonic humour.
Importantly, the sin lies in the amusement itself. De Sousa does not use the fact that someone is amused by a sexist joke as evidence for that person being sexist, though it would probably also serve that purpose. Rather, since to find the joke funny requires the hearer to endorse the sexist assumptions that are essential to the joke, the condition of being amused by the joke is itself what is immoral.
If de Sousa’s account is correct, then the moral saint cannot find amusement in phthonic humour because the very condition of being phthonically amused is what is morally problematic. In this way, we have an even stronger prohibition against certain kinds of amusement than Wolf has suggested. It’s no mere matter of being unable “in good conscience” to laugh at something phthonic or having one’s attention otherwise engaged; it’s a kind of psychological dysfunction. The Aristotelian saint is equally out of luck. So long as appreciation of phthonic humour requires actual endorsement of nefarious attitudes, then the Aristotelian saint cannot participate. And since phthonic humour is, for the most part, just what we grasp when we follow the misadventures of Cartman and the boys, it turns out that we’re being quite horrid people when we enjoy South Park. Though South Park is rarely as witless as de Sousa’s hockey joke, there is something mean spirited or base about the amusement it provides. We like watching Kenny die and Cartman’s monstrous selfishness wreak havoc on everyone around him. We relish the way that Butters’ or Pip’s mild dispositions are abused and taken advantage of by the other children. We savour the way that South Park takes shots at Scientology, Christianity, cultural diversity, alcoholics anonymous, and practically everything else. The humour is edgy, which is really just a nice way of saying that it’s a little wicked. And so we really shouldn’t be laughing at South Park.
This would be bleak news indeed for those of us who enjoy South Park. Luckily, de Sousa’s account is not justified. He’s right to claim that merely knowing what assumptions are at play in a joke isn’t enough for the joke to be funny. The problem with the account is that de Sousa claims that someone must actually endorse the attitudes and assumptions essential to a joke. However, one need not actually endorse these attitudes in order to adopt them so as to see the humour associated with them. To illustrate, recall that in “Bigbutt and Pancake Face” the hand-puppet version of Jennifer Lopez loves to eat tacos and burritos. In itself, there really isn’t anything funny about someone, even a Hispanic person, who loves to eat tacos and burritos. There is, however, something potentially funny about imagining a person as a fast-talking, r-rolling taco and burrito loving chola. South Park similarly plays on racist attitudes and assumptions for many of its other characters. To find these portrayals funny, one need only be aware of what stereotypes and caricatures are in attendance and use this information to imaginatively adopt the relevant attitudes. One only has to be able to imagine what it’s like to see a person as a fast-talking, r-rolling, taco and burrito loving chola, for instance.
There is, in short, a middle ground between endorsing pernicious attitudes and merely knowing about them. In the simplest case, we can imagine what it’s like to be a racist and how such a person would picture a young Hispanic woman. In doing so, we adopt, for a moment, the morally objectionable attitudes the racist holds towards young Hispanic women. But this imaginative adoption hardly “marks” someone as a racist. That it is imagined disqualifies it from being a genuine attribute: no more is a person who imagines being a superhero actually a superhero than a person who imagines being racist is actually racist. The transitory nature of the imagined adoption further belies any claim to endorsement. And an imaginative adoption of attitudes is, contra de Sousa, all that we need to do in order to laugh at “Hennifer Lopez.”
So where does this leave us concerning the ethics of amusement? If it’s correct that we can imagine hypothetical scenarios without endorsing them, then the moral saint could be saintly and still enjoy South Park’s humour. Imagining doesn’t necessarily have to do with what a person actually believes, thinks, wants, endorses, or even secretly wishes. In fact, a person might even be considered a defective moral saint if she didn’t have a good imagination. Creative ability is probably a good quality for a saint to have—if not in its own right, then at least to the extent that it plays a role in empathy and understanding.
None of this is to say that one can’t be immoral when laughing at South Park. If one were to endorse malicious attitudes or hurtful intentions for the sake of being hurtful, for example, phthonic amusement would be immoral. Snarling like a brute, then, is something that the moral saint could not do, and to be amused in this fashion is correspondingly wrong. But, as we have seen, a little imagination is all we need. Thus, even Wolf’s saints could laugh at South Park.
Excerpted and abridged from South Park And Philosophy: You Know I Learned Something Today, edited by Robert Arp (Blackwell)