Controversy over Comedy’s Central’s decision to censor the television show South Park’s depiction of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in a bear costume continues, with free speech advocates pit against those who believe that the pictorial depiction of the prophet is offensive to Islam. The South Park cartoon satirized the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy in 2005, involving the Danish newspaper’s printing of a dozen depictions of Muhammad. The Jyllands-Posten controversy led to international protests and death threats against one of the cartoonists.
The creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, were warned in a RevolutionMuslim.com posting that they could end up like Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered by an Islamic extremist in 2004 for his depiction of Muhammad.
One can’t help but wonder at Comedy Central’s effort to create an oxymoron by introducing political correctness into South Park, a cartoon that consists of biting satire. Satire by its nature mocks its subject. Is religion an off-limits subject for mockery due to its sensitivity?
What about religious satire that makes a socially valuable point? The Onion recently wrote a satire about the Pope committing to reduce church pedophilia to “acceptable levels.” Was the Onion out of line for mocking a religious group’s failure to address a comprehensive social problem among its ranks that also constitutes criminal conduct?
Muhammad is in good company as a religious satire subject. Long before South Park portrayed Muhammad in a bear suit, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was criticized as blasphemy by the Catholic Church. Jesus Christ Superstar was met with protest due to its depiction of Jesus Christ as a man rather than a god. A court ordered an injunction against the airing of The Profit in the United States after the Church of Scientology alleged that it was a veiled attempt to influence the jury in a court case in which that church as charged with causing a woman’s death.
If certain religious groups are unable to laugh at themselves, does that mean the world is prohibited from laughing at what others see as their excesses and eccentricities?
Essence.com ran a piece last month commenting on the offensiveness of ‘Freaknik: The Musical.’ Racial humor like religious humor is risky as some viewers inevitably believe that it’s a put-down of the entire race portrayed in the satire.
Catering to the lowest common denominator – or the highest level of sensitivity- is the only way to avoid controversy with satire. Case in point: Global Wildlife Center of Louisiana took a blogger to court for writing about a fictional giraffe attack there, apparently concerned that readers would believe the satire was real. Fictional giraffe attacks aren’t the kind of satire that would get most people’s goat, but it was enough to send the wildlife center running to court against a hapless blogger.
If humor writers can’t even make fun of giraffes, South Park’s depiction of Muhammad in a bear suit doesn’t stand a chance. Once the believers in Islam get together with the various bear-rights groups, South Park will be lucky to remain on the air.
Sources: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/22/south-park-mohammed-censo_n_547484.html; http://timesonline.typepad.com/faith/2007/10/the-blasphemy-c.html; http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100304/1244358419.shtml; http://www.essence.com/entertainment/hot_topics/offensive_things_freaknik_musical.php.