On Wednesday night, the 19th season of South Park will premiere and in keeping with tradition it's going to address a current event that's captured the attention of the country. This time around Trey Parker and Matt Stone are setting their sights on Caitlyn Jenner, specifically America's reaction to her arrival and ascendance as a public figure. The name of tomorrow's episode is "Stunning and Brave," which should tell you everything you need to know about how the notoriously irreverent show is going to be treating this subject. Put simply, there's no way in hell that title is meant to be taken any way other than mockingly, especially considering that the episode will also feature the South Park kids' principal forcing them to “confront the damage they’ve done through their history of racism and unconscious bias.” The synopsis claims this will be “the most stunning and brave South Park ever." Translation: Buckle up, because it's gonna be deeply problematic viewing.
South Park almost certainly isn't going to insult Caitlyn Jenner. Trey and Matt are far too evolved -- and far too smart -- for that. But if tomorrow's show unfolds the way it appears it might, it will be shocking that it took South Park so long to broach head-on the subject of our culture's new hyper-sensitivity and trend toward indiscriminate outrage, particularly given that it's a show that's defiantly thumbed its nose at the easily offended for nearly 20 years. We now live in a country and an era in which a small but vocal minority on the internet and in our nation's colleges is attempting to hold our language and thought hostage by deciding for us what is and isn't acceptable within both. The reason for this, mostly, is the belief that uncomfortable words and ideas cause not simply offense but genuine injury and that those injurious words and ideas should be stamped out completely for the good of everyone. It used to be adult conservatives who were the censors within our culture -- now it's young liberals.
Thankfully, in the current war between those who demand to be insulated from yucky words and thoughts and the rest of us, President Obama has just picked a side -- and it's the right one. During a town hall in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, Obama commented on the recent stories coming out of the nation's colleges that show students self-infantilizing -- demanding trigger warnings and constructing safe spaces -- in an effort to avoid ideas they find unsettling. "I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views," the president said. "I've heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that." Obama went on to say that it's wrong for college students to listen only to the sound of their own voices and not be willing to hear what their political and cultural adversaries have to say.
You can chalk this up to the latest example of President Obama simply being all out of fucks and therefore completely unafraid to speak his mind, but whatever the reason it's important that a message like this comes not only from the President of the United States but from the country's first black president. Granted, despite Obama's minority status, there are always going to be those who will simply accuse him of "mansplaining" -- because we're now a nation that's somehow unwilling to laugh the meaningless neologisms of hashtag warriors off the planet -- but there's still no denying that Obama's position of authority may carry at least a small amount of weight with the right people. Will it change anything? Probably not, considering how ridiculously far gone we are when it comes to the desire of some to self-censor in the name of supposedly protecting the oppressed. But the more the adults in the room speak up and call this silly bullshit out for what it is, the better.
Contrast President Obama's straight talk with recent comments made by Sarah Silverman, who should know better given that her entire shtick revolves around being cluelessly offensive. Speaking to Vanity Fair this week, Silverman said that it's okay for comics to adjust their material as more and more language becomes off limits. "To a degree, everyone’s going to be offended by something, so you can’t just decide on your material based on not offending anyone,” she said. “But, I do think it’s important, as a comedian, as a human, to change with the times. I think it’s a sign of being old if you’re put off by that.” To a certain extent she's right: there's nothing wrong with reevaluating language as the times evolve. But her next comment should leave a bad taste in your mouth. "You have to listen to the college-aged, because they lead the revolution,” Silverman says. "They’re pretty much always on the right side of history."
This might be the first time in the history of our nation that college kids are fighting for less freedom rather than more -- and that's an indefensible thing. There's nothing wrong with pushing a culture toward allowing a stronger voice for those who've been historically silenced, but when that comes at the price of relatively benign self-expression -- particularly for comedians -- then something has gone horribly wrong. The problem with Silverman's view is that she's talking about putting far too much authority into the hands of those who've already proven they'll abuse it. Just take a look at Brown University's construction of a "safe space" on campus, complete with "cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies" as a response to a public discussion about rape culture being held on campus. Basically Brown was turned into the world's most expensive daycare -- for young adults.
Or there was the National Union of Students Women's Conference in London earlier this year, which suggested that attendees use "jazz hands" rather than applause to signal approval because the latter may trigger anxiety. Or maybe the Orwellian bill passed by the student government of Ithaca College a few months back that put in place "an online system to report microaggressions, which sponsors of the bill said (would) create a more conducive environment for victims to speak about microaggressions." Say something someone is offended by, even if you didn't know you were being offensive or didn't mean to be, and you can now be handed up anonymously and dragged before the school's administration -- all in the name of keeping students safe, comfortable and away from any negative feelings that might upset them.
Then there's this amusing bit of madness: This past May, four of the special snowflakes at Columbia University, specifically from its Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, wrote an op-ed suggesting that the school stop teaching The Metamorphoses, the epic narrative by the Roman poet Ovid. The reason was that the poem contains scenes of rape and violence and generally "marginalizes student identities in the classroom." The op-ed read, "These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background." As I wrote once before, here we had identity politics once again rearing its big, stupid head. And when that happens — when every niche’s every grievance demands immediate catering to — logic, reason and the greater good of all students goes out the window since you can create a course load that meets the demands and fragile sensibilities of every single individual student.
These are the people Sarah Silverman apparently thinks are on the right side of history -- these terrified, sanctimonious children who want to turn the entire world into a fucking safe space. These kids are going to be in for the biggest shock of their lives when they get out into the real world and there are no more trigger warnings and "Your Fave Is Problematic" Tumblrs to retreat to -- when they're forced to simply accept that some people think differently from them and they're gonna have to either nut the fuck up and swallow their outrage or walk away and ignore it completely.
While cries against "PC culture" are admittedly obnoxious at the moment -- with the rise of Donald Trump they typically come from resentful white assholes who miss being able to call black people niggers without becoming pariahs -- there is a danger to all this attempted cleansing of language and thought. The world the youthful hashtag activist crowd seems to long for is a dystopian one, an on-demand bubble where you're never confronted with any ideas other than ideas you already hold. Where there's no nuance or gray area, only zeroes and ones. Acceptable and unacceptable. Beneficial and problematic. And whether it's Barack Obama calling this crap out or somebody -- anybody else, maybe even South Park if we're lucky -- it has to be done.