South Park, Scientology, and the Public Sphere

Envisioned as a 17th Century coffee-house, Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the ‘public sphere’ is both an observation and an ideology which is apparent throughout the modern world.

Without accidentally regurgitating information from my source lecture for this topic, the observation of the public sphere revolves around the notion that a public forum be enacted to discuss the everyday occurrences and issues faced by individuals. Free of economic and political influence, the occupants would discuss topics of the day in a tangible environment. Except, in the intangible, no such environment exists. Not one free from economic and political influence in any case.

Habermas goes on in scrutiny of this theorized environment that this coffee-house would be devoid of both minorities and anyone who weren’t the Upper-class. This is an accurate observation for his time. For the public spheres, and the ability to voice concerns over issues as equals, would only be held by those with power. Generally aristocratic in nature.

His criticism turns to voicing his thoughts on the process, seeing the public sphere as an egalitarian establishment, with all values and view equal in weight.

In the modern age, starting from the inception of media and its inexplicable evolution, this is not the case. Not all voices are heard, and not all are given equal weight. This can almost instantly be attributed to the incredibly obvious political and economic influences that are evident in individuals. No one wants to know their ideology is wrong, and will fight tooth and nail to defend it, even if it results in silencing opposition.

In a singular public sphere an individual with no wealth or political connections is guaranteed to be without a voice; silenced by their peers and those with political aspirations and money. In a fragmented society, and in a fragmented public sphere, they’re almost are guaranteed a voice. With a lesser audience, it can be assumed that you will be heard. Conversely with a large audience, you will not. The phrase “You need to be silent to be spoken to” comes to mind in relation to both of these statements.

With these fragmented societies and offshoot public spheres, the inclusion of minorities and the lower class is evident and welcome. This isn’t to say however that they are without political and economic influence. The biggest issue within the public spheres is scrutinizing what power the media may hold, if any. Do they influence perspective? Maybe through dog-whistling issues that should be ‘focused’ on, to control the narrative of everyday life?

A show not far from the forefront of stirring up controversy and debate, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s ‘South Park’ takes an exceedingly brutish and hilarious take on criticizing Scientology in the episode “Trapped in the Closet”. The episode, like many of its preceding, caused outrage and absolutely vile backlash against the creators. It was even assumed that this is what led to the voice actor, Isaac Hayes’ (Voice of ‘Chef’) departure.

In a mild synopsis of the episode, the character Stan joins the Church of Scientology and it’s discovered that he’s the apparent reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the church. Introduced satirized characters such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and R. Kelly (all real life prominent members of the church apparently), all attempt to convince Stan to lead the church of Scientology, which leads to the trio trapping themselves in Stan’s closet.
When the church’s president reveals that the establishment is really a scam, Stan admits this to the world. Claiming he is not the  reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard. And on that bombshell, his followers grow angry and just decide to threaten him with litigation as they depart.

The two prominent topics sparked throughout the episode pertained to the satirized sexuality of Tom Cruise (A topic, long since discussed apparently), and the ethics surrounding the Church of Scientology.

The reactions to this episode were wide-reaching, from abuse and threats of litigation from the actual Church of Scientology, to the departure of one of the show’s long-standing voice actors. The latter of which is interesting to note the cognitive dissonance between the lack of Hayes’ disputes over the repetitive attacks on Christianity throughout the show, but the lack of tolerance towards a single episode dedicated to mocking Scientology.

Now ignoring the actual content of the reactions, the actual pandemic of outrage fell short from the discussion it sparked. Even years after the episode, criticism of the Church was still justifiably widespread.

So overall, it can be assumed that the media can absolutely contribute to the debate within the public sphere. Allowing the ability to mock (there is a distinction between mocking and slander by the way) is incredibly pivotal to allowing debate within the public sphere. The media’s ability to open organisations up is dog-whistling and just pandering, but it isn’t without its merits. Because such mocking can lead to scrutiny and protection for those who may become too influenced or intimidated by an organisation.

I would like to hear someone else’s thoughts at all, but be sure to address the topic, rather than the content. I’m not the biggest fan of the show, and I do believe Hayes was slightly correct in the intolerance the show exhibits under the guise of ‘satire’, but his positioning and hypocrisy really makes his point moot. 

Anyway, yeah, say words.

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One thought on “South Park, Scientology, and the Public Sphere

  1. Your topic of scientology within the public sphere is such an interesting choice! Within the media, it is so often scrutinised – particularly with relation to the membership of celebrities such as Tom Cruise to the church and the ramifications surrounding this, often discussed in the social spheres of gossip magazines. The mysterious and often blanketed nature of scientology, and hence the skepticism that surrounds it, is cleverly commented upon within your choice to discuss this episode of South Park as it reflects the satirical and largely humoured ‘side’ within the scientology debate. The ramifications of this episode alone create a new conversation within the public sphere, concerning the ‘sensitivity’ but also power of the church which ultimately led to the departure of one of the shows long-standing voice actors. Your comparison to the Christian church’s reaction (or lack there of) to the receptive attacks on the Christian faith within the show is particularly interesting, commenting on the defensive nature of scientology and its leaders. Your opening description and discussion of the mediated public sphere and its origin is the perfect opening to create a more full understanding of media’s role in provoking discussion and debate on topical issues and concerns such as scientology. All round great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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