Prof’s book explores philosophical nuances of ’South Park’
Richard Hanley, associate professor of philosophy, celebrates the animated comedy’s capacity for confronting issues that make most viewers uncomfortable.
5:32 p.m., April 17, 2007--South Park, the Emmy Award-winning animated television comedy created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone and seen on Comedy Central, is definitely not everyone's cup of tea.

With episode titles like “The Spirit of Christmas (Jesus vs. Santa)”, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” “Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride” and “An Elephant Man Makes Love to a Pig,” South Park has earned the wrath of school administrators, parents, believers of most faiths and celebrities.

The show's irreverent and sometimes skewed take on current events and the denizens of popular culture also has drawn the attention of Richard Hanley, UD associate professor of philosophy, whose latest book, South Park and Philosophy, celebrates the show's capacity for confronting issues that make most viewers uncomfortable.

“I chose South Park because there are not many shows on TV that are worth writing about,” Hanley said. “South Park is like the Simpsons, but with a lot less restrictions, and almost every episode pushes the envelope.”

South Park and Philosophy is part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series published by Open Court. The series' diverse list of subjects range from The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to pop icons such as the Beatles, James Bond series and the movies of suspense master Alfred Hitchcock.

South Park's main characters include perpetual fourth-graders Stanley “Stan” Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Eric Theodore Cartman, Kenneth “Kenny” McCormick and Leopold “Butters” Stotch.

For Hanley, the most valuable asset the show possesses is its potential for controversy and its refusal to settle for standard answers on difficult and often perplexing issues.

“Almost every episode deals with the topic of applied ethics,” Hanley said. “South Park pushes the envelope, and it doesn't respect sacred cows. Some of these sacred cows keep us from making progress in applied ethics.”

Issues of applied ethics, Hanley said, include human stem-cell research, euthanasia, treatment of drugs in sports, religion and blasphemy, the theory of evolution in school, tolerance, the environment, gay marriage and drugs in general.

“The only disappointment is that there was no coverage of the capital punishment issue,” Hanley said. “Almost every other issue has been covered.”

The book is laid out in five sections including, “Religion and Other Disabilities,” “Politics and Other Sacred Cows,” “Morality and Other Urges,” “Science, Logic and Other Really, Really Clever Stuff” and “Humor and other Insertable Devices.”

Of the book's 22 chapters, 14 were written by Hanley. The remaining eight chapters feature contributions by UD alums Sophia Bishop and Tom Way, an assistant professor of computing sciences at Villanova University, plus three other writers, including Randall E. Auxier.

"'Why Timmy Can't Read: Mr. Hat's Philosophy of Progressive Education,' is a takeoff on 'No Child Left Behind,'" Hanley said. "I had read some of Randy's [Auxier] previous stuff and found it exceptional and generally funny."

In the spirit of its subject, Hanley said that South Park and Philosophy is essentially a no-holds kind of book and possibly the rudest he has ever written.

“Some of the things in here will make people's hair curl. I tried as hard as possible to make it that way,” Hanley said. “My starting point is that nothing is sacred until we find that it is so.”

Hanley also said that he wanted to counter the notion that the show has overtones of a right-wing conservative political philosophy.

“I'm an unabashed liberal, and I'm offering a liberal point of view,” Hanley said. “The story line of South Park is also consistent with left-wing liberalism and libertarianism. In the classic sense, liberals were against censorship and needed to have a good reason for government interference in anything.”

Hanley, who earned his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Maryland in College Park, is the author of The Metaphysics of Star Trek (1997), published in paperback as Is Data Human? (1998). He also has written several articles, including “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Reflections on the First Matrix,” (Official Warner Brothers web site version, 2002), “Send in the Clones,” in Star Wars and Philosophy (2004, edited by Kevin Decker and Jason Eberl) and the soon to be released “Where is the Twilight Zone?” in The Twilight Zone and Philosophy (2007), edited by Lester Hunt and Noel Carroll.

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Kathy Atkinson