(I’m going to trust we all can set aside our Orwellian associations with the phrase“big brother” for the duration of this essay.)

I don’t know if it’s even possible to describe the relationship two siblings can have to anyone who never had a sibling. A close-in-age siblingship is a primally contradictory relationship, perhaps the first conflicted relationship a child has a chance to form in their development. We start out as competitors and rivals within the house — competing for parental attention, food, toys, privacy. Our first conflicts will probably be with our siblings; they are likely to be the first people we physically injure, and the first to injure us. And yet, the moment anything from outside the house threatens us, we are one another’s first allies, and our first chance to learn about loyalty and comradery and collaboration as equals.

When I was four or five, my big brother and I used to play with a group of kids that included another pair of siblings, a brother and his younger sister. The sister was named Jackie, and her brother called her Jack. However, he made it absolutely clear to all of us that he was the only person allowed to call her Jack. That was his name for her, and nobody else’s. That little anecdote has always struck me as a perfect illustration of the contradictory nature of every close sibling relationship. “Nobody else is allowed to treat her the way I do” is a very big brotherly thing to say.

I want it to be clear that I think this is a good thing. Learning nuance in relationships, and the skill of navigating moral and ethical relativism, is important for children and results in healthier adult habits. A child who learns what it means for your best friend and defender to also be your most constant and bitter enemy is one who will probably be able to resolve conflicts with coworkers, neighbors, friends, and romantic partners without needlessly vilifying them. Besides, I love my brother with all my heart, even though throughout high school he would punch my arm whenever I said hi to him in the hallway. He sang at my wedding, and I lit the chalice at his, yet three prominent scars on my hand are from his fingernails during one of our childhood fights. There is simply nobody else I could possibly ever say that about, and I wouldn’t trade that uniqueness for anything, even for the chance to punch him in the arm just as many times.

I thought of my brother recently when I was reminded of the existence of South Park, which became popular when he and I were about the right age to think it was the most brilliant thing ever. In retrospect, it was also a time when United States mainstream culture was hitting Peak White Liberal. A few gay men on television were proving that the world was finally okay with gay people and therefore everyone could just relax their sphincters. The First Lady was as much a politician and as career-focused as the President. The Cold War was over, and nationalistic grandstanding had become passe. There was no 9/11, so anyone who expressed overt anti-Middle-Eastern or anti-Islamic sentiment could easily be written off as a bigot. The good ol’ days, at least on the surface.

And then along came South Park, to prove how wrong it all still was. Their no-holds-barred humor breached unspoken boundaries in mainstream liberal sensibilities, and thus proved that those boundaries even existed. It helped its viewers see their own unconscious biases and hypocritical values up close. Liberals who thought they couldn’t possibly be racist or sexist or homophobic would find themselves laughing hysterically at a caricature of a person of color or a woman or a gay person and realize that their outward tolerance of difference was just a thin veil drawn over their deep-running hostility and fear of it. Then the show would wrap up with a frank, commonsense summary of the reality none of us really wanted to acknowledge, and an admonition to avoid falling for the liberal utopian illusion.

I honestly think the show did a lot of good, in its early years, with pointing out the covert bigotry in ostensibly progressive, “enlightened” white upper-middle class educated people. The problem is that while some people laughed at the jokes and took an eye to their own hypocrisies in an effort to improve, others used the same jokes as a leaping-off point toward rejecting liberal progressive ideals entirely. And that’s the danger inherent in satire: not everyone will catch its nuances. Not everyone will be able to see the distinction between the big brotherly joshing that’s okay because it’s coming from trusted, loving source, and the cruel and dangerous mockery from someone who hasn’t earned that trust. They can look exactly the same, even to the people involved, but trust makes the difference. The difference is confidence that the mockery will never escalate to actual, serious harm.

I haven’t given serious thought to South Park in well over a decade, and when I looked it up to write this, seeing that it’s been running for 21 seasons made me more sad than anything else. If the show remained true to its original creative purpose, I doubt it would have been around even half that long. Back when I still liked it, South Park did an episode explaining exactly why its own brand of humor shouldn’t be allowed to become so common or established: “You see, we’ve learned something today. Swearing can be fun, but doing it all the time causes a lot of problems… We have to go back to only using curse words in rare, extreme circumstances.”… “And besides, too much use of a dirty word takes away from its impact. We believe in free speech and all that, but… keeping a few words taboo just adds to the fun of English.” (Season 5, Episode 1, “It Hits the Fan”.)

The episode was specifically about swear words, but the same is true of all crass, edgy, offensive humor like South Park. It’s only fun when it’s used rarely enough to retain its shock value, and dangerous when it becomes ubiquitous. Either it’ll lose its meaning, or it will lead young people with less nuanced perception to think that the attitudes and behaviors it represents are actually okay. And most of the people who end up missing the nuance are young white cis men who aren’t likely to experience real oppression, harassment, or systematic exclusion, since those are the kinds of experiences that show a person the dagger hidden behind the joke.

Satire can only be the big brother whose mockery is privileged despite its cruelty if we see the Jack/Jackie distinction clearly. “It’s okay because this other person did it” is never an acceptable excuse for an offensive joke, because the source matters. “It’s okay because I didn’t mean anything by it” isn’t either, because your intentions don’t determine whether another person will trust you; that trust must be nurtured with a clear demonstration of true goodwill and even love. If your jokes aren’t hitting the spot and people are getting upset, there is absolutely no amount of pouting or appeals to freedom of speech that will make anyone want to laugh along. And even siblings will go to all-out war with one another on occasion, and when that happens, there often needs to be some apologies and reconciliatory candy bribes to keep them from running to mom, or from becoming permanently estranged.

The other day, a friend of mine on social media posted something blandly critical of South Park, ultimately saying she didn’t like it and didn’t want people to assume she did. Someone commented, defending the show as satire that “aims to offend”. A short argument ensued, which I found confusing because my friend wasn’t really arguing anything except that an intentionally offensive thing is offensive, and the commenter’s argument was basically “it’s a joke, so it must be okay.” If this kind of thing happened in a South Park episode, I can imagine how it might have ended up.

Meanwhile, on a different friend’s social media post, a high school acquaintance of mine who has since gone full-on alt-right provocateur was posting incessant homophobic and transphobic memes and dodging all attempts at debate with a wink and a grin and a “just joking” defense. Looking at his profile, I found him engaging in lengthy diatribes about the unique superiority of American cultural values and the inherent societal threat posed by Mexican immigrants as a justification for the incarceration and abuse of children without due process.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you excuse any offensive and outrageous speech merely because it is presented as a joke: it becomes far too easy to use a veneer of humor to disguise what would otherwise provoke genuine and justified outrage. It’s used to diffuse attempts to combat real bigotry, real hate, and real injustice. I think that’s what happened when we, as a society, decided that South Park and similarly offensive media was good and that there should be more of it. For many of us, it stopped being funny because it lost its razor-sharp edge from overexposure. For a few of us, it stopped being funny because it started to really hurt.

A meme-spewing troll on the internet never turns to the screen and says “You see, we learned something today” to affirm the basic humanity of everyone involved. He’s not your big brother, who’ll punch you in the arm but turn around and defend you against the bullies who’ll do worse. He is the bully, and anyone who defends him cannot rightly be called your brother. And after twenty-one years, I’d have hoped that South Park would have grown out of the arm-punching, like my own big brother did.

Kyle was right. We have to go back to using it only in rare, extreme circumstances.

(Okay. Now you can go back to the Orwell references.)

I write essays about social issues. My patreon: https://www.patreon.com/sycastells