Toward a Theory of South Park Pragmatism

By Ke Ding ’13

In one episode of South Park, a crudely animated show that runs on Comedy Central, the main characters’ fourth- grade teacher, Mr. Garrison, gets his job back after being fired for his sexual orientation. The principal lets slip during the conversation that he could “never be fired now after that new law: the school could be sued for millions of dollars!” Mr. Garrison lights up, and the rest of the episode slowly (and hilariously) develops into farce as Mr. Garrison utilizes more and more flamboyantly obscene ways to try to get fired. When some of the boys he teaches protest the inappropriateness  of Mr. Garrison’s actions, they get sent by their parents, outraged by their children’s lack of tolerance, to the “Death Camp of Tolerance,” where instructors dressed in throwback Gestapo uniforms starve them and deprive them of sleep, all the while forcing them to do finger paintings of “tolerant pictures.”

Mr. Garrison, meanwhile, becomes more and more frustrated when administrators and parents applaud his antics as “bravery in the face of intolerance,” even going so far as to award him a medal. At the award ceremony, Mr. Garrison finally erupts when the audience only claps as he, half naked, delivers a speech full of profanity and screams: “I’m trying to get fired here! I’m being inappropriate!” In a final twist, Mr. Garrison is finally demoted back to his old job — not for his antics — but for “being intolerant of himself.”

If you’ve laughed at the resplendent irony present in that episode, then you might be a common sense conservative. Indeed, this episode was itself a pretty good illustration of common sense conservatism, and especially the type of reductio ad absurdum argument that common sense conservatism often utilizes. But that brings us to our main question: what, exactly, is a common sense conservative? There are many more circumstances, not all as ridiculous as the (mostly) hypothetical one shown by South Park, which can illustrate common sense conservatism very well. You can apply common sense conservatism, for example, to any situation where there’s a bit of a stretch involved, or where there’s a bit too much of a reliance on caveats — the point at which a reasonable man or woman might say, “wait a minute, that’s not quite right.” For example, a man pushes a law to castigate a certain racial group in the name of racial purity. Common sense conservatism would argue that not only is it immensely immoral, but that the whole idea of racial purity, for so many reasons, wouldn’t make any sense at all, i.e. “wait a minute, something there doesn’t feel quite right.”

A more structured approach is necessary to better wrap one’s mind around the subject. To start, common sense conservatism isn’t ideological. Indeed, I’d say it’s pretty close to apolitical, as one of the main ideas of common sense conservatism is to value experience and practicality over ideological dogma. This is an important point.

To a common sense conservative, the gold standard of discourse is reason and practicality. I don’t use common sense conservatism in the way that Sarah Palin uses common sense conservatism: it’s not a byword for folksy or down-to earth or in a political “us vs. them” populist sense.  Rather, common sense conservatism has as its pillars three main ideas: caution; humility; and a firm attachment to, and belief in, the real. Of course, these words don’t glitter like Equality or Diversity or God, but of them is born the best way to confront the issues of the world. 

Perge Sed Caute


Caution refers to exactly that: A tendency to think and really analyze before taking action. This is especially important in this day and age, when everything is instant and gratification is impatient and to be branded as a “man of action” (regardless, it seems, of what kind of action) is something that most politicians strive for. Caution amounts to a healthy respect for the unknown, especially in matters of governance that affect the lives of people. It is the idea that we do not know whether it may or may not work, but we do know what has worked in the past. It is a disposition that it is perhaps better to build off what we have, instead of chucking the whole thing & starting from scratch. It is, at its heart, an active avoidance of risk when it involves the lives of other people, as governance inevitably does.


As American as Humble Pie


Humility refers to not only recognizing one’s  own limitations, but also the limitations of government and society at large. It is through a humble approach to what we can or cannot do, and to what society could look like, that we are most likely to effect positive change and just as importantly, to deny negative change. John Lennon may sing “Imagine” beautifully, but when you listen carefully to the lyrics, the ideas they express are absolutely awful. Humility allows us to get beyond ourselves and our imagining, and to deal with what is already present here, in front of us. A person with any sense of humility would never give much thought to imagining a world where there are no possessions, of peace between all men. It’s distasteful perhaps to seem so cynical, but it represents a measure of humility. You and I and all the people in this world could never create a world like that. Our energies should be spent on improving what we can. When statesmen egotistically believe in their fantasies, and attempt to fashion what cannot be fashioned, we end up with things like the Mao’s starving communes. They may mean well, but the result of their lack of humility is still disastrous.


The Reality-Based Community


The third pillar of common-sense conservatism is perhaps the most interesting one.  To start, it might be the most intellectual of the three pillars. When I speak of a “firm attachment to and belief in the real,” I refer to a firm rebuke of relativism. I remember having conversations with a high school English teacher over this. She would argue that no culture is better than any other, that no man is better than any other, that no action, really, is better than any other, except for the notion that we should be kind to one another because it is to our evolutionary advantage. Besides the point to be made that this in itself seemed a contradiction (her relativistic point of view, after all, was rather absolute in her eyes), I would always argue that, regardless, good behavior and good governance require that we believe the world is populated by living, breathing, feeling people. And, for them, practicality requires that we ditch the intellectual arguments and instead treat the world as it is, not as what one notion or another thinks it is. What this means is that for all intents and purposes — which is what we should care about — yes, some men are better than others, in that we should jail thieves and reward good citizens. It means that some ideas are better than others, and that some cultures have developed a bigger net benefit to its peoples than others. It is above all a rejection of abstraction and ideology. It is a focus on what makes sense in this world of flawed people and flawed things (but beautiful nevertheless), rather than what should make sense in our heads. Some would argue, even, that this “firm attachment to and belief in the real” or groundedness is what makes for a healthy, happy life in general.

In the year 1790, Edmund Burke published “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” In an era that was marked by radical upheaval and an overall sense of “Forward!” and “Progress!” Burke’s “Reflections” was notable for its departure from the prevalent zeitgeist, its step back, and its attempt at perspective. In perhaps the foundational demonstration of common sense conservatism, Burke argued that the Revolution, built upon abstract notions born of mind instead of experience, would be a failure. In an era when innocent men and women were prone to lose their lives in the name of nebulous concepts like Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, Burke called for common sense in place of metaphysical ideas, reliance upon experience and tradition, and trust in the real as opposed to the gleaming visions of various messiahs. The eventual disaster of the Terror would prove him right. France was the first, but by no means the last, society to go off its hinges in the pursuit of modernity’s El Dorado. Gulags, concentration camps, and Mao’s Great Leap Forward — all were born under the idea that somehow a perfect society could be carved out of the imperfect souls of men. And all, of course, were disastrous. That is not to be said that progress cannot be made. For a society to adapt and survive, things must, well, adapt to change. But the best way to do it would be to approach it with that sense of humility, caution, and appreciation of the Real and the Practical. A common sense conservative understands that, and really, channels what Burke had so elegantly and with clear-mindedness articulated so long ago. Today, we might replace Burke’s words of caution with a simple question: “Wait a minute, something there doesn’t feel quite right.” Not the most glamorous words, but perhaps some of the most useful and necessary.