Why Every Society Needs a Cartman

South Park is on the threshold of its 20th season: what is the source of its staying power? As with most universal human behaviors, satire can be productively understood in light of the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors--in this case, the challenges presented by cooperation. One thing that distinguishes humans as a species is the degree to which we help each other. Our ancestors didn't just hunt and gather wild foods, they brought them back to camp and shared them. This behavior ensured that a person who had a run of bad hunting luck or couldn't go foraging due to sickness or injury would still get something to eat. Our ancestors also cooperated to build shelters, raise children, provide health care, engage in trade, arrange marriages, form political alliances, and share information. By pooling their labor, they reduced their risk of dying from hunger, illness, injury, exposure, and predation. In short, humans are designed to make a living by cooperating: our survival depends on being part of a society.

Thus, it's in everyone's interest to maintain harmony among their group members. Conflict jeopardizes group cohesion because, when two members fight, others take sides, and the group may fission. Fissioning reduces the size of the cooperative network, which in turn increases risk: the smaller your cooperative network, the fewer people you can call on in time of need. In ancestral environments, smaller groups would have been more vulnerable to starvation, predation, and attack. Alas, cooperation is difficult to sustain. Inevitably, someone will put their own interests before those of others, which incites anger and fighting. Our ancestors thus needed effective means of mitigating conflict.

Enter storytelling. In modern hunter-gatherer societies and, presumably, ancient human groups, storytelling is used as a means of discouraging antisocial behavior and consequent conflict. The Trickster character is a prime example: across forager cultures, he is widely regarded as a model of bad behavior. Lazy, stingy, and gluttonous, he always wants something for nothing. He thus uses deception rather than cooperation to accomplish his ends: he fools people into to helping him, but never returns the favor. Impulsive and irresponsible, he doesn't think about the possible consequences of his actions, which often end up hurting him and others. He is also callous and incorrigible: he never learns from his mistakes, never heeds warnings, and when others suffer as a result of his rash behavior, he doesn't care. Unscrupulous and exploitative to the point of being a sociopath, he uses people and will do anything to get what he wants. In short, Trickster is unremittingly selfish: he always puts his needs before those of others, and holds himself above the rules. In so doing, he perpetually jeopardizes the security of his fellow group members, thereby destabilizing the cooperative network. He is the embodiment of behaviors that tick people off and lead to conflict.

If this sounds familiar to South Park fans, it should: Eric Cartman is a modern incarnation of the trickster. Greedy, lazy, unscrupulous, and manipulative, Cartman cares only about himself and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. So why have we tuned in for twenty years to watch him?

The answer is social sanctioning. Trickster stories discourage antisocial behaviors by vividly modeling the bad things that happen to people who engage in them. Trickster is sanctioned using a variety of tactics, chief of which is ridicule: his tricks typically backfire on him, making him an object of scorn. Although seemingly mild, this punishment packs a big punch, because in forager societies people dread public disapproval. For example, as anthropologist Frederica de Laguna notes, the Dena people "are very sensitive to what others may say . . . [and] the unwritten laws of the people are enforced through the strength of public opinion." Shaming works because it's a veiled threat: it hints that, if the behavior doesn't stop, more forceful sanctions will follow. Sterner sanctioning takes the form of ostracism: when people discover that Trickster has been free riding, they punish him by refusing to cooperate with him anymore. In extreme cases, he's kicked out of the group. Because the sanctioning tactics used against Trickster mirror those used in real life, the genre serves as a means of moral strong-arming: "straighten up and fly right, or what happened to Trickster will happen to you." In hunter-gatherer societies, expulsion from the group is a death sentence. In modern environments, it bodes a friendless existence. No one likes Cartman: he survives socially by bullying people into associating with him.

Trickster stories--and satire in general--are an important means of policing society. If the audience bears in mind the consequences of Trickster's antisocial behavior, they will be less inclined to behave inappropriately themselves. Storytelling is thus used proactively to discourage proscribed behavior and lessen the risk of conflict. It's also used post hoc to discipline those who stray. Punishing transgressors is tricky because a person confronted with his/her crime may become angry and aggressive. Storytelling enables discipline to be effected non-confrontationally by making a character rather than the wrongdoer the target of judgement. A pointed story told in a public forum enables people to criticize the transgression without revealing the identity of the transgressor, which reduces the risk of conflict. David Sedaris uses this tactic in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. As he explains: "There was something liberating about writing a story about a squirrel and a chipmunk because I didn't have to worry about the chipmunk coming to me and saying, 'Thanks a lot for telling the world about me and that squirrel.'" The key to satire's effectiveness as a policing tactic is humor: Trickster's schemes typically backfire on him in comical fashion. His humiliation is thus served with a heaping helping of laughter, making the pill of shame easier to swallow for the target of the story, and reminding the rest of the audience to keep their inner Cartman in check, or they too might find themselves the butt of society's joke.