The legacy of George Carlin and “political correctness”

Content Warning: Some of the links in this post contain potentially offensive content. Please be advised that this is an attempt to be instructive and not to harm anyone or further hurtful language and stereotypes.

This is not a direct sequel to my last post, “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?“, but I want to discuss another aspect of the core of that post. “Political correctness’ is another term that has multiple, contradictory meanings to different groups, but has definitely been pulled toward the right in recent years, and is often debated using at least some reactionary assumptions about what it entails. To illustrate how political correctness has a multiplicity of meanings, and is a term that should be contested by progressives, I’m going to talk about one of the great “political incorrect” figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

George Carlin died in 2008, when I was a junior in high school. I had discovered him shortly before, and watched his HBO specials in chronological order, covering from the mid-1970s to shortly before his death. I was into “edgy” content and visited sites like 4chan during that time- though at the time of things like their protests against Scientology, rather than the current white nationalist version of the site today. Carlin is part of the reason that when I grew disillusioned with the presidency of Barack Obama, I drifted left rather than right. I found Unitarian Universalism in late 2009, and that has been transformative. My 2008 self is hard to recognize these days, but Carlin is a key figure in it.

Carlin Bookstore
Carlin signing his book, Brain Droppings. From Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

A lot of tributes to Carlin were published last year for the 10th anniversary of his death. Along with the release of some previously unpublished material, much was made of his place as a “politically incorrect” comedian. The “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine is historically important; it was also genuinely about free speech, as the Supreme Court determined that the government had certain powers to control what was said on public airwaves. The basis of his reputation, to people who only knew him for that, was about the 1st Amendment- not “free speech” arguments done in bad faith by the right today about being unable to spread hate on private social media websites.

Here’s an oft-circulated quote by Carlin on political correctness, which I’m going to work off of. It’s been appropriated, mostly by the right and alt-right, but that’s based on a simplistic reading- if not an outright misreading:

Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech. (source)

The core of Carlin’s work, from the beginning to the end, and in essentially every one of his televised specials, was the misuse or perversion of language. He opened a special with the awful contradictions in people calling themselves “pro-life” while supporting death squads in Central America, the death penalty, and generally being against financial support for all people, especially children. He talked about the transformation of terminology for traumatic experiences in warfare- from “shell shock” to “battle fatigue” to ultimately “post-traumatic stress disorder”. His point wasn’t that PTSD is made up or that people don’t suffer from it, but that something key was being lost in the technical language. Carlin wanted to get the truth, ugly as it was, over papering over systematic racism and inequality with changes in word use.

Note the end of that quote- “I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.” This is an acknowledgement that these problems are deep, institutional ones. No amount of language change will protect black men from the police, or end urban and rural poverty. The right wants “free speech” to punch down and use language to hurt people, all while endorsing a personal responsibility narrative and labeling people who are suffering “snowflakes” or “bums” for their poverty, their anguish, their sense of violation.

Carlin punched up. The Reagan administration being a criminal gang. Wall Street bankers laundering drug money made from an epidemic that was destroying inner city communities of color. Organized religion abusing children and conning people out of their money with fire and damnation language. Compared to the recent special by Nick Di Paolo- an hour of white grievances, complaints about social justice warriors, and promotional material that made light of a murdered activist, Carlin is not cut from the same cloth. Those influenced by him have gone a variety of directions with his style and manner- Louis C.K opened a special with a routine that involved saying several slurs multiple times for comedic effect. After his history of gross sexual acts was made public, he returned to the circuit with a Di Paolo-esque right-wing sensibility based on cheap shock value and intolerance. Others have evolved, and emerged with a more thoughtful comedy that tries to move beyond the surface level shock value. The growth of Sarah Silverman from her early days of stereotype jokes to her most recent, introspective special on NetflixA Speck of Dust, shows an alternative way to take Carlin.

Observational comedy can be done at a very superficial level. Attempts to ape Seinfeld routines often stop at pointing out something strange and pausing for a laugh. Carlin was not observational, he was analytical. He went beneath the strangeness of modern society, and talked about what lay beneath. He wasn’t didactic and he didn’t explain the joke and ruin it. It’s just he had something more substantial to say than many of his contemporaries, and those that have taken “political incorrectness” as their standard in 2019. Was he politically incorrect? Absolutely. Did that mean he rejected things like social justice, healthcare and education, protection for the vulnerable, and anti-racism? Absolutely not.

Was Carlin perfect? No, there is plenty to find in his massive corpus that hasn’t aged well, or wasn’t good even within its own time. But he showed that being politically incorrect doesn’t just mean sliding down the alt-right pipeline. It’s not playing to majority anger at people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. It’s not lazy stereotypes and slurs for pure shock value. He believed in free speech in a more genuine way than the alt-right does today- who when they hold power immediately move to punish and criminalize people and speech they don’t agree with.

My end point links back to “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. Decades of a deregulated media dominated by right-wing finance capital has imbued language with a decidedly right-wing flavor. If you meet someone upset about “political correctness” today, it is likely has regressive roots. But speech is important- what you say and how you say it can change relationships and society at large. However, we cannot adopt the reactionary mindset and debate on their terms. They cannot be compromised with in good faith, because they are and never have been acting in good faith. Language must be reclaimed, and dialogue should be based on coming together and agreeing on common principles and definitions. Otherwise progressives are left defending unfair caricatures, not real moral stances. There is nothing to be gained in that.

Holding back the tide: English education here and now

One of my high school English teachers posted this article describing the struggle on the job, including ever-falling expectations and aspirations for students regarding the English language. My comment was as such:

English class is a battle between one person attempting to uphold a linguistic tradition and a couple dozen attempting to normalize their errors.

One of the examples given in the article is the abuse of “literally” in non-literal statements. Despite that being a gross misuse of vocabulary, I pointed out that Google in the past year has amended its definition of the word to acknowledge misuse.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.29.09 PM

 

Such is the ongoing journey of English, which is reminiscent of the Geocities-era Internet- unregulated (unlike many other languages which have some sort of academy overseeing things), fragmented across space, and full of contradicting opinions. At some future point I’d imagine a post facto classification change, where what is spoken now is called Later English or something, and its rules and idiosyncrasies frozen in time along with Middle and Old English. What English instruction boils down to is a defense of a particular hill- what grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation were in a particular place at a particular point in time. Those students who don’t want to learn or don’t take lessons to heart will over time dictate what is current and what becomes archaic.

I once played a game of pool in a Portland bar, teams of two. One member of the opposing duo was from the Continent. He had grown up playing a very strict, organized rule set. My friend Gavin and I learned pool incorrectly from other kids (during summer camp, in my case) and had never figured out a set way to play the game. Thus dubbed “American Rules”, technical questions were not answered with “yes” or “no”, but rather “sure go ahead” or “maybe not”. English is a great example of the American Rules mindset. And I have immense respect for those that attempt to corral all the that chaos and teach an interpretation of English that promotes clarity and precision. In my not-that-long life, slang and vocabulary has undergone a radical change in the digital age, that increasingly departs from a English curriculum that hasn’t changed nearly as much. Every teacher has to drag students out of that universe and make them write something totally different.

Tough work, because the English language marches on, in a different direction in each place and with each community.

 

Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

Colossus walks

Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia. Taken by Steven Mackay
Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia.
Taken by Steven Mackay

The Wood Bison is enormous. It’s a subspecies of the American bison, which gringos from Europe called buffalo. They are rather widespread in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, but not so much in British Columbia. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population are killed each year in collisions with cars. Not surprised, as this guy was spotted walking down the road- the white at the bottom is the partition between the road and the gravel side.

What you learn from several days in rural B.C. is that driving at night is a horrible idea. Besides the windy roads and frequent rain, there is also forest fire smoke reducing visibility, and several huge animals wandering about that you do not want to get in an accident with. Besides bison, there are stone sheep, caribou, moose, and both black and Grizzly bears. For various reasons, they all tend to congregate on or near roads.

As a tourist you often have the luxury of traveling in the day and hunkering in for the night. Those that by necessity travel during the night have much danger to consider.

An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Steven Mackay
An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Steven Mackay

Moose are big dudes. This male was full-size and very intimidating when he wanted to be. This was taken with a very long lens- he is in the rear of a lake next to the Alaska Highway. The travelers next to us said he had been in the same place the day before. With a look like that, he was clearly too powerful to worry about humans with cameras.

Compared to most modern freeways, the Alaska Highway is still very much in wild country. If not purely wild, it is wild-adjacent. Even though now it is a modern, fully-paved artery for business and tourism, no effort is needed to see vast wilderness and very little to see iconic animals of the Canadian West.

There is no abortion debate.

Sometimes a good habit can become suffocating. The reason I don’t post more often is I feel a need to add lots of sources and backing to what I say. This is healthy- the world could use a bit more empiricism- but it also brushes the smaller topics and random thoughts under the rug. This is an attempt to overcome that. Let’s roll. 

It seems that media commentary and opinion could gain much by starting every piece with “Let us define our terms”. People, organizations, ideologies. When someone supports or attacks a liberal politician, what do you they mean? Liberal, and liberalism, have many disparate meanings. Collectivist, libertarian- promoting freedom or constraining it. Arguments often become heated because the sides are talking past one another. If there is no agreement on what the founding parts of an issue are, how can you talk about it? In some sense you can’t. Two people are facing each other and talking to an imaginary opponent.

In some cases, the issue ceases to have any discourse. With honesty, the abortion “debate” is not a debate. Definitions of debate state that it is an exchange between opposing views. Almost all of the time in regards to abortion there are no opposing views. There are two main views that are not logical opposites. The “pro-life” camp talks about the sanctity of life and whether it is murder. The “pro-choice” camp emphasizes the inherent right of women to decide if they want children. A clue should be that both commonly-accepted terms don’t oppose each other- one is talking about what life is, the other is talking about what choice is. There is some debate- pro-choice individuals often debate what a “person” really is- but the primary arguments don’t intersect. There is nothing to stop someone from acknowledging abortion as murder and still thinking women have a right to choose. It’s not a matter of the two being mutually exclusive, it’s just an order of priorities. No wonder the issue is just as contentious as it was in 1973. No progress has been made in discussing the merits or evils of abortion.

Other issues involve two sides that pit a civil rights argument versus an absolute moral or religious principle. Often they are not in direct dialogue. Perhaps that is why same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action etc. often have caricatures. Waxing philosophical, a caricature is not always used to exaggerate an opponent. It can in fact become a substitute for an opponent that doesn’t exist. Pro-choice people want to talk about civil rights. They create a side that is also talking about civil rights. Pro-life people want to talk about life, so they form an opponent who is talking about murdering babies. That’s their plank.

When an opinion column is published, one can become quite angry reading it. Some of that is that the person has defined their terms in a very different way. I read a vintage Limbaugh column a few months ago and found my irritation originated from his original point, which influenced all the consequences he described. I still know we’re not in agreement on the issue, but part of that is that the gulf begins early- before most of the substance. And you can’t tell a nationally-syndicated columnist all your reservations. They’re not right in front of you- there’s no luxury of response.

I’m not calling for a return to the “good old days” of discourse- any survey of history shows that such a period never existed- only that the nicer parts tend to stick around. Just that there seem to be very concrete issues. And it seems that the pointlessness of argument is in part rooted in this disagreement of terms and priorities. Of course there’s no way to change that person’s mind. None of what was said challenged what they find important about an issue.

It’s as if there were a war and both sides showed up on different continents. Lots of anger and destruction, but the confrontation is non-existent.

Someone amidst everyone

Humankind escalates.
It sees the past as
at best, a quaint reminder –
perhaps one to keep in a model town
for the schoolchildren to shuffle through
on a dreary Tuesday morning.

Each day – more intense.
Grown turgid; more people
with more expectations-
dreams, fears, grim realizations
all draped with a chatter as seven
billion and counting try to find
someone amidst everyone

Frost-haired men in high-buckled trousers
sitting at a well-worn diner booth, while the Earth hums
in a note they’ve long since ceased to hear.
The planned obsolescence complete,
they have become living fossils of a time
one can’t be bothered to remember.