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 Along with the release of some previously unpublished material, much was made of his place as a “politically incorrect” comedian.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.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?

In the past few months, I’ve become more active in online Unitarian Universalist circles. Mostly this has been a new Discord chat server that’s mostly attracted young adults, “UU curious” people looking for more information, and a few seminarians or UUA-affiliated individuals. The server sends out a notification every time a thread is posted in /r/UUReddit, the main UU community on Reddit. I wouldn’t otherwise check the community that often, but I’ve ended up reading a fair amount of threads made there and noticed some trends.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of tension about the direction congregations and the UUA are taking in regards to anti-racism. A small group of people have very clear, complex grievances and take up a lot of the oxygen. However, I do think their perspectives run deeper than one might want to think, though as usual it’s hard to get a sense of what salience it holds for the entirety of active UUs, those that are partially attached to the faith, and those that are curious or new to the church.

There’s an argument to be made that the conflict is simply generational. Issues like white fragility (does it exist, to what extent, is X person or group exhibiting signs of it), support of Black Lives Matter (whether it is integral or a distraction from core UU activity, whatever that may be), and controversies that pop up most noticeably in the UUA leadership and at General Assembly, but are replicated to some extent in local congregations that we don’t tend to hear about.

There are multiple ways to frame this, I choose a ‘Civil Rights Movement’ contrasted with ‘new social movements’ framework. A significant portion of congregants were socialized in the 1960s struggles for racial equality, and maintain a lot of assumptions and expectations that that era had. Since then, well, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Black, Latinx, and ethnic studies, which mostly date from around the Voting Rights Act or the decade after, have engaged in conversation and intensive analysis on racism, both historical and the progress, stagnation, and regression that have defined the last half-century of society. There is a strong thread linking the Birmingham campaign and Black Lives Matter, but they exist in their own time and cannot be transported back and forth. It’s far too complex for that.

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new. But this is all an introduction to my main point.

I’m seeing some long-term UUs adopting language created and used by right-wing or alt-right individuals and groups, and it’s profoundly unhealthy. In the past few months, I’ve seen unironic use of the words “social justice warrior (SJW)”, “postmodernism”, “political correctness”, “identity politics”, and “Critical Race Theory”, among others, used in pejorative ways. While “SJW” is by its nature pejorative (unless you’re someone who’s decided to scoop it out of the mud and wear it proudly, as I often feel like doing), the others are serious academic and intellectual movements that are deeply important to many people, often from marginalized communities. The issue is when this language is taking its content and perspective from illiberal sources. While postmodernism has an august history of being intentionally misinterpreted and belittled by people, it is now most often invoked by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has released a best-selling self-help book and has massive popularity in certain circles. His usage of postmodernism as an insidious conspiracy, tied to Marxist thinking and destructive to “Western society”, has gained currency in certain circles and is spreading through the internet. He’s a frequent guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, with his episodes gaining over five million YouTube views each, not counting those that listen to it in other forms.

Peterson’s views on postmodernism are nonsense from a philosophical standpoint. But being wrong has never stopped an idea from being dangerous. Peterson is part of a clearly-defined “pipeline to the alt-right“, whereby individuals, who may range from apolitical to conservative to quite liberal, are steadily fed a narrative that blames social problems on “SJWs”, postmodernism, ethnic studies, and social movements. This can take people to incredibly dark places, as an in-depth feature last month in the New York Times titled “The Making of a YouTube Radical” showcased. This process takes months or even years, and starts from very mainstream, innocuous material. Peterson’s self-help 12 Rules for Life has sold over three million copies (at least, the figure is from January), and been translated into fifty different languages.

I’m concerned that UUs can fall into this line of thinking. There is an entire ecosystem created to guide people away from progressive values, if they have grievances about efforts towards combating white supremacy and creating a thoroughly anti-racist church. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have algorithms that shift innocuous searches about “political correctness” or “safe spaces” into hard-right content, by people who have trained to sound persuasive. Figures like Peterson and Dave Rubin even describe themselves as “classical liberals”, though their underlying ideology is reactionary and can turn dangerous.

So, is there a genuine UU-to-right-wing pipeline? Among at least a smattering of people, yes. Given the older tilt of the membership, a lot of discussion occurs in private and semi-private Facebook contexts, so it’s hard to measure. But there are people with long-standing UU roots who are picking up language and ideas from the pipeline, and they spend a great amount of energy spreading their beliefs. Young people, especially young men, are especially targeted by people like Peterson. Young UUs are exposed to a lot other than religious education. What effect is that having?

What can be done? Well, a simplistic attempt to compromise with aggrieved congregants is not a good way forward. Unitarian Universalism exists within a white supremacist society, and I believe Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has helped start a discussion about how progressive members of the faith may have issues with talking and acting in an anti-racist way, in a way that differs from other movements. Moving backward, to an essentially mythical pre-identity politics, pre-BLM church, is not possible, let alone advisable.

  • Understand that good people can get swept up in harmful behaviors. The alt-right pipeline, like white fragility, occur in people who have good intentions and may not feel like they are drifting morally or politically.
  • Recognize that social media is incredibly powerful, and its reach extends far beyond UU spaces. Many UU congregations aren’t on Twitter, or don’t update it. Some don’t even have active Facebook pages, or they are pretty insular, not being designed for outreach and education. YouTube usage by UU congregations is scattershot- some places upload events and sermons, some record but don’t upload, some don’t record or upload. Pretty much everyone knows that UU cultural salience is very low- the spaces where it doesn’t have a presence, something else will be there for people to consume. And it may be profoundly illiberal and inconsistent with UU Principles or theology.
  • Decode. When someone you know talks about “identity politics”, where are their definitions and ideas coming from? Part of the right’s success has been to take academic or liberal language and inject it with a second meaning, which can be poisonous. People can keep the same lexicon, but be drifting to a very different place. It’s important to figure out where people are at. As a social scientist, I always start by defining my terms. It’s reasonable at a congregational meeting, General Assembly, or an online discussion to pause and ask “what does this mean to you? to me? to us?”

Unitarian Universalism is a big tent, riven with contradictions and tension. It’s the price we pay for not stopping people at the door and demanding they follow a script. But it also means divisions can fester, and people can be taken in dark directions. As a millennial, I’ve seen plenty of people get taken down the alt-right pipeline, even fellow activists. There is a need for vigilance. Don’t leave people behind.

Laozi said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. There’s a good chance it’s been used at a service you went to, at least once. But these journeys are not always to self-improvement and enlightenment. There is another side. The only constant is change, but change is value-neutral- it can be light or dark, progressive or regressive.