OR: How George Carlin Made Legal History
by Robert Anton Wilson
(from Quantum Psychology)
Everybody understands that you cannot drink the word "water," and yet virtually nobody seems entirely free of semantic delusions entirely comparable to trying to drink the pixels that form the word "water" on this page or the sound waves produced when I say "water" aloud. If you say, "The word is not the thing," everybody agrees placidly; if you watch people, you see that they continue to behave as if something called Sacred "really is" Sacred and something called Junk "really is" Junk.
This type of neurolinguistic "hallucination" appears so common among humans that it usually remains invisible to us, as some claim water appears invisible to fish, and we will continue to illustrate it copiously as we proceed. On analysis, this "word hypnosis" seems the most peculiar fact about the human race. Count Alfred Korzybski said we "confuse the map with the territory." Alan Watts said we can't tell the menu from the meal. However one phrases it, humans seem strangely prone to confusing their mental file cabinets - neurolinguistic grids - with the non-verbal world of sensory-sensual space-time.
As Lao-Tse said in the Tao Te Ching, 2500 years ago:
The road you can talk about is not the road you can walk on.
The way that can be spoken is not the way that can be trodden.)
We all "know" this (or think that we do) and yet we all perpetually forget it.
For instance, in the United States = an allegedly secular Democracy with an "iron wall" of separation between Church and State written into its Constitution - the Federal Communications Commission has a list of Seven Forbidden Words which nobody may speak on the radio or television. Any attempt to find out why these words remain Tabu leads into an epistemological fog, a morass of medieval metaphysics, in which concepts melt like Salvador Dali's clocks and ideas become as slippery as a boat deck in bad weather.
One cannot dismiss this mystery as trivial. When comedian George Carlin made a record ("Occupation: Foole") discussing, among other things, "The seven words you can never say on television," WBAI radio (New York) played the record, and received a fine so heavy that, although the incident occurred in 1973, WBAI, a small listener-sponsored station, recently announced (1990) that they have not yet paid all their legal costs in fighting the case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Eight Wise Men (and One Wise Woman) thereon upheld the Federal Communications Commission.
The highest court in the land has actually ruled on what comedians may and may not joke about. George Carlin has become something more than a comedian. He now has the status of a Legal Precedent. You will pay a heavy fine, in the U.S. today, if you speak any of the Seven Forbidden Words on radio or television - shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.
The words have been forbidden, "our" Government says, because they "are" "indecent." Why "are" they "indecent"? Because a certain percentage of people who might turn on the radio or TV experience them as "indecent."
Why do sombunall people experience these words as "indecent"? Because the words "are" "dirty" or "vulgar."
Why "are" these words "dirty" and "vulgar" when other words, denoting the same objects or events, "are" not "dirty" or "vulgar"? Why, specifically, can a radio station be fined if a psychologist on a talk show says "He was so angry he wouldn't fuck her anymore" but not fined at all if the psychologist says "He was so angry he stopped having sexual intercourse with her"?
As Mr. Carlin pointed out in the comedy routine which led the Supreme Court to perform their even more remarkable comedy routine, fucking seems one of the most common topics on television, even though nobody uses the word. To paraphrase Mr. Carlin, many guests on the Merv Griffin and Donahue shows have written books on how to fuck or who to fuck or how to fuck better, and nobody objects as long as they say "sexual intercourse" instead of "fucking." And, of course, as Carlin goes on, the main topics on soap operas, day after day, consist of who has fucked whom, will she fuck him, will he fuck somebody else, have they fucked yet, who's getting fucked now, etc.
Some say "fuck" "is" "dirty" and "sexual intercourse" isn't because "fuck" comes from the Anglo-Saxon and "sexual intercourse" comes from the Latin. But then we must ask: how did Anglo-Saxon get to be "dirty" and why does Latin remain "clean"?
Well, others tell us, "fuck" represents lower-class speech and "sexual intercourse" represents middle-and-upper class speech. This does not happen to accord with brute fact, statistically: I have heard the word "fuck" in the daily (non-radio) conversation of professors, politicians, business persons, poets, movie stars, doctors, lawyers, police persons and most of the population of sombunall classes and castes, except a few religious conservatives.
And, even if "fuck" did occur exclusively in lower-class speech, we do not know, and can hardly explain, why it has been subject to a huge and bodacious fine when such other lower-class locutions as "ain't," "fridge" (for refrigerator), "gonna" and "whyncha" (why don't you) have not fallen under similar sanction. Nor have we yet seen a ban on the distinctly lower class "Jeet?" "Naw - Jew?" (Did you eat? No, did you?)
The fact that some enclaves of religious conservatives do not use the word "fuck" (or are embarrassed if they get caught using it) seems to provide the only clue to this mystery. The Federal Communications Commission, it seems, bases its policy upon persons who believe, or for political reasons wish to seem to believe, that the rather paranoid "God" of the conservative religions has His own list of Seven Forbidden Words and will become quite irate if the official Tabu list of our government does not match His list. Since that particular Deity has a reputation for blowing a few cities to hell whenever he feels annoyed, the F.C.C. may, in the back of their heads, think they will prevent further earthquakes by maintaining the Tabu on the Seven Unspeakable Words.
Some light seems about to dawn in the semantic murk... but let us press further and ask why the conservative's Stone Age "God" objects to "fuck" and not to "sexual intercourse" or such synonyms as "coitus," "copulation," "sexual congress," "sexual union," "love-making," etc.? Should we believe this "God" has a violent prejudice against words which, in reputation if not in reality, seem to reflect lower-class culture? Does this "God" dislike poor people as much as Ronald Reagan did?
Perhaps the reader will appreciate the immensity of this mystery more fully if I ask a related question:
If the word "fuck" "is" obscene or "dirty," why isn't the word "duck" 75% "dirty"?
If the word "cunt" "is" unacceptable to the conservative's "God," why does the word "punt" not receive a 75% unacceptability rating? Why do we not see it spelled "p---" in the daily press?
To quote the admirable George Carlin one more time, "Such logic! Such law!"
1. Try to explain the difference between a Playboy centerfold and a nude by Renoir. Discuss among the whole group and see if you can arrive at a conclusion that makes sense when stated in operational-existential language.
2. Perform the same delicate semantic analysis upon a soft-core porn movie and a hard-core porn movie. Remember: try to keep your sentences operational, and avoid Aristotelian essences or spooks.
3. When U.S. troops entered Cambodia, the Nixon administration claimed this "was not" an invasion, because it "was only" an incursion. See if anybody can restate this difference in operational language.
4. The C.I.A. refers to certain acts as "termination with extreme prejudice." The press describes these acts as "assassinations." Try to explain to each other the difference. Also, imagine yourselves as the victims. Do you care deeply whether your death gets called "termination with extreme prejudice" or "assassination"?
5. In the 1950s, the film "The Moon Is Blue," became a center of controversy and actually got banned in some cities because it contained the word "virgin." How does this seem in retrospect? Discuss. (If anybody finds Mr. Carlin's paraphrased jokes offensive let them explain why the above film no longer seems offensive.)
Robert Anton Wilson © 1990
master of hilaritas, George Denis Patrick Carlin
master of hilaritas, George Denis Patrick Carlin
(12 May 1937 ~ 22 June 2008)
[Kindly brought to my attention by Steven Pratt. First posted 11 December 2008, reposted 16 November 2013 & 27 December 2015]