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Carlin and Critical Thinking April 21, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Art and Music, Culture, Teaching.

This past Saturday KPBS aired the award ceremony for the Kennedy Center 2008 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.The winner was the great George Carlin who died last year on June 22. As I watched the show, which contained numerous clips from his many stand-up performances, I was struck by two things. (Beware the links that follow, they are NSFW)

First, they aired an excerpt from Carlin’s most famous routine “7 Words You Can’t Say on Television.” This routine is over 30 years old and when they play it on TV they still have to bleep the same 7 words! This was rather funny on the PBS special because when they got to the punchline of the routine they had a lengthy (20 or so seconds) bleep. I noticed the same thing when Carlin passed away last year. All the media tributes naturally had to show his most famous routine, but they all had to censor the punchline! I am amazed that in the 21st century we are still so afraid of certain words that we can’t even allow them to be uttered on PBS after 10 PM on a Saturday night.

The second thing I was struck by was how useful Carlin would be for a critical thinking course (since I am teaching three of these this semester they are naturally at the fore of my thoughts). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if one could develop an entire CT course structured around various Carlin routines (perhaps I should try this). This is because the central point of much of Carlin’s work was examining how language works and how language can be shaped and twisted to render the unthinkably awful mundane and commonplace. As an example check out this discussion of Euphemisms. I would say that this is, perhaps, the best discussion I have ever heard, not only of what a euphemism is, but how they can be developed and employed for particular rhetorical and political purposes. The fact that he makes you laugh while doing it is a testament to his genius.

In this day and age when Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal can go on national television and talk about how things would be so much better if we could all “keep walking” pass the recently released torture memos, and how “some of life has to be mysterious,” (that asinine comment probably deserves its own post) I feel the need for George Carlin’s critical voice more than ever.

Anyone else have any favorite Carlin clips that you use or would like to see used in a Critical Thinking course?



1. Paul Moloney - April 23, 2009

Censors judge themselves moral enough to determine what is immoral or not for others. To determine what is immoral or not, one has to look or hear at what is to be determined to be immoral or not. If one judges something to be immoral, they have seen or heard something immoral. Though they themselves have indulged in hearing or looking at what is immoral, they want to prevent others from doing the same. If they have indulged in something immoral then the censors cannot be moral, at least not as moral as they think themselves to be. In other words, censors are not moral enough to judge what is immoral or not. Hypocrisy will, hopefully, always be the subject of humor. One can never go wrong in condemning hypocrisy.

2. Ian Duckles - April 23, 2009

I couldn’t agree with your comment more. As a further illustration of the hypocrisy your describe here is a link to one of the more extreme responses to the phenomena of “sexting.”

3. Paul Moloney - April 23, 2009

If someone agrees with me I must be wrong. There is no agreeing in philosophy, as there is no crying in baseball.

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