“Now everyone is walking around wondering what they can say and censoring themselves, as a result, lowering the standards of discussion and thought.”
- George Carlin (1937 – 2008), American comedian, actor and social critic
As Andy Kessler points out in the opening paragraph of “Inside View,” his Op / Ed piece in the July 18th Wall Street Journal, these words were spoken, accurately, fifty years ago this week in one of my favorite cities by one of my favorite thinkers.
In the past four weeks, I’ve intersected with two of my generation’s great thinkers and writers; Carlin and Rick Reilly. Not ironically, they’ve got me thinking and writing again.
Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee 50 years ago this week for his (now legendary) “Seven Dirty Words” riff. I won’t link the text (seein’s how The Diff is at least family-intended, if not always family-friendly) because Carlin’s point is captured in the quote that leads off this post.
It seems we can’t talk about anything with anyone anymore without creating a stir, a ruckus or a stink — if not an outright rift.
If that were true 50 years ago this week, one can’t help but wonder if it might be true 50 years from now, and that makes me wonder, as my grandfather often wondered out loud, “What the hell kind of world are we leaving our kids?”
Kessler’s column, while always a good read, is particularly compelling this week, because it points out that Carlin was often on the “opposite” side of the social commentary — from the perspective of either side of the social commentary, because he was a thinker. He pointed out, as Kessler reminds us, that while we might have unlimited choices at the ice cream store, we’re apparently limited to two in the sociopolitical landscape.
We’re better than that, people! We’re also smarter than that. Yet, in a 280-characters-or-less world, it is clear that we’re not just limiting our letter-count, we’re limiting our thinking. Perhaps we’re actually limiting our capacity for thought. Continuing to quote Carlin (and from Kessler’s column), “Thought and discussion depend on language and, when you decrease its base, then you decrease the base for rational discussion and thought.”
I mention Reilly in the same context as Carlin because I believe this cultural phenomena of walking on eggshells is a pervasive trend even in matters of less magnitude than freedom of speech. Reilly, while also a social commentator, is primarily known as a sportswriter*. Yet, he can tell us why he is still a “Phil fan,” and not yet a “Tiger guy.” He can do it without blindly endorsing one or convicting the other. He tells poignant stories by citing facts in a compelling manner. He can explain why he believes what he believes in a way that draws in readers, even if they don’t share the same perspective.
In other words, he expands the base of our thought by using language to describe, not taint; to tell the story, not shade it so that we lose sight of its core.
Should we speak with forethought? Probably, at least most of the time. Should we limit our first thoughts so that we lose track of what we believe, feel, or are willing to fight for? No. And we shouldn’t judge people whose passion outpaces their word choice. We should engage them in an effort to know and understand “Why?”
Perhaps the second half of the word “forethought” is the key to reversing a trend at least 50 years in the making. Let’s exercise thought. Let’s make room for other perspectives and ideas. Let’s engage in productive candor and consider why we think what we think, why we believe what we believe.
There is only one thing that I truly Believe. There are other beliefs I hold and have held, and those all are, and by definition need to be open to scrutiny, if not by others, at least on my part.
Let’s lead the charge to raise the standard, instead of taking the easier path to hide in the invective-addicted crowd.
*Rick Reilly is so much more than a sportswriter! I use the reference only to cast the perspective that the topic need not be controversial to compel us to think and engage in meaningful dialogue.
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