Language is both a tool that allows individuals within a society to communicate with one another and a mirror that reflects the true values of that society. In When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, George Carlin sheds light on a variety of problems in American society by studying language that is used to convey them. In particular, he examines euphemisms, political correctness, and patriotic talk in order to illustrate how all of these misuses of language soften its effectiveness and contribute to a kind of degeneration of reality within our culture as a whole.
In Euphemisms: Shell Shock to PTSD, Carlin observes that euphemisms are used for a variety of reasons such as “to avoid unpleasant realities,” “to make things sound more important,” to fulfill the demands of marketplace, and to increase the general level of pretentiousness and political correctness (39). He argues that, while they tend to vary according to purpose, all euphemisms “soften the language” by portraying reality as less than vivid (39). In order to illustrate this softening of language, Carlin focuses on how the concept of shell shock evolved over the years. During World War I, the two syllable term “shell shock” was used to describe the condition that occurs when a soldier’s nervous system reaches its breaking point (40). During the Second World War, the concept of “shell shock” expanded to four syllables and became known as “battle fatigue” and, during the Korean War, the concept expanded to eight syllables and became known as “operational exhaustion.” Finally, during the Vietnam War, the concept added a hyphen and became known as “post-traumatic stress disorder” (40). To Carlin, the increasing number of syllables and the increasing imprecision within the words themselves is a softening of language that is evidence of a degeneration of reality.
Instead of only increasing the number of syllables and the imprecision of the words themselves, contemporary instances of the softening of language also exhibit an increasing number of additional unnecessary categories. Let’s examine three examples that all deal with the concept of assault. When one individual causes bodily harm to another, his action is called an assault. However, when a husband causes bodily harm to his wife or vice versa, his action is called domestic violence or a domestic violence incident. Similarly, an adult who causes bodily harm to a stranger’s child is guilty of assault while an adult who causes bodily harm to his own child is guilty only of disciplining or corporal punishment. Finally, an adult who makes fun of another adult by calling him ugly names is guilty of verbal assault while a child who makes fun of another child by calling him ugly names is guilty of bullying.
Each one of these additional and unnecessary categories acts to make language more imprecise. Besides being syllabically longer, the word ‘assault’ has two syllables while ‘domestic violence’ and ‘domestic violence incident’ have six and nine syllables, respectively, the phrase ‘domestic violence incident’ is so soft and indefinite that, as an act, it sounds less bad than an ‘assault.’ In reality, however, the act of domestic violence is actually at least as bad as an assault because domestic violence is a physical assault against a loved one, often one who is physically weaker.
The softening of language in the other two examples, ‘disciplining’ and ‘bullying,’ is not so much a result of the extra syllables but rather the passivity of the –ing verbs. An ‘assault’ is a noun that describes an event that took place while an –ing verb is a present progressive tense of the verb which makes the word less active. While the condition depicted in the situation remains the same, the weight of the language decreases and diminishes its impact. The language puts forth the idea that domestic violence/ corporal punishment and bullying are somehow less bad than a physical or a verbal assault and, as a result, alters our views as a society.
In another selection, Crippled, Ugly and Stupid, Carlin attacks another method for softening language, political correctness, and argues that it is “America’s newest form of intolerance and it’s especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance” (69). Using the example of “cripples,” Carlin sheds light on how liberals tend to focus their energy on renaming groups of victims rather than addressing the particulars of what makes offensive words offensive. In particular, Carlin mocks the substitution of “physically challenged” or “differently abled” for the word “cripple” by pointing out that every individual can be described as differently abled just by the nature of the fact that he can do something that someone else cannot (69). For example, “Barry Bonds can’t play the cello, Yo-Yo Ma can’t hit the curveball. They’re differently abled” (70). Since Barry Bonds is not actually a cripple just because he cannot play the cello and Yo-Yo Ma is not actually a cripple just because he cannot hit the curveball, Carlin argues that phrases like “differently abled” or “physically challenged” are inadequate substitutions that only serve to soften the language unnecessarily.
This attack on political correctness is Carlin’s way of mocking liberals for their naiveté. Their tendency to rename groups of victims with less offensive names is evidence of the idea that a new name somehow makes up or solves the inherent malfunction. According to Carline, “political correctness cripples discourse, create ugly language and is generally stupid” because it shifts focus from internal factors like the underlying bigotry and insensitivity to external factors like offensive words (70). For Carlin, offensive words are offensive for reason. They are precise and accurate descriptions of the offensive thing or behavior. For example, it sounds more offensive to call a paralyzed individual who is hit by a drunk or texting driver a “cripple” than a “differently abled” person because politically correct words are softer, less precise and less true. The individual’s situation is exactly the same yet calling him “differently abled” somehow makes what happened to him less outrageous. For Carlin, this softening of language and political correctness are nothing more than an illusion. They make difficult situations easier to stomach and allow Americans to be less outraged at things that they have every right to be outraged about.
In another selection, Politician Talk #3: Senator Patriot Speaks, Carlin examines language used by politicians and mocks the idea of patriotic talk. He notes that their language changes depending on whether America is at peace or at war. In times of peace, politicians tend to refer to servicemen as “our young men and women around the world” and, in times of war, the language expands to “our brave young fighting men and women stationed halfway around the world” (83). Occasionally, for extra patriotic zest, the term “men and women” is replaced with “sons and daughters” (83). In addition to its insincere patriotism in exchange for votes, political language is also infused with a large dose of righteous ignorance. In particular, Carlin points out that politicians display no shame in disclosing their and Americans’ own lack of education when they proudly announce that the military’s “sons and daughters” are often stationed “in places whose names we can’t pronounce” or “the average American can’t find on a map” (83). Only last month, Herman Cain, a presidential GOP hopeful, boasted: “I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?” (The Week).
Given that politicians are the ones who regularly refer to America as “the greatest nation on earth,” it is shocking how unembarrassed they are by their own ignorance (83). Carlin refers to this display as “racist geographic chauvinism” (83). But politicians are elected individuals who are known to say anything to get elected. As a result, rather than being a simple reflection of their own ignorance, these kinds of statements found in the language of politicians are actually a reflection on America as a whole. Regular Americans are themselves unashamed by the fact that many cannot find Germany or Pakistan on the map thus they feel no shame in electing individuals with those same sentiments.
Carlin’s examination of our society’s language illustrates the various difficulties that we face as a nation. However rather than addressing the problems head-on, both sides of the power elite deal with them superficially. They use euphemisms, political correctness, and patriotic insincerities to soften language and disguise the truth by blurring reality until our problems appear less problematic than they really are.
Carlin, George. When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? New York: Hyperion, 2004. Print.
The Week. MSNBC. The List: 9 most ridiculed Herman Cain quotes at Powerwall, 18 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.http://powerwall.msnbc.msn.com/politics/9-most-ridiculed-herman-cain-quotes-1707395.story