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We Should Try To Think Outside The Box — Like George Carlin

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

How did I discover George Carlin?

Around the end of April 2022, my father showed me a video on his iPad. It was a half-bald man called George Carlin on an old television standup comedy show, talking about how we could shorten the Ten Commandments. At first, the comedy seemed boring and ridiculous; but, I quickly realized that this Carlin dude and his stand-up routine had something that spoke to me. He was crabby with a raspy voice and a fierce demeanor, but more than that he was curious and asked many questions. Essentially, I stumbled upon the Socratic method on steroids.

The way Carlin expressed his ideas resonates with me because many of his old bits still hold up today. However, I struggled to show others his comedy routine because either nobody had ever heard of him or would not find his routine entertaining. How would anybody my age know who he was anyways when he died when I was just in kindergarten? Even though he is a relic from another time, his ideas remain important in our society nowadays and we should continue to analyze his way of thinking.

What remains special about George Carlin?

While many of his performances were centered around politics and real-world dilemmas, they never seem to have the same effect on me that other performers do. Nowadays, many comedians bring politics or current events to their humor and it feels dry and one-sided.

Carlin was not afraid to go after both political parties and question societal norms, and I appreciated hearing him striking at everything that seemed ridiculous, deceiving, or corrupt. His approach got me questioning what I feel is normal, and I began studying the world beyond the political spectrum—perhaps, with an open mind. I became open to his ideas—even some I disagreed with—because he used humor to analyze and critically think about the world with an outside-of-the-box perspective.

Carlin’s approach had me questioning how much I knew about what I believed in and made me check if I was on the right path of thinking and doing. In our world of division and false information, these qualities are especially important for a journalist, who should provide a wide perspective in his writing and willingness to share all sides of a story.

Even though Carlin thought outside of the box, many of his predictions and complaints are still relevant today. As we continue to face mass division in our country, we need to find ways to reconnect with one another and be willing to share ideas without being barraged with hate. Carlin’s approach is a great way to get into the minds of others and open their willingness to express their ideas.

While Carlin shared many complaints and predictions, I would like to focus on four: his thoughts on the self-esteem movement, climate change, euphemisms and division in our country. Each of these topics combines humor and outside-of-the-box thinking, while also connecting to our current national state of division and disinformation.

Carlin’s thoughts on the Self-Esteem Movement: During George Carlin’s 2008 show, It's Bad For Ya, he goes after the self-esteem movement for inflicting long-term effects on the next generation of children. He stated, “In today’s America, no child ever loses. Everyone's a winner no matter what the game or sport or competition. Everybody wins, everybody gets a trophy and nobody is a loser. No child ever gets to hear those all-important character-building words, ‘you lost Bobby! You're a loser, Bobby!’ They miss out on that. Do you know what they tell a kid who lost these days? ‘You were the last winner.’ A lot of these kids never get to hear the truth about themselves until they're in their 20s when their boss calls them in and says, ‘Bobby clean the [ __ ] out of your desk and get the [ __ ] out of here. You're a loser.” While this movement seems to have benefits for children, Carlin analyzes the long-term dangers of softening the world for them. He shows us how the movement can backfire with the made-up Bobby character, who inevitably fails at everything in the real world while his parents are so blinded that they struggle to understand why. By diluting reality, we set children up with the wrong ideas about our world, which makes them highly susceptible to manipulation and false information since they will have confirmation bias and refuse to admit they are wrong.

To validate his claims, he exposes some of the societal effects of high self-esteem. He continues to talk about the self-esteem movement, stating, “The self-esteem movement began in 1970 and I'm happy to say it has been a complete failure because studies have repeatedly shown that having high self-esteem does not improve grades does not improve career achievement it does not even lower the use of alcohol and most certainly does not reduce the incidence of violence of any sort because as it turns out extremely aggressive violent people think very highly of themselves. Imagine that—sociopaths have high self-esteem.” Carlin continues to show how the movement is harmful to society’s mobility and resilience in the face of challenges. Carlin’s ability to recognize flaws in a normalized system represents an effort that we need to make to question what we accept as normal.

Carlin’s problems with this system remain relevant because we live in an age where people think too highly about themselves and their beliefs, refuse to discuss their ideas with others, and deny questioning the truth behind their own beliefs. For example, Stephen A. Smith called out Kyrie Irving for his inability to face reality, stating that he has consistently refused to listen to others and thinks they do not understand his decisions or beliefs. To reduce division and maintain critical thinking in our society, we need to first realize that we do not know everything and surround ourselves with people that do not think like us. By becoming less ignorant about the reality of society, we can become better critical thinkers in our established systems and ideologies—examining and improving them too.

Carlin’s Thoughts on Climate Change: George Carlin covers the climate crisis perspective in a less-than-typical way. During Carlin’s 1992 show, Jamming In New York, he attacked both the extreme environmentalists and the ignorant climate change deniers, showing he was not afraid to attack both sides on the issue and highlight their shortcomings. Firstly, he goes out of his way to expose the ultra-environmentalists, stating, “Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t learned how to help one another and were going to save the planet? I am getting tired of this stuff. I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists… who think the only thing wrong with this planet is there aren’t enough bicycle paths, trying to make the world safe and clean for their Volvos.” Carlin attacks environmentalists for their two-faced belief system since they do not want to help other people and want a clean, safe place for themselves. He also does not like how fear is being stretched to push false ideologies, stating, “The planet has been here for 4.5 billion years… but, somehow we have the conceit to think that we are a threat? The planet has been through a lot worse than us for a long time: through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, and solar flares… but do we think some aluminum cans and some plastic bags are going to make a difference? ” Even though Carlin leans liberal, he shows his independent thinking by going after liberal ideologies on climate change while never denying that we are not ruining the planet for ourselves.

In fact, Carlin quickly changes the topic to attack humanity’s ignorance and manipulation of nature. Carlin later states, "For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, overfishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes… So, when nature strikes back... I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it's natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse… The planet isn’t going anywhere, we are! Pack your stuff folks and we won’t leave much of a trace either, maybe a little styrofoam…” Carlin completely flips the table with this statement, as he goes from stating why the climate change movement is ridiculous to establishing issues with our invasive existence.

The climate change issue has always been an intense debate, often resulting in extremist standings. However, Carlin’s use of humor to explore irony and analyze hypocrisy on both extreme sides of the Global Warming debate keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and engages them in his ideas, even if they agree or disagree with him. Nowadays, conversations can quickly go from discussion to argument as our ideologies have separated us, but if we try to question both sides of an issue and find common ground with one another, we can critically think to solve the problems with our established systems instead of yelling at each other.

Carlin’s Thoughts on Euphemisms: The world continuously advances, and words, phrases, and descriptions seem to follow suit. However, Carlin had an issue with new ways of saying the same thing because some of them concealed reality. During Carlin’s 2005 show, Doin’ It Again, he stated, “I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language, and American English is loaded with euphemisms because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation… These poor people have been [ ___ ] by the system into believing that if you change the name of the condition, somehow you'll change the condition.” He believes that this concealment from reality blinds us from real issues. If we refuse to face reality, we are a step closer to giving up our democracy and a step farther from solving shortcomings.

To dig deeper into this seemingly ridiculous attack on our language, Carlin goes after society's disregard for soldiers' wellbeing, stating, “There's a condition in combat… when a fighting person's nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap. In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock—simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables: shell shock, almost sounds like the guns themselves. Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along, and the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue—four syllables now and takes a little longer to say but doesn't seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue. Then we had the war in Korea, in 1950. The very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we're up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phase. It's totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car. Then of course, came the war in Vietnam, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it's no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. I'll bet you if we'd still been calling it ‘shell shock’, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. But, it didn't happen… One of the reasons is that we were using that soft language. That language that takes the life out of life.” While we have access to more information than ever before, truth and reality are becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate from opinion. All of us are synced into the online world but there is information overload.

While we think that more information creates clarity, it results in confusion which allows our emotions to be more easily manipulated and our beliefs divided. We need to focus more on fact-checking information we see on the internet because false information—that is often fed to us through social media—exists to confuse and divide us, feeding off of the power of emotion instead of the power of clarity.

Carlin’s Thoughts on Division: Carlin lectures on how we are trapped from making real change because we are divided. During his 1992 show, Jammin’ In New York, he stated, "That's all the media and the politicians are ever talking about, the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. That's the way the ruling class operates in any society. They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and the middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich, can run off with all the [ ___ ] money. Fairly simple thing. Happens to work. You know, anything different, that's what they're gonna talk about. Race, religion, ethnic and national backgrounds, jobs, income, education, social status, and sexuality. Anything they can do to keep us fighting with each other so that they can keep going to the bank.” Carlin took a crack at society’s established system by exposing how the wealthy maintain dominance in a democratic society, by dividing and conquering.

Carlin defended the importance of unity and believed that division and refusal to compromise reduce our ability to stand up to change that is against our interests. During his 2005 show, Life Is Worth Losing, he stated, “The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all of the decisions. They‘ve long since bought and paid for the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. But they don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking, which is against their interests. They want obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept it.” By examining the divide in our country, Carlin focused on how we can make actual change. His ability to analyze corruption and curiosity to uncover deception is crucial in our modern society because by investigating these awful strategies, we can be taken less advantage of.

Due to the constant usage of the digital world, we continue to stay divided as it is highly profitable in today’s world. We can easily become trapped in these algorithms that only expose us to information that we want to see, even if that information is not true. We need to be independent and think deeply about our values, experiences, and perspectives but also become more willing to question what we stand by and make compromises with others.

What can we do better to maintain the flow of opinion and create change without increasing division?

In a world where extremism, ignorance, and confirmation bias separate us all, George Carlin’s ability to appeal to his audience with humor—combined with his attacks on both sides of the issue—gives his arguments validation and gets the listener critically thinking. Inspired by his legacy, we should continue questioning what we call normal and explore solutions to the problems that we might be blinded from seeing.

By uniting under the importance of democratic thinking, we can better maintain the flow of ideas while getting closer to differentiating truths and anti-truths. In addition, by using the power of humor, we can continue to connect with others and get them to think outside of the box. While we do not need to agree with Carlin’s opinions, by continuing to seek more knowledge about real-world issues, working together to find solutions, exposing ourselves to new ideologies, and simply listening to others, we can become less extreme, less susceptible to deception and more active in shaping a better society for all.

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