Robert Anton Wilson on Comedy, Censorship, and Language

A friend sent me this interesting blurb by Robert Anton Wilson, from a collection of his essays. In it he discusses censorship in terms of his quantum psychology ideas.

How George Carlin Made Legal History

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 ink-stains 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, here 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 US today, if you speak any of the Seven Forbidden Words on radio or television — shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother fucker 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 any more 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 FCC may, in the back of their heads, think they will prevent further earthquakes by maintaining the Tabu on the Seven Unspeakable Words.

The Wall of Separation between Church and State, like many other pious pronouncements in our Constitution, does not correspond with the way our government actually functions. In short, the Seven Forbidden Words remain forbidden because pronouncing them aloud might agitate some Stone Age deity or other, and we still live in the same web of Tabu that controls other primitive peoples on this boondocks planet.

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?

Or, similarly:

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 centrefold 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 US 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 CIA refers to certain acts as termination with maximum 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 maximum 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.)

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One Comment

  1. Red Wolf

    2 July 2003 at 4.13 pm

    Cool article. Is motherfucker one word or two?


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