Saturday, March 27, 2010

"There is no intrinsic meaning of a word. For example, black people have been called the N word, negroes, Negroes, African-Americans, blacks."

Dear Prof. Block:

Your column in yesterday's LRC brought to mind the late George Carlin's take on the Federal Communications Commission's Seven Forbidden Words. I think you know the bit. The professed libertarian Robert Anton Wilson (who, however, espoused anti-capitalist--which is to say anti-anarcho-capitalist, anti-laissez-faire, anti-free enterprise--views) wrote a chapter in his 1990 book Quantum Psychology discussing the head-scratching power wielded by those Seven Forbidden Words.

Wilson specifically addresses the hysteria surrounding the F word. He points out that one can turn on daytime television any day of the week and hear that the subject of discussion is who's F***ing whom, how he or she came to F her or him, whom that person is betraying by F***ing her or him, what people can do to enjoy a better F life, etc. Of course, the interlocutors steer clear of uttering the actual F word, using in its place words and phrases with precisely the same meaning, e.g., "making love," "having an affair," "sleeping together," etc.

Wilson's point is that words are just representations on paper or sounds emitted by our vocal cords. If the concepts underlying the words are morally offensive, and merely discussing the concepts is likewise morally offensive, then the words actually employed in the discussion are irrelevant. As you say, words have no intrinsic meaning. Or, as Carlin would say, "There are no bad words, only bad people."

But clearly this is not the case. We can talk about F***ing all we want so long as we don't use the dread F word.

Of course, a left-libertarian like Robert Anton Wilson had no qualms flouting the bugaboos of religious conservatives. Liberal sensitivities are quite another matter. He's no longer with us, but I wonder what Wilson would have to say about the N word. I admit I avoid the word like the plague. Maybe it's because I'm a libertarian and I favor the abolition of the welfare state, which makes me greedy and racist in many people's eyes.

Anyway, this is not to disagree with the premise to your argument yesterday. I'm a diehard libertarian and I use the word "capitalism," with elucidiation, every chance I get. It's a perfectly good word. Besides, there really are no bad words--my kowtowing to the N word notwithstanding.



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