In Praise of B.S. -- It's Not All Bad for Ya
As a longtime fan of comedian George Carlin (and, frankly, in looking for any sort of comedy to help my family through the pandemic), I was recently delighted to find a DVD online of an HBO special performance Carlin gave in Los Angeles only a few months before his death in June 2008.
The special, titled "It's Bad for Ya," was the usual blend of Carlin's spot-on social and political satire.
My only problem with his routine came in the title skit, a long rant against certain ritual and other symbolic behaviors we perform in everyday life (for example, placing your hand on a Bible or other sacred text when swearing an oath). After describing each ritual and showing how meaningless it is, Carlin added the tag line "It's B.S., and it's bad for ya." At one memorable point in his monologue, Carlin wonders out loud, "How many millions of dead soldiers in military cemeteries around the globe marched off to war because they felt they were fighting for something that was nothing more than B.S.?"
A veteran of the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, Carlin believed, as did many of his generation (listen closely to the lyrics of John Lennon's song "Imagine"), that a world without B.S. is a world of perfect beauty, peace and freedom, in which there is nothing to kill or die for, and we can finally achieve "a brotherhood of man."
With all respect for an artist who can no longer defend himself, and (full disclosure) as a member of that generation myself, I would say that I agree with Carlin ... but only halfway.
It's hard to argue that most ritual behavior is B.S., in the sense that it has no extrinsic meaning. Quite a few social rituals that used to have real meaning no longer do: In the 1500s, shaking someone's hand in greeting was a way of saying you had no intention to draw your sword on that person.
But that is just the point: Ritual behavior is not meant to have real meaning. It is symbolic, a shorthand way of communicating something that cannot be put in words or is too complex for the human mind to grasp in full. Putting your hand on a sacred text when swearing an oath is a way for society to signal that "what you are about to say is extremely important, just as important as the words in this text you're holding, and we as a society intend to hold you accountable for every word."
Ritual behavior lies at the heart of every human organization, be it a family, a company (we commonly speak of "corporate culture"), a tribe, a religion, a political party or a nation. Participating in ritual is a way for people to say, "Yes, we are all different as human beings, but we are willing to sacrifice some of our individuality, our personality, our disagreements and our uniqueness to be members of a certain community that identifies itself by these rituals."
The rituals themselves are B.S., and easily ridiculed. But -- and here is where I part company with Carlin -- not all B.S. is bad for ya.
Would you really want to live in a world without B.S., a world in which each individual is truly unique, different and perfect in himself, without any shorthand or symbols to show his fellow humanity with others? Frankly, I think it would be boring as hell -- in much the same way that guys with shaved heads and goatees (or, er, excuse me, "soul patches") look exactly the same.
Whenever you make any sort of general statement about something, it is B.S. because it is too simplistic. Whenever you tell a story to illustrate a moral, it is B.S. because it is fiction. Whenever you create a theory or model to explain to someone how something in the world works, it is B.S. because every rule has exceptions, and the world is too complicated for any theory to explain perfectly. Whenever you accept something as an article of faith, you use B.S. to deal with questions that cannot be answered by rational or scientific analysis (for example, what happens to us after we die, why bad things happen to good people). According to some 20th-century European philosophers, even language itself is B.S. because words are mere symbols that cannot communicate the "thing in itself" -- we love poetry because, by listening closely to the words we hear and sometimes feel, we see an image of what is being spoken about.
In many ways, B.S. is the lubricant that makes learning, communication, understanding and all other aspects of human society possible. B.S. is what gets us emotionally and psychologically through life, gives us our sense of personal identity and gives us hope that maybe there is something in the Universe that is bigger than we are and of which we are a part.
Cynicism can be a good thing if taken in moderation. But someone who spends too much time removing B.S. from his life, and pointing out to others why B.S. isn't real, sooner or later ends up not believing in anything. George Carlin had a successful career, achieving wealth and fame making millions laugh at the B.S. in their lives. But I sometimes wonder if he died happy. He didn't look happy in that HBO special. Of course, he probably knew he had only a few months to live.
People should be free to choose which B.S. they believe in, of course; B.S. should never be forced on anyone. People should also be educated enough not to confuse B.S. with reality. But give up B.S. altogether? If anything, the more we learn about the cold, hostile, unforgiving world around us, the more B.S. we need to keep from going crazy. And, yes, some B.S. is worth fighting and dying for.
We live in a world in which traditional symbols and rituals are under attack on multiple fronts. It is quite possible the B.S. we have lived with for the last 200 years will soon be replaced by a new set of B.S., and hopefully, we will adapt to that. As you engage in your family rituals, customs and traditions, whatever they may be, cherish and try to preserve them as much as you can, and try not to think too hard about them. Study something too closely and you kill the beauty, the magic and the mystery.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.