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“It’s a beautiful thing: The destruction of words”

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well…”

My first career out of college was as a writer. I wrote for my alma mater’s alumni magazine, a travel publication, and even technical writing on how to use computer systems before landing a coveted job as an editor at a magazine. As a journalist and as a scholar, the notion of intellectual freedom is one of my core values—the freedom to investigate what I wish, to write up my findings and my analyses, and to share those words, ideas, and analyses with the world. The antithesis of these values is censoring and banning words—telling people what they can and cannot say. In fact, “guidance” about what to say is what sent me to graduate school in bioethics: I was working on an article that tested new computer technology when the magazine publisher visited my cubicle. He told me that I had to say something nice about one of the products we had reviewed. I showed him our testing methods and the results that proved what we had written was accurate. He replied, “It doesn’t matter. Say something nice. That company bought an ad.” Within days I had applied to
graduate school and planned my exit from my dream career because it was no longer about the Fourth Estate but rather about corporate PR.

Given that background, you can imagine that I was shocked at the Washington Post article this past week that announced:

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is part of HHS, were given a list of seven prohibited words or phrases during a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget. The words to avoid: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

According to the report, other agencies under the Department of Human Health and Services were advised to use the term “Obamacare” instead of the actual name of the law, “Affordable Care Act” or “ACA” for short. The ACA “marketplaces” were to be referred to as “exchanges” and at the State Department, “sex education” should be called “sexual risk avoidance.”

Such declarations by a government echo the efforts to control language through Newspeak, the efficient and sanctioned version of language put forth by the authoritarian regime in the novel 1984. A quote from George Orwell’s dystopian work opens this post and even provides the title. The goal of Newspeak was to remove ambiguity in language and to forward propaganda aims: “War is peace,” “freedom is slavery, “and “ignorance is strength.” By changing words and thoughts to mean their opposite, the regime used propaganda to influence people’s perception of reality.

Protest responses to the CDC announcement were swift. The American Association for the Advancement of Science tweeted “Here’s a word that’s still allowed: ridiculous.” In a Huffington Post article, bioethicist Art Caplan was quoted “Banning valid terminology from government reports is both ignorant and dangerous…We cannot replace truth with bias — the nation cannot survive a steady diet of bullshit.”

Then on Sunday, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted “There are no banned words at CDC.” Even the Washington Post article stated that that guidance was to “avoid using certain words or phrases in official documents being drafted for next year’s budget.” Is the list of 7 words a ban on their use in general, a ban on their use in budgeting only, or simply a guidance as to what ideas and terms would be most beneficial in requesting funding? Other scholars have noted that words are power and suggesting one not use certain words says that one should not be emphasizing these issues. By suggesting these words should not appear in budgeting requests, the powers-that-be ensure that no research can be done in any area that uses these terms since no funding could possibly be made available.

Whether guidance or a ban, I am concerned at how quickly many of us greeted this report with believability. As a nation, we have moved to an era where we expect anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-freedom statements from our executive branch and thus when we (liberal-leaning intellectuals) hear of one, we do not take a moment to ask if it could be true. We have become pre-disposed to expect horrible things and so give credence to such statements without taking a moment to think critically about them. How sad that as a nation we expect censorship, lies, and manipulation from our higher offices. Looking at my social media this morning, it is clear that even with these explanations from DHHS agencies, we are still outraged and still protesting. That we think the administration could do this is enough to make us take to the streets even if interpretations of the facts vary. This is the same selection bias that those of us on the left have accused people on the right of having since the birth of Fox “News.”

Why are we in such an uproar? We value words, facts, and precision and even the appearance of censorship offends and violates our deepest held values. Consider that the U.S. and the rulers in 1984 are not the first governments to use language to manipulate people, even in the modern era. Last year, Poland introduced a bill that to jail anyone using the term “Polish Death Camps” to refer to Nazi Concentration Camps within their borders. After 9/11, in protest against France’s refusal to join the U.S. actions against Iraq, Ohio Representative Bob Ney (R) decided that French fries should be called “Freedom fries” as a protest. The name was changed in the Congressional cafeteria even though fried potato sticks originated in Belgium, not France.

UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff believes that in politics, defining language is the debate and whoever chooses the term, controls the conversation. In Lakoff’s terms, our lives are influenced by the metaphors that explain complexity. For example, if reading were renamed “eye assault” then those who would oppose reading would have defined the terms and frame of the debate. The pro-readers would have to argue using the manufactured term which means they speak on the field of battle chosen and marked by the opposing side. The power of words is the power to craft the debate and draft reality. Thus, by banning certain words and offering alternative phrases, the administration is trying to construct a new reality and ostracize those who think differently.

Words are reality. The banning or guidance against using some or others is an attempt to limit our freedom of thought and to create an ideologically-based reality. Such actions are unacceptable. We must all stand up against censorship and even the appearance of censorship of all kinds. After all, in the case of the 7-words, the facts are not in dispute—instructions to avoid these words in budget documents was given, but the interpretation differs—a ban, guidance, censorship, helping to maximize what will be funded. As scholars and bioethicists, we should be careful not to confuse facts and interpretation—we need to recognize the former and to carefully consider and help with the latter.


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