Rumor has it that the Trump administration has handed the Centers for Disease Control a list of seven “dirty words” that it should scrub from official documents being prepared for next year’s budget. Before we get to the words themselves — and isn’t seven a magic number? Seven dwarves, seven days, seven heavens, seven colors in the rainbow — let’s pause for a moment to consider the plausibility of such a rumor in our country today.
When we think not just of censorship, but of actual, specific banned words, regimes in places like China, North Korea, and Russia come to mind. But government word-banning isn’t entirely new in the United States. In the George W. Bush administration, climate scientists were warned against using the phrase global warming. The 1873 Comstock Laws, with their emphasis on forbidding “immoral” texts or devices, certainly resulted in a wave of word-shunning. And the activist educator Diane Ravitch has compiled a remarkable list of words banned by various state departments of education and other authorities.
The purpose of such censorship — and even more, the purpose of evolving cultural norms that result in self-censorship — has generally been to enforce some sort of purity, not only in our language but in the thoughts and deeds that connect to that language. By banning sissy, for instance, Connecticut presumably intends to help stem the bullying practiced by those who grow familiar with the word’s connotations and effects.
It’s that purity, I suspect, that makes the current rumor seem credible, even as Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the CDC says there will be no banned words at her agency. Not that our government today is pure — far from it. But ideological purity, unblemished loyalty, and the purging of those who diverge from the administration’s position on any issue you can name are part of this administration’s DNA. And insofar as language opens the door to thought, and “impure” thought is seen as a threat, the notion that a paranoid, closed-minded administration would seek to ban specific words at one of its agencies makes perfect sense.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that these are the words:
They are not all the same kind of word. Vulnerable, for instance, admits of some qualification (slightly vulnerable, potentially vulnerable, etc.); entitlement can refer to a government-supplied right or to a belief that one deserves more than someone else; evidence- and science-based describe the processes by which one arrives at solid conclusions. Since, for many of these words, no alternative has been proposed, it’s tempting to see the first five of them as representing populations that will henceforward be deemed simply not to exist. That is, no one will be vulnerable, or entitled to anything; without diversity, no norms will exist by which to judge, say, an all-white, all-male cohort; transgender people will just be, well, whatever they were before we acknowledged that idea; and of course without fetuses (we’re not banning zygotes?), pregnancy can only involve babies.
The last two terms describe methodologies. For one of them, according to rumor, we have a proposed alternative: Instead of, say, “CDC recommendations are science-based,” documents may read, “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” If I understand that wording (and it’s not self-explanatory), the change puts forward a methodology that takes into consideration a “community’s standards and wishes” as regards science. If the community believes, against all scientific evidence, in bodily humors as associated with certain diseases, we will take that standard into consideration when we discuss the cause of gout or cancer. If the community wishes us to consider God’s wrath upon homosexuals when we do AIDS research, we will work that standard into our findings.
Replace science with evidence, and you have still more ground to till, e.g. “CDC bases its recommendations on evidence in consideration with community standards and wishes.” I mean, look, I wish like anything that the release of PCBs into local drinking water had nothing to do with a rise in cancer rates. If I convince my community to wish likewise, or if I can argue persuasively that our standards for health are simply too darn high, might the CDC back off a bit from the findings it bases on so-called evidence?
You see where this is going.
To be fair, I did word searches on the Centers for Disease Control’s website and found plentiful use of the seven terms that are purportedly under scrutiny. There are headlines for “Protecting Vulnerable Groups from Extreme Heat,” “CDC analysis of data from US territories finds serious birth defects in about 1 in 12 fetuses or infants of pregnant women with Zika infection,” “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health,” “Promoting Science-Based Approaches to Teen Pregnancy Prevention,” and the like. No guarantee that these headlines will remain unchanged. The EPA, after all, was ordered to take down its climate-change page. But if the dangerous thing about words is their ability, as Orwell put it, “to corrupt thought,” our mindfulness of words can keep thoughts alive, ready for the deeds that follow. As so often happens, the poets are on this before the rest of us; for a little inspiration as we close out this troubled year, start reading the offerings on Facebook and the poems that will be posted beginning January 1 at the CDC Poetry Project.