You Are What You Say

The misuse of language induces evil in the soul. That’s a statement attributed to Socrates, and you may have heard or read me quoting it before. It bears repeating.

The etymology of the English word “language” tells quite a story. It stems from the Old French langage: “speech, words, oratory; a tribe, people, nation”; from the Latin vulgate linguaticum, from Latin lingua: “tongue,” also “speech, language,” from the pre-Indo-European root dnghu– “tongue.” Interesting how closely related it is to “tribe” or “people,” isn’t it? You are what you say.

The ultra-right’s assault on language has escalated to a linguistic battle–now being waged even across official Washington—in an attempt to shift public perception of key policies by changing the way the federal government talks and writes about climate change, scientific evidence, disadvantaged communities, and other issues.

Surely we remember George Orwell’s chilling novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the totalitarian state’s mottos were “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery.” Many of us recall the real-life motto posted above the gates to Dachau, the Nazi extermination camp, to disguise it as a “labor camp”: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free). And we’re already accustomed to consistent violence against words practiced by Fox News and other Murdoch owned media that refer, for example, to distinguished special counsel Robert Muller as a traitor, that denounce any investigation of Trump campaign conspiracies with the Russians as a “left-wing coup.” The playbook must be “accuse the other of what you are actually doing yourself.”

But now it’s a battle in official Washington. The CDC—The Centers for Disease Control–received a list of forbidden words, including diversity and fetus (for the latter, apparently “unborn human” would be preferred). In some instances, the CDC was brazenly told alternative phrases to use. Instead of evidence-based or science based, the preferred phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

Think about that one.

How about “The CDC bases its recommendations about drinking rat poison on science in consideration with community standards and wishes of the pesticide industry”?

At the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), employees are being instructed to “avoid such words as vulnerable, entitlement, and”— there it is again—“diversity” when they are preparing requests for the 2019 budget. That is, “except when the terms are referenced within a legal citation or part of a title”— which are hilarious exceptions when you dwell on them. Agencies under HHS include the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health Care Research, and Medicare and Medicaid, among others. Oh yes, and also the medical standards for all hospitals in the nation. Feeling ill, are you?

Health and Human Services spokesman Matt Lloyd confirmed that agency officials made such recommendations but claimed they didn’t ban any words outright or formally prohibit employees from using certain phrases. Instead, Lloyd claimed that employees had “misconstrued guidelines provided during routine discussions.” But HHS career officers said the message was clear. A group of 315 public health organizations also sought an explanation regarding the CDC word list, declaring: ”As the nation’s premier public health agency, the CDC cannot carry out its mission of improving the health and safety of all Americans when its staff are urged to avoid using basic phrases intrinsic to public health.”

But what if health is being defined by subjectively determined “legality”? Late last summer, the office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a “core language guidance document” to employees and contractors, with a column of words and phrases to avoid alongside a column of acceptable alternatives. The document recommends using “all youth” instead of “underserved youth,” referring to crime as a “public issue/public concern” rather than a “public health issue/public health concern,” and describing young people who commit crimes as “offenders” rather than “system-involved or justice-involved youths.” The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, also orders avoidance of the term “substance abuse disorder” in favor of “substance abuse issues.” This runs in blatant opposition to efforts by medical experts to cast substance abuse as a disease, but is to “better reflect Justice Department priorities.”

The Justice Department’s move to censor the discussion about juvenile justice has alarmed advocates, who note that only referring to youths who have committed crimes as offenders ignores the fact they are still legally minors and literally children. But the new emphasis is already having an impact. In 2016, solicitation for proposals to provide mentoring to child victims of sex trafficking specifically cited LGBTQ youths, who make up a significant portion of the trafficked population. But in 2017 a similar solicitation for proposals contained no such mention.

As for climate change? That’s been a linguistic minefield. References to it have been purged repeatedly at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and at the Department of the Interior. The term “climate change” has been banished from 2019 budget discussions across all departments. One small example of the trickle-down effect: a Colorado College environmental science professor was to teach an “introduction to global climate change” class at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument—but then was informed he would have to revise his syllabus because it had to be sent to the National Park Service climate change office in Fort Collins for review and the NPS had been told climate change must not be part of the message. The professor threatened to pull out and tell the press, but his hosts ultimately relented and he continued with his class. Nevertheless, climate-related documents continue to vanish from the Department of the Interior website. The links to 92 National Parks climate action plans have been totally erased.

Barry Bennett, a GOP consultant who advised Trump doing his campaign, says, ”The administration correctly understands that they are battling a hostile bureaucracy.” Well, let’s hear it for a hostile, gutsy bureaucracy that refuses to substitute fiction for fact, that knows words matter.

Speaking of which, as I was writing this blog post, news broke over Trump’s appalling comments about, well basically, every country with a largely black or brown population—although he made a point of singling out Haiti, Central America, and all 54 nations on the African continent. That should no longer surprise us, coming from him. What’s surprising is that it got leaked, verbatim. What’s surprising is that the TV news and the print press quoted the remarks verbatim. What’s surprising is that some Democratic senators, notably Dick Durban of Illinois, and sort of one or two Republicans, including Haitian American Congresswoman Mia Love of Utah, flatly denounced his statements as racism. But what’s shocking—and literally nauseating—is how many Republican elected officials and spokespeople are daring to argue that “this doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is a racist.” My god, what will it take?

You are what you say.

Oh, Socrates. Talk abut evil in the soul. . . .