You Can Say That Again

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The idea of forbidden language is offensive in an open society.  Fortunately, the resources of language can usually outflank any administration’s clumsy attempts at thought control.


Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” --Washington Post, December 15, 2017.

“A Fool’s Errand” is a phrase perfectly suited to the attempts of any bureaucracy to censor the words of their employees.  But it’s doubly hard to get one’s head around a diktat coming from this enfeebled executive branch that would try to control language used by one of the nation’s premier federal agencies.

We are lucky to have the Centers for Disease Control and the 15,000 dedicated science and public health professionals it employs.  Wikipedia notes that about half of these folks have advanced degrees.  Many are the world’s leading authorities on illness and the control of infectious diseases.  Whose bright idea was it to try to make certain public health terms forbidden?  Perhaps the same kind of neanderthal who  might ask a singer to only produce notes on the major scale.

The organizational impulse to ban certain unwelcome ideas is hardly novel. Employees “fronting” for industrial or institutional interests will frequently learn what to say, as well as the lexicon of terms to avoid.  But it’s especially insidious when lists of unacceptable terms show up in our civil life, where there should be unfettered public discussion.  This is why there is an emerging sense of satisfaction in the release of the new film, The Post.  It celebrates the 1971 decision by Katherine Graham and others at the Washington Post to publish a secret government history of the ill-fated Vietnam War.  A gag order has already been issued to the New York Times.

Widespread revulsion to the CDC gag order has apparently led to some backtracking on what the policy analysts can say. But these kinds of missives keep coming from all over, including state and federal leaders averting their eyes from subjects like “climate change” or “reproductive rights.”  Every instance is a reminder of how hostile the dead hand of censorship can be.

To be sure, in everyday life it makes perfect sense to consider terms appropriate or inappropriate for the settings in which they are used.  Editors are still scratching their heads over whether to print or broadcast some of the vulgarities uttered in the 2016 Presidential campaign. But monitoring language for appropriateness is very different than forbidding it in all contexts.

Effective synonyms can save the day. One can only hope cowed agency employees will have the will to use them.

Luckily, the resources of language are far greater than a pathetic list of banned terms proposed by management at the CDC.  If “vulnerable” doesn’t work for the administration, how about “exposed,” “insecure,” “defenseless,”  or “at risk”?  If “entitlement” seems dangerous, how about “privileged,” “given special prerogatives,” “deserving,” “one’s birthright” or “owed to a citizen”?  If “evidence-based” or “science-based” seem inexplicably risky to inflict on the public, how about “reasonable,” “rational,” “empirical,” “based on observation and study” or “what has been proven through systematic observation”?  Like a star broken field runner, the resources of rhetoric can easily outrun clumsy attempts at thought control. Effective synonyms can save the day. One can only hope cowed agency employees will have the will to use them.