Back in 1972, ages ago to many of you, comedian George Carlin achieved some notoriety when he crafted a monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. (For the uninformed, the words were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Can you write those in a blog post even today?)
“Those are the heavy seven,” Carlin said. “Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war,” he said facetiously.
Now the Trump administration has come up with its own list of seven prohibited words. According to news reports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been banned from using the following seven words/phrases in budget documents: “vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.”
We’re becoming Venezuela, where doctors are warned not to diagnose a patient as suffering from “malnutrition”, likely because it would highlight the widespread hunger in the country where, according to a horrific story in the New York Times, starving children are regularly brought to hospital emergency rooms.
Or maybe we’re becoming like Turkey, where you still can’t refer to the massacre of at least 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire during 1915-1923 as genocide.
In some cases, alternatives to Trump’s banned words were suggested to CDC analysts. Instead of saying “science-based” or “evidence-based,” the analysts were given options like, “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the Washington Post reported.
As overused as the 1984 parallel can be these days, the instructions to CDC remind me of Orwell’s dystopian novel’s reference to Newspeak, where words mean what the government wants them to mean. In Newspeak, “blackwhite”, for example, means to believe that black is white, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary, and “joycamp” is a forced labor camp.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell observed that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” In that respect, he said, “political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He was convinced that the language of government was often vague and misleading because its intent was to cloud and/or distract from the truth.
The Trump Administration’s conscious decision to undermine reality goes back at least to January 2017 when Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, used the term “alternative facts,” what Open Culture has called “the latest Orwellian coinage for bald-faced lying.”
The newly announced CDC policy is also part of the corrosion of public policy language in general, what British writer Patrick Cockburn referred to as “the use of tired and misleading words or phrases, their real purpose being not to illuminate but to conceal” and what Orwell called “the defence of the indefensible.”
” The Blair government’s use of a buzzword such as “conversation” – to be conducted with the British people about some issue of policy – was geared to suggest chattiness and fake intimacy, “Cockburn wrote. “In practice, it reinforced people’s sense that they were about to be diddled again by a phoney sense of participation and that the real decisions had already been taken.”