Column | Censorship at the CDC and beyond
The words we choose are always important – especially when it comes to crafting government policy. That simple fact makes an incident last week at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia worth paying attention to.
Analysts were reportedly given a list of seven words they were not going to be allowed to use when formulating their budget documents in 2018. The offending terms were, in no particular order, “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
Some of the words are clearly tied to questions of ideology. “Fetus” is at the center of the abortion debate, while “vulnerable” and “diversity” obviously have a bearing on programs that might study or otherwise affect underprivileged or disadvantaged populations. The inclusion of “transgender” seems almost self-explanatory with someone like Mike Pence occupying the Office of the Vice President. The same could be said for “entitlement,” Paul Ryan, and the House speakership.
Even for those who aren’t inclined to care about those “social justice warrior” issues (which do in fact affect the civil liberties, quality of life, and equality of opportunity for our fellow Americans), there can’t possibly be a rationale for prohibiting one of the most critical scientific institutions in our government from talking about what is or is not “evidence-based.” All schoolchildren learn that the scientific method – formulating hypotheses and testing them with experiments to draw conclusions from evidence – is a fundamental tenet of modern thought. It has taken us from understanding the fundamental principles of our universe to pushing the frontiers of what is possible through technology, so it should stand to reason that we’d want the smartest people studying the deadliest diseases to stick with it.
In fairness, there is some confusion around the story. The director of the CDC denied that any words had been “banned, prohibited, or forbidden,” yet could not confirm or deny that staff might have been advised to avoid some words. Other commentators speculated that perhaps the meeting attendees were not being given directives, but rather “self-censoring” in an effort to avoid charged terms and therefore win favor during the budgeting process – a possibility that is problematic in and of itself.
Only a Freedom of Information Act request still in the works might shed some more light on this specific incident in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the story as reported is part of a larger pattern of what is happening to words and information in the age of Trump.
Scientists are being discouraged from studying, collecting records on, or talking about climate change. Health surveys are omitting questions about different gender identities. Objective reports undermining administration policies – for example, the DHS study showing just how ineffective the Muslim ban would have been at stopping any extremist incident in the last several decades – are buried. And websites are designed to make it harder rather than easier to sign up for government healthcare, as well as the advertising money and means for publicizing that process, are being slashed.
Across the government, language, data, and access to all that is objectionable to this administration’s ideological bent is being suppressed – to say nothing about the relentless assault on the notion of objective truth that comes in the form of President Trump’s lies large and small, day in and day out.
Mysteriously, the most reliable defenders of free speech – those like Tucker Carlson, who launches an investigation into a new liberal student body’s language policing every show, or Tomi Lahren, who rose to prominence ripping “liberal snowflakes” for their inability to process ideas they disagree with – are silent when the voices being hushed by big government want to talk about these particular topics. It’s almost as if their outrage is not stalwart in defense of principle, but conditional on its utility to partisan priorities.
And really, the principle should be simple to get behind. Our government agencies should not be prohibited from using terms so long as those terms are not harmful to others. Moreover, they certainly should not be stopped from using language that is central to their mission and work – especially when that work is as important as protecting Americans from deadly emergent diseases.
But that seems beyond the pale with this administration, which is a frightening sign indeed. Just because our president’s vocabulary is limited to terms like “beautiful,” “sad,” and of course “huge,” doesn’t mean the rest of the government’s should be.