Merry Covfefe to you, my dearest rutabagas, and Happy Bigly to your family and friends. As you know, wordish things have falafelled over this past year, leading many of us to scratch our bugles in wonder as we snog through messages sent to us “directly” from our groinly leaders in Washington.
Maybe it’s because my day job is as an English professor, but I don’t like when words are shredded, dismembered or mauled. Words matter. Words are our currency; from them we form our concepts of reality. Most of us have to be able to negotiate our lives without examining the meaning and reliability of every single word.
And that’s why I was more profoundly disturbed by the story reported by the Washington Post last week than I have been by any other single news item coming out of the Trump administration since our current president took office.
Even if you’ve been wrapping presents the whole time, you’ve heard about how the Trump administration reportedly communicated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that there are seven words to avoid, right? According to the Washington Post, workers at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, were instructed to avoid “using certain words or phrases in official documents being drafted for next year’s budget.” The banned words include “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” (In the wake of the report, the federal agency’s director said no words have been banned.)
The DHHS is the part of the federal government whose mission is to protect the health of all Americans and to provide “essential human services, especially for those least able to help themselves.”
You might think that “those least able to help themselves” could be regarded as “vulnerable,” but according to Trump’s administration, you could be wrong. You would think that that a branch of the federal government dealing with disease control would be advocating for science and evidence, but you might be wrong.
You might think that the government’s mandate would include protecting the rights of women who want to preserve hard-won reproductive freedoms or transgendered people whose battles in the health care system are only one of the battles they must fight on many fronts, but you might want to reconsider your belief.
You replace “fetus” with “unborn child” and thereby begin to strip away women’s rights to make their own health care choices. You replace “transgender” with — I can’t even imagine what — and all you’re doing is mangling our country’s language to meet the needs of fundamentalist religious zealots.
I’ve never liked when anybody tells me what I can say or what I can’t.
I rebelled against those who thought we should “ban bossy.” Bossy is a reasonable word and not a bad attitude to possess, especially when you’re the boss.
I do not offer my students “trigger warnings” because only those who understand a work of literature can argue with it and, if appropriate, undermine the authority of it.
We teach children to “use their words.” We have to use ours — all of them.
You’ll remember that Orwell’s Big Brother wants to strip people of words because to do so is “to narrow the range of thought.” We learned in “1984” that “every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”
That sounds like last week’s prescription for the CDC.
More unnerving than Orwell’s fiction concerning language, however, is philosopher Hannah Arendt’s fact about how the slicing, dicing and policing of language was used by Hitler’s regime during WWII: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth,” Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” is that the “sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed.”
Banning words, phrases and books are all forms of linguistic and cultural eugenics, rendering us all more sterile, ignorant, unimaginative and unquestioning by forcing us into silence or, worse, into using deliberately butchered speech.
If we outlaw words, then only outlaws will have words.
Let’s use our words to celebrate, to retain our integrity, our dignity and our power as American citizens.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She wrote this for the Hartford Courant.