By Jean Godden
“It is a bright cold day in April, and the clocks are striking thirteen.”
That’s the famous first sentence of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel. Orwell imagined Oceania, a dystopia with powerful symbols like “Big Brother,” double think (“War is Peace”) and the systematic destruction of the English language.
Evoking double think and the purging of language has echoes in this country. The Washington Post recently reported on a Trump administration directive that bars use of certain words and phrases by divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services. When identified words were used by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), documents were flagged and sent back for “correction.”
The White House directive cited seven words and phrases that must not appear in official budget transmittals: vulnerable, transgender, fetus, diversity, entitlement, science-based and evidence-based.
This is not the first time that the Trump administration has barred commonly-used words and phrases. Earlier “sex education” was banned and a substitute proscribed. That phrase has been replaced by “sexual risk avoidance,” a term limited to abstinence-only education. At the Department of Agriculture, staffers were given a list of replacements for the phrases “climate change” and “reduce greenhouse gases.” A political appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency was seen striking out the words “climate change” from grant applications.
The idea of disallowing words is chilling. In Orwell’s fictional novel, the hero Winston Smith was employed at the Ministry of Truth — known as Minitrue in Newspeak, the language devised to replace Oldspeak or Standard English. Winston’s job was to rewrite articles and documents using approved vocabulary.
The new language was to have far fewer words. Winston’s friend Syme was employed writing a Newspeak dictionary, “cutting the language down to the bone.” Syme tells Winston: “It is a good thing the destruction of words. . . After all, what justification is there for a word which is the opposite of some other words? If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well.”
Orwell wrote that the object of Newspeak was to narrow the range of thought in Oceania. Without a wide vocabulary, thought would become more difficult. With words eliminated, eventually it would be impossible to commit “Thoughtcrime.” Reduction of language was one horror of Orwell’s totalitarian state.
Oceania, thankfully, is fiction; but now to today’s reality: Early response to the heavy-handed censorship of the Centers for Disease Control has mainly been “surely this is just kidding” or “they can’t be serious.” There have been some attempts at denial. However, the Orwellian move seems to have occurred. In fact, officials have even suggested work arounds. Take the case of the phrase “science-based.” It’s not okay to say that, but you can say something like: “The CDC bases its recommendation on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
Not surprisingly there has been a strong backlash. Planned Parenthood vice president Dana Singisler was quoted saying, “This is not just a change in vocabulary. It means that the Trump-Pence Administration is trying to radically change the focus of the entire agency.”
The idea of a directive to stop using certain words not only flies in the face of the First Amendment but into the very concept of American democracy. It is particularly egregious directed at the CDC which uses science to protect us against disease and disaster. If terms like “vulnerable” and “fetus” are abolished, how can you work to combat the devastation of the Zeka virus? If “climate change” is forbidden, how can we save the planet? Where is this language clampdown taking us?
This war of words is not worthy of an open society, either in its Orwellian censorship or in the administration’s flaunting of science and reason. It is high time that people and politicians of good will and constitutional backbone stand up for what is right and insist on an end to would-be thought police.