In the absence of symbols–words–to express an idea, we cannot form that idea. There is a substantial psychological literature on “framing” (I have often said that all of law school was an explication of the axiom “He who frames the issue wins the debate.”) Control of language is often tantamount to control of the people who communicate in that language.
Inept as it is at actual governing, the Trump administration does understand the power of language. When the President of the United States defends his anti-immigrant policies by claiming he wants to prevent an “infestation,” the equation of immigrants with vermin deliberately dehumanizes those immigrants.
It doesn’t stop with Trump’s vermin and “shitholes.”
Federal websites have been “scrubbed” of references to climate change–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, a regular reader of this blog shared an article with me that detailed a much more thoroughgoing effort to make language a tool of the Trump administration.
Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.
The author detailed her experience putting together an academic program on immigration. She had invited participation from the administration, and immediately ran into a maze of requirements. No ICE representative’s presentation could be taped, and the word “refugee” had to be removed from the description of a panel discussion.
The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.
As the author noted, it made her wonder how many others had been similarly strong-armed, how many other words had been removed from various programs, and how much official rhetoric has gone unrecorded.
The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.
Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware of Trump’s assault on science and climate data. The Department of Agriculture has excised the very word “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to “increase nutrient use energy.”
We may be less aware of other areas where language has been manipulated. When the subject is government helping the less fortunate or combatting discrimination, the changes have been striking: excluded vocabulary includes “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.”
Given the Administration’s preference for “alternative facts,” we shouldn’t be surprised that the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” have also been discarded.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.
Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.”
The State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and downplayed the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.”
The article gives many more examples, including the (particularly chilling) fact that the Department of Justice removed the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”
The United States described by the substituted language is very different from the country most of us recognize. And that, as the author says, is the purpose. After all, language creates our realities.
It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”
Or perhaps “infested.”