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Words Matter: The Ripple Effect of Seven Banned Words

  ·   By Frank Farrow,

Late last Friday, news broke that senior staff at The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were notified by the Trump Administration that seven words (Vulnerable, Entitlement, DiversityTransgender, Fetus, Evidence-based and Science-based) were prohibited from use in official documents being prepared for the 2018 budget. The news sounded a national alarm, with widespread negative reactions on social media, in popular news outlets and in the form of protests taking place in the nation’s capital. It is rare that a single government action manages to so thoroughly unite people through its unpopularity – in large measure because this edict is so dangerous on so many levels.

Among the seven words now banned at the CDC are several that specifically describe the nation’s most vulnerable communities – indeed, vulnerable is one of the forbidden words. Given the current climate of bigotry, fear and intolerance flooding the nation, it is almost unsurprising that the Trump Administration would attempt to force its agencies to remove words like transgender, diversity and vulnerable from their collective vocabularies. To remove the ability to speak about certain groups removes the ability to recognize them at all – even children are familiar with the silent treatment, the tactic by which pretending someone doesn’t exist utterly eliminates them from attention. There is an ease to turning a blind eye towards certain communities, many of whom have spent decades simply asking us to see and hear. Consider for a moment both how deeply troubling it is to be on the receiving end of such callous disregard and then imagine the broader ramifications of such a move when coupled with budgetary and policy concerns.

We are at a pivotal time in seeking to significantly improve health, education and well-being outcomes for American children, youth and families. Inequities defined by race, class, income, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, sexual and gender identity and orientation and urban/rural geography are severe and changing slowly, if at all. To further hamper this incremental progress by removing the very words used to describe these communities is a gross injustice and a harbinger of more disturbing times ahead. The role of government in this country is not to target, ignore or eliminate communities in need of assistance. Instead, an appropriate role of this – and any – administration is to create opportunity. That includes allowing open discourse and allocating funding for programs and resources that support basic needs and create the pathways for success.

The federal government’s budget decisions should not take place in a vacuum – instead, evidence-based and science-based (two additional words banned from the lexicon) knowledge should play key roles in guiding decision-makers towards creating and implementing policies that best support every community. Personal ideology should not be the grounding for public policy; CSSP Senior Fellow Lisbeth B. Schorr, put it best in a recent article, “But even when our beliefs vary about which social supports should come from family, neighbors, the market, philanthropy or government, we agree that we must base decisions aimed at promoting better lives in the future – especially if they involve public funds – on solid evidence.”

Recognizing the value of “community standards and wishes” as a valuable part of an evidence base is one thing – and a move we support, as a step to develop a more inclusive evidence base. But to ban mention of the gains made possible by more, not less, attention to what science and rigorous attention to facts can contribute to policy is a dangerous direction. What policies were enacted 50 years ago – 100 years ago – based on popular opinion that are now considered archaic, foolish and even dangerous? America is a country of innovation and learning – and part of that learning includes that strong, valid evidence cannot be built on one single community or ideology. Instead we must recognize the varying strengths and needs of all people and raise, rather than degrade, our standards about the right type of evidence for public policy and investment.

We are by no means naive about US politics. We are a nation deeply divided on our ideological views, but robust conversation about these views forms the bedrock of our political discourse. Suppressing the language we use and the tools we have at our disposal to arrive at reasoned conclusions creates a chilling effect both on the conversations themselves and on policies that can move the needle towards solving large-scale, systemic problems.

Words matter. This kind of creeping censorship is not a mistake or an error in judgment. Instead, it is an intentional move towards furthering directives that stand counter to a nation that prides itself on justice and inclusivity. We have started today with seven words – how many more will be added tomorrow? It is difficult to overstate how deeply catastrophic this ban is and how far-reaching its negative consequences. This is truly one of many steps towards dismantling rights, reason and accountability to justice across every level of our community.


Frank Farrow is the president at CSSP.


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