Aside from being a great name for a grunge band, the title of this post contains three of the seven “forbidden words” recently communicated to the Centers for Disease Control by their leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services. The rest are: diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, and science-based. I don’t know about you, but I like my public health interventions to be science-based. They tend to work better that way.
Some pundits mentioned the book “1984” as being especially resonant in this case on the subject of societies where words are forcibly expunged in order to manipulate perceptions of reality and control people. There is a whole world of dystopian science fiction built on the same concept. To be less bleak, one can think of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” sketch and reflect that all of them are said regularly now on cable and the internet, if not (a least one or two) on broadcast television itself. There must be something about that number seven. Perhaps it’s like the number three, so important to oral history and legend as a mnemonic device (3 pigs, 3 bears, etc.).
Actually, I think more of just one word, “Enciente,” the word used to refer to Lucille Ball’s pregnancy during the run of her popular sitcom in the 1950’s. The networks at that time forbade use of the proper English terminology for the condition but they couldn’t get around the fact that the actress was going to have a baby. They had worked so hard to assure that the on-screen couple stayed in their proper twin beds in enveloping pajamas only to have the illusion that they were affectionate but not sexually active be blown apart by the inconvenient truth. They couldn’t erase the reality of a fetus’ existence by choosing to sound French (’cause…everything sounds better in French?…Sacre merde) anymore than the U.S. government can by wiping out the term by which it is called.
Over and over, commentary (e.g. this piece for a Canadian news agency) on the seven words banished from the CDC over the last few days has highlighted the point that what words we use (or refuse to use) signals to our employees, our constituents, our policymakers, and the rest of the world what we consider important and worth doing. In the case of ‘science’ and ‘evidence with regard to ‘health’, leaving these two out of our discourse says to a world that is watching for our example (and those looking for our weaknesses) that what has long been known as the soundest approach to protecting and strengthening the well-being of our population is no longer our priority. Pretending this approach is no longer useful or important doesn’t make it so. If nothing else, this episode has been an excellent lesson in the uses and abuses of official language.