"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
So said George Orwell in his essay, "Politics and the English Language."
Orwell gave us a terrifying glimpse at how language corrupts thought in his classic novel, 1984. Published in 1949, 1984 was set in the fictional totalitarian state of Oceania, ruled by a shadowy figure called Big Brother.
“Newspeak” was the government-created and controlled language of Oceania. As described by Orwell in his Appendix to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak,” the language was designed to meet the ideological needs of Big Brother’s regime by limiting language and twisting grammar not only to provide a government-approved medium of expression, but also “to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
The purpose of Newspeak, simply stated, was “not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” When words inimical to the regime simply don’t exist, criticism of the regime becomes impossible to articulate or, worse, literally unthinkable.
The Trump administration, of course, has not purported to create a new, government-approved language.
But it is nevertheless engaged in manipulation of language that would have made Big Brother proud.
The most recent, and most blatant, attempt by the Trump administration to manipulate language to control policy and thought is an out-and-out assault on science.
According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration has instructed officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) to avoid using the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in their budget requests.
At the same time, CDC officials were told to use the term “Obamacare” instead of the actual name of the Affordable Care Act, and to use the phrase “sexual risk avoidance,” commonly understood to focus on abstention above all else, instead of “sex education.”
This politicization of science is illustrated best by the recommended alternative to the phrase “science-based.” CDC is now supposed to say that it bases its recommendations on science “in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
The CDC is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Its more than 15,000 employees are responsible for controlling the introduction and spread of infectious diseases throughout the United States and the world. CDC’s expert workforce is made up largely of scientists, including biologists, epidemiologists, physicians, toxicologists, chemists and behavioral scientists.
Telling the CDC scientists not to use the words “science-based” or “evidence-based” is a bit like telling a Catholic priest not to use words like “God” or “Jesus,” or telling a doctor not to mention “health” or “disease.”
Telling them to base their recommendations on “community wishes” is like instructing the military to use polling data instead of satellite imagery to locate the enemy.
HHS’s prohibition of words that are inimical to the Trump administration’s world view isn’t an academic lesson in proper English usage. HHS is telling CDC what to include, and not to include, in its budget request.
And it’s instruction to use misleading euphemisms about “community standards and wishes” isn’t about a sudden obsession with arcane notions of grammar and rhetoric.
It’s about telling the CDC to bend science to serve Trump’s politics.
While this may be the latest attempt by Trump to manipulate thought through language, it is neither the first, nor the farthest reaching.
The crown jewel in Trump’s manipulation of language to corrupt thought is his War on Truth, specifically his largely successful campaign to change the meaning of the term “fake news.”
The term “fake news” should be self-defining. It has been used for years to describe deliberately fabricated misinformation and hoaxes. During the 2016 presidential election, fake news entered a new heyday when Trump and his campaign associates launched a multi-faceted campaign of lying (“‘Don’t Worry, I’ll Pull Out’ And Other Trump Lies”).
A key part of that campaign was peddling wildly false stories that they picked up from dark websites whose only mission was to do harm and create chaos. Many of the malicious stories peddled by Trump were manufactured by a handful of organized fake news operations that employed teenagers to produce and distribute made-up “news.”
When the press correctly reported that Trump was peddling “fake news,” Trump responded as he always does: never defend, always accuse. Without the slightest defense of his own misconduct, Trump set out to defang the “fake news” charge by appropriating and changing the meaning of the term.
In Trumpworld, “fake news” no longer referred to lies, misinformation and hoaxes, but to the meticulously reported, impeccably sourced, and carefully edited stories published by the likes of CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Trump so thoroughly corrupted the term that journalists are now reluctant to use it to describe Trump’s lies and made-up stories.
Trump now owns the term.
“Fake news” now means its exact opposite. Fake news means real news. The only truth is whatever Big Brother says is true.
This is a prime example of what Orwell called “doublethink,” the propaganda campaign of psychological manipulation that Newspeak was designed to promote. Doublethink is the ability to hold two completely contradictory beliefs at the same time and to believe that both are true. Its goal is to convince the public of anything, even if it is the exact opposite of what the public knows to be true.
To be sure, despite Trump’s Big Brother manipulations, we are nowhere near the dystopian society Orwell depicted in 1984. But we shouldn’t think of our liberty as forever guaranteed. If we ever lose it, it will not happen all at once, like an earthquake.
Rather, it will erode over time because we haven’t been vigilant.
Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip is an engaged citizen and a columnist who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.