At American colleges, enraged conservative students, supported by right-wing allies and funders, bring provocative speakers to campus to incite conflict, and then scream that their freedom of speech is suppressed by the politically correct left. I support the right of the Right to speak, even when their speech is incendiary or just plain ridiculous, but not their right to intimidate and harass people they would rather not have on “their” campus or in “their” country. The line between speech and intimidation is a difficult line to draw, but I think it is legitimate to draw it. Chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump,” “Build the Wall,” or “Lock them Up,” is reminiscent of chants at Nazi rallies in Hitler’s Germany. It is not intended as an act of free speech, but to shut speech down.
The real problem in the United States is not the silencing of the “political right.” The airwaves are flooded with their “alternative facts” and hate-filled venom on Clear Channel radio and Fox News cable television. The real problem is efforts by the Trump administration and his rightwing fanatics to censor and silence open discussion and the use of evidence and reason in the United States.
In December, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States’ leading public health institute, were presented with the list of seven banned words they were not to use in their budget requests. The CDC’s unholy word list includes (1) diversity, (2) fetus, (3) transgender, (4) vulnerable, (5) entitlement, (6) science-based, and (7) evidence-based. How scientists and medical professionals could write reports that are not “science-based” remains unclear.
It later turned out that this was not an official agency ban imposed by the Trump administration, but a more or less self-imposed attempt by CDC employees who feared a right-wing Congress would refuse to fund projects too closely identified with such “controversial” ideas.
They have a right to be afraid. Other Trump agencies have distributed word ban list. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) instructed staff to avoid using the term (8) climate change and to substitute weather extremes instead. (9) The phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” was also blacklisted. USDA staff was told to use “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency.” Last March, the Department of Energy (DOE) banned staff from referring to climate change or the (10) Paris Agreement in written memos, briefings or other written communications.
The impact of the Trump assault on science is most clear at the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), where over 700 employees, including 200 scientists and 96 environmental protection specialists, have been pushed out, quit, or retired since Trump took office. Morale at the agency dropped even lower when employees and the public recently learned that Republican Party operatives were trying to gain access to internal emails to root out EPA officials who oppose the Trump anti-science agenda.
Self-censorship may actually be more dangerous than an official word ban. Science and democracy both require an open exchange of ideas. When scientists and citizens are afraid to speak out, both human advancement and freedom shrivel. The best response is to use the words over and over again.
To help teachers address the official and unofficial word bans in their classes, I propose a “High School Homework Challenge.” Students should write a coherent paragraph using all ten words and phrases officially and unofficially banned by the Trump Administration. For extra-credit, text your paragraph to Donald Trump at @realDonaldTrump.
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