A Rant About Words (And Banning Them)

December 17, 2017

Warning: I got my dander up. If you’re not up for a rant, feel free to skip this week.

You’ve likely heard about Seth Godin, super smart marketer and prolific blogger. He did a piece recently called Different people hear differently, which included this:

What you say is not nearly as important as what we hear.

Which means that the words matter, and so does the way we say them. And how we say them. And what we do after we say them.

And:

It takes two to be understood. Not just speaking clearly, but speaking in a way that you can be understood.

I came across this today, the same day that a certain dumpster fire’s administration issued the CDC a list of seven forbidden words. To wit:

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden terms at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

Holy guacamole, this made me livid. For one, I agree with what Gruber said. For another, this sort of thing is the stuff of authoritarianism. It comes on top of the Environmental Protection Agency being forced to remove from its website resources for local governments relating to climate change.

All of this is unacceptable. Completely.

Now, my life is words. I put them together in ways people can understand and (I hope) enjoy to make my living. I believe, as Godin says, words matter—the ones we choose, how we say them, and who we say them to. How we choose to talk to our neighbours, our children, and our animals shapes the world we live in. Our words give us a chance to make things better, if we choose well.

I think that’s why the CDC thing plugged me in so much. That sort of anti-science, anti-reason, artificial restriction does not move us all forward as a society, expand our knowledge, or bring us together as people. It tries to perpetuate a close-minded point of view that would hold all of us back.

What we think of words changes over time. Remember George Carlin’s Seven words you can’t say on TV? (Needless to say, that link is NSFW.) (Also, embedded below.) When Carlin did that routine several decades ago, it was cutting edge stuff. These days, you hear most of them on TV all the time, certainly if you’re a streamer with Netflix and the like. Agree with that change or not, that change has happened.

Do I think all words are appropriate in all situations? Of course not. I didn’t swear in front of my grandma, and still wouldn’t. Learning when words are and are not appropriate in social settings is an important skill for our young’uns to learn.

But that’s all different. That’s about respect, appropriate usage in setting, and learning to get along with people.

The actions of the dumpster fire’s administration? That’s about repression.

Well, stuff that. I sincerely hope that at every public appearance from here on, all of the people behind this decision are faced with placards proclaiming those words loudly and boldly.

Because words matter. And so do actions.

(Separately: congrats Aussie legislators for finally doing what they should have done months and years ago, and passing marriage equality laws. About effing time.)