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Trump's CDC Word Ban Is Institutional Warfare

The banned CDC words represent the deliberate erasure of certain concepts—and people—from the bureaucratic categories that are channels for state power.

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration would prohibit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using seven particular words in official government documents during the next federal budget cycle. Those banned phrases include "vulnerable," "entitlement," "diversity," "transgender," and "fetus," according to the Post. Two other target phrases, "evidence-based" and "science-based," were scrapped in favor of a suggested alternative: "[the] CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes."

Despite what some might call the dire inflection of the the CDC's latest directive, the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the CDC, denied any wrongdoing. "The assertion that HHS has 'banned words' is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process," HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said in a statement to the New York Times. "HHS will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. HHS also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions."

Lloyd's rebuttal isn't totally inaccurate: Lawmakers and the various federal agencies that vie for their attention certainly fixate on costs and benefits rather than the political semantics of specific federal budget line items. But his response also reflects a more visceral element to the Trump administration's language politics: Rather than being a bludgeon to shape the rules of public opinion, the word ban is a tool of institutional warfare.

Until now, the Trump administration's particular brand of language politics has focused on developing its own arsenal of piercing broadsides to shape public ideology. Consider "fake news," once a post-Election Day diagnostic by disaffected liberals that's been impressively co-opted by the alt right as a tool of epistemic warfare. Despite the fact that Facebook recently told lawmakers that Russian operatives at a St. Petersburg troll farm bought 3,000 ads across 470 popular pages to deliberately damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump—and the fact that most Americans believe Trump tried to obstruct the subsequent investigation into foreign meddling in the 2016 presidential election—the Trump ecosystem continues to seize on journalistic errors as evidence of complete narrative falsehood despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And it's working in the White House's favor: Despite the press' adversarial role, its public standing has never been worse.

But despite its political inflection, most of the "fake news" deployed on Facebook isn't done so with the intent of shifting the existing political status quo; it's to sow doubt and undermine trust around anything. "If everybody always lies to you," as Hannah Arendt once wrote, "the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. And with such a people you can then do what you please."

Indeed, it's the "do[ing] what you please" that's the concern to many here. Consider the exclusion of the term "transgender" from CDC paperwork: While the move sends a symbolic message that transgender isn't a "legitimate" identity in the eyes of the state, it also has real-life consequences for transgender Americans. The CDC doesn't have a complete picture of issues like suicide among transgender youth because the death certificates sampled by the organization's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey don't include gender identity. As a result, the CDC assesses the estimated 41 percent of transgender Americans who have attempted suicide through the National Violent Death Reporting System, which samples data from only 32 states with wildly different jurisdictions and standards for documenting gender identity. It's almost impossible for the government to actually address an issue if it has no idea of the size and scope of the problem in the first place.

The same logic applies to "fetus," an easy target for pro-life activists who have pursued aggressive language in state-level laws that could ostensibly restrict abortion rights. And there could be further implications: As the Verge points out, the ban on the term may create unexpected difficulties for research surrounding the Zika virus and its characteristic symptoms of microcephaly in unborn children. But the ramifications of the ban also extend to such topics of research as toxic stress across socioeconomic groups, a phenomenon that may help explain behavioral problems and long-term economic outcomes among certain demographic groups; with the CDC's ban on "vulnerable" populations and issues involving "entitlement," the country's top health organ is effectively positing that economics don't affect public-health outcomes.

The CDC's word ban represents not just a deliberate perversion of politically charged language, but the deliberate erasure of certain concepts—and people—from the bureaucratic categories that are channels for state power. In the United States government, real power is shaped on forms and figures, and should transgender or "vulnerable" Americans find themselves erased from bureaucratic language, they'll be without care or recourse.