U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services erased 300 years of American dreaming this week when it revised its stated purpose from securing “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” to securing “the homeland” — and, of course, “honoring our values.” The shift is hard to miss: No longer will the country focus on letting people in. Instead, it will work to keep them out. But words are just words, right?
Wrong. How we talk influences how we think; that shouldn’t come as news to anyone. Linguists seized long ago on the theory that the terms we’ve been trained to describe the world with affect how we see that world. Eliminating an idea from the lexicon makes us less likely to devote mental space or energy to it. After all, if it’s not right in front of us, it’s easy for it to flee our often flitting minds. In this case, USCIS is replacing one idea with another and, at least over time, reshaping our conception of the agency’s role — and perhaps of the United States’ relationship to immigration more generally.
The narrative of the United States as a nation of immigrants, of course, was always more aspirational than accurate. For every person who sought these shores out and arrived to a warm welcome, there was another who was brought here in chains, or who couldn’t get through the door, or who got through and years later was locked up in an internment camp. But still, we were working on it. Now, if the Trump administration has its way, we’re not even going to talk about trying anymore.
It’s not the first time the administration has attempted this trick. At the Environmental Protection Agency, a political operative fresh from the Trump campaign trail has instructed grant officers to eliminate “the double C-word” — he means “climate change” — from solicitations before sending them out. The phrase is disappearing from the agency’s website, too, to “reflect the views of the leadership,” and some of its scientists weren’t allowed to present on the topic at a recent conference. An EPA intern spent her summer removing mentions of climate change from social media accounts.
This stifling of speech comes not only in the form of dictates from the top. This fall, the Internet flew into a fury when The Post reported the “banning” of seven terms at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” As it turned out, the terms (especially the last two) weren’t exactly “banned”; officials were playing politics, aiming to please conservative budgeteers who would have associated the not-so-dirty words with liberal objectives.
Either that’s reassuring, or it’s just the opposite. These civil servants knew that the way to win over the folks with the money was to tweak their terminology, which only underscores the power of words to manipulate thought. And now they’ve abandoned a set of words based in scientific truth. Whether or not they received the funding they were after, the CDC ceded control of the facts to a White House that has labored to wipe them away. Self-censorship is censorship, too.
When the EPA tries to make its employees shut up about climate change, or when CDC employees take it into their own hands to play into the administrations’, it alters the culture within and without. It’s much harder to do your job when you’re not allowed to speak the language that defines it. Researchers may shy from “controversial” topics for fear of reprimand, or they may simply become discouraged. And the Americans watching — especially those who weren’t already engaged trying to stop the world from warming, or to fight for disenfranchised populations — may not take threats as seriously when the most powerful voices in the country have ceased discussing them.
So far, the pushback to the Trump administration’s language games has focused on science. That makes sense; it’s scary to see the government mess with American minds on matters of academic fact. But the USCIS mission overhaul is scary, too, and its goal is the same: By changing words, the White House hopes to change the country.