Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of Italian studies and history at New York University, is author of the forthcoming book “Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall.”
The strongman knows that it starts with words. He uses them early on to test out his plans to expand and personalize executive power on political elites, the press and the public, watching their reactions as they arrange into the timeless categories of allies, enemies and those who help him by remaining silent. Some say the strongman is all bluster, but he takes words seriously, including the issue of which ones should be banned.
That’s why those who study authoritarian regimes or have had the misfortune to live under one may find something deeply familiar about the Trump administration’s decision to bar officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from using certain words (“vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based”). The administration’s refusal to give any rationale for the order, and the pressure it places on CDC employees, have a political meaning that transcends its specific content and context. The decision as a whole links to a larger history of how language is used as a tool of state repression.
Authoritarians have always used language policies to bring state power and their cults of personality to bear on everyday life. Such policies affect not merely what we can say and write at work and in public, but also our expression of who we are as individuals and as members of that private institution the state tries so hard to breach: the family. We may be ordered to add new words to our vocabulary for public use, as when Germans had to greet colleagues and friends with a “Heil Hitler.” Benito Mussolini banned common foreign words such as “cocktail” and “chauffeur” as part of fascist campaigns of cultural autarky and Italianization. Italians who spoke Slovenian and other Slavic languages had to change their names (and even family tombstones). The same applied to Zairians who were affected by Mobutu Sese Seko’s anti-colonial “authenticity” policies.
The strongman fears language as a symbol of identity and creator of community bonds. That’s why he attempts to use it instead to sow unease and discord among his people, and to erase from the public record what and whom he rejects from the nation. The Hitler salute and salutation, writes Tilman Allert, “took a normal social situation and imbued it with the threat of sanction and punishment.” Through altering how we use language, such rulers aim to change the way we think about ourselves and about others. The weaker our sentiments of solidarity and humanity become – or the stronger our impulse to compromise them under pressure – the easier it is for authoritarians to find partners to carry out their repressive policies.
It’s no surprise, then, to see the word “vulnerable” on the Trump administration list. Its ban simply codifies an informal emotional training Trump has been giving Americans since his presidential campaign. His crusade to mobilize hatred and mistrust for the media, judiciary, and other sectors of society that value documentation and inquiry has gotten the most attention (and is perfectly expressed in the ban on the terms “evidence-based” and “science-based”). Yet President Trump has also been encouraging us to unlearn feelings of care and empathy that lead us to help and feel solidarity with others.
Banning words works together with another language game authoritarians play: floating extreme ideas to make them acceptable to mainstream audiences. Often, this is done through casual or “humorous” remarks, but there’s no kidding about their impact when they spark news cycles or are circulated by the leader to his millions of followers.
The context for the banning of “transgender” is enlightening in this regard. Trump’s linguistic ban follows his attempt at physically removing America’s LBGTQ populations from the military. As The Washington Post has reported, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS, the same agency that produced the banned words list) has already excised them bureaucratically by deleting all information about LGBTQ Americans from its website. Trump took this process one step further in October, when he “joked” that Vice President Mike Pence wants to “hang gays,” conjuring a state-sanctioned physical persecution. Days later, anti-gay posters that showed bodies hanging from a noose appeared on college campuses and social media feeds. Words matter.
Matt Lloyd, DHHS spokesman, may deny that the government has “banned words,” claiming this is a “mischaracterization of the discussions regarding the budget formulation process.” Even if the ongoing outcry among scientists and others leads to the order being rescinded, the message has been sent: the Trump administration now feels empowered to engage in direct censorship. Indeed, each word on that list is part of an ongoing war about the future of our democratic rights to speak and research freely, to control our own bodies and identities, and to live without fear of being targeted by the state because of our faith, skin color, or sexual orientation.
Like all authoritarians, Trump uses language as intimidation. He’s warned us clearly what he plans to do. It’s up to all of us to tell him, with our words, that we won’t be silent. The time to speak out and encourage others to do the same is now.