The Biden administration is moving rapidly to dig this country out from the noxious pile of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry the Trump administration tried to normalize in our government over the last four years.
The damage and harm that words can do should never be underestimated. And as reported by Michael D. Shear for The New York Times, the transformation underway in the nation’s newly staffed federal agencies is happening in tandem with a fundamental reboot of the words and language that actually define and guide their missions.
WASHINGTON — Days after President Biden took office, the Bureau of Land Management put a scenic landscape of a winding river at the top of its website, which during the previous administration had featured a photograph of a huge wall of coal.
At the Department of Homeland Security, the phrase “illegal alien” is being replaced with “noncitizen.” The Interior Department now makes sure that mentions of its stakeholders include “Tribal” people (with a capital “T” as preferred by Native Americans, it said). The most unpopular two words in the Trump lexicon — “climate change” — are once again appearing on government websites and in documents; officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have even begun using the hashtag #climatecrisis on Twitter.
One of the most pernicious examples of the Trump administration’s innumerable assaults on human decency during its tenure included radically revising the language our government used to perform its functions. Of course, Trump’s semi-literate tweets, rife with misspellings and punctuation or capitalization errors, were the most visible manifestation of a deliberate dumbing-down and coarsening of the language of government. His daily barrage of tweets also served the purpose of hiding the fact that Trump rarely gave press conferences which might have revealed his embarrassing lack of knowledge. Most of Trump’s tweets, although incessantly highlighted by the media, were uninformative, and fewer still were particularly original; they usually echoed or parroted an idea or statement someone else had made on Fox News.
The real assault on the language of government, however, occurred in the departments and agencies under the control of Trump’s appointees. References to “climate change,” for example, were swiftly banned from the halls of the EPA, with research papers and websites obsessively sanitized to remove their mention. The Department of Agriculture also excised “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” while the Department of Interior advised its employees to disfavor such phrases as “science-based evidence.”
But the revisionism went considerably deeper than simply advancing an anti-science, climate-denier agenda. As Karen Greenberg, writing in 2018 for Mother Jones, explained, words that suggested compassion, tolerance, or recognized diversity or inclusion were also deliberately and systemically eradicated by federal agencies; she cites an instance where officials from U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) insisted that the word “refugee” be removed from a conference program’s panel description before ICE officials would consent to appear. Similarly, references to the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants” were deleted from the mission statement of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). And as noted by The New York Times, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered Justice Department officials to use the deliberately pejorative term “illegal alien” in all of their communications “when describing someone who did not come to the United States through legal means.”
The Trump administration’s attack on language that implied tolerance toward underrepresented and marginalized populations, in particular, quickly began to affect the way agencies would draft their budget plans.
As Mother Jones’ Greenberg observed in 2018:
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, this year’s budget request carefully excluded such descriptors from its mission and purpose statement. Originally incorrectly reported as a policy decision to ban certain words from use at the agency, CDC officials were simply reading the tea leaves of the new administration and quickly ridding their budget requests of key words, now poison in Trump’s Washington, describing their mission. These were words suddenly seen as red flags when it came to the use of government funds to help the less fortunate or the discriminated against. Examples included “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus”—and with science now in disrepute for its anti-fossil-fuel findings, also discarded were the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
There is no doubt that this pervasive attempt to redefine language itself was a key focus of the Trump White House. Trump adviser Stephen Miller is quoted in the Times article as saying “the struggle over the lexicon is actually the central struggle.” Of course, he would know, since he was the driving force behind some of the administration’s most cruel and inhumane acts, such as its infamous “child separation” policy. For such policies to succeed, it was necessary to try to blunt or redirect the feelings of general horror which those policies evoked among decent Americans; setting the parameters of the language to describe them was a key component of that. Thus a practice that amounted to state-sanctioned kidnapping fell under the stern-sounding rubric of “zero tolerance.”
Control of language is a hallmark of nearly every absolutist and despotic form of government, from autocracies to all-out dictatorships. As employed to an unprecedented degree by Miller and others of his ilk, It provided a ready tool for reestablishing social norms consistent with their goals, to identify perceived enemies, as well as to denigrate those who the government deemed “undesirable.”
Greenberg put it strikingly well:
[A] bold attempt to use language as a doorway that will take us from one reality—that of the past 250 years of American history and its progression towards inclusion, diversity, equal rights for minorities, and liberty and justice for all—to another, that of an oligarchically led transformation focused on intolerance, racial and ethnic divides, discrimination, ignorance (rather than science), and the creation of a state of unparalleled heartlessness and greed.
Seen in that context, what the Biden administration is doing (as rapidly as possible) is not only necessary, but vital for the continued growth and development of this nation. Shear cites the deep-sixing of the Trump-inspired “1776 Commission” and its “Report,” which attempted to recast history through a prism of white supremacy; reinstating the credo of the Bureau of Land Management so “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of America’s public lands;” revisions to the State Department’s mission statement that had been imposed by Christian fanatic Mike Pompeo, and, overall, “stripping away the language and imagery that represented (Trump’s) anti-immigration, anti-science and anti-gay rights policies and replacing them with words and pictures that are more inclusive and better match the current president’s sensibilities.”
Language has been used and invoked to justify the most abominable acts and human impulses, but it has also served to inspire positive change, to ennoble and lift people up. It’s very clear that the Biden administration understands that distinction.