A political tempest arose last week when the Washington Post reported that the Department of Health and Human Services had banned the use of certain words or phrases—“vulnerable,” “science-based,” and “entitlements,” among others—in official budget documents. National Affairs editor Yuval Levin debunked the story, though, finding instead that bureaucrats concerned about offending Republican budget overseers had, in fact, decided to censor themselves. If so, that suggests that the bureaucrats have been reading their George Orwell, who observed in his classic essay Politics and the English Language that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes”; they are sharp enough to realize that even neutral terms can constitute mini-arguments. Each of the terms in question—and a great many more—have been weaponized for use in political conflict.
“Vulnerable,” for example, is a substitute for “poor” or “low-income,” but it usually suggests that the person in question should not be considered in any way responsible for his or her situation, because social conditions that transcend individual action have stacked the deck adversely. “Science-based” is a pithy way to characterize the views of one’s political opponents as ignorant or superstitious. The belief that climate change will prove catastrophic is said to be science-based; any view that minimizes the risk constitutes “denial,” another noun that has become an argument. The widely used “entitlement” has also become an argument. The idea that all citizens are “entitled” to certain forms of financial support—checks for those above a certain age, health insurance for those below a certain income—implies no other way of seeing the situation. Those who would change the way entitlements are disbursed, then, are impinging on rights, not programs.
Other examples abound. “Disadvantaged” describes low-income children—while implying that other children are advantaged—and thus that the system is unfair and violates “social justice,” another loaded term. The “homeless,” by and large, are not living on the street but are often doubled up with friends or family; they don’t have their own home, in other words. But the word-picture painted by “homeless” is more powerful. The Right plays the same game. “Death tax” as a substitute for “estate tax,” for example, characterizes a debatable policy as an immoral absurdity.
It all comes down to the importance of euphemism as a way to minimize opposition. Orwell saw it clearly in 1946:
Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”
Of course, one would not want political leaders telling public employees what words they can use—but apparently there is no need for such direction, anyway. Our bureaucrats seem quite capable of figuring out what’s “politically correct” on their own.
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