Henningsen: Dangerous Words

Jan 8, 2018

When cultural historian Kenneth Clark sought to highlight the most representative example of the 18th century Enlightenment, he singled out a twenty-eight volume French reference work with the unwieldy title Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. It was an extraordinary accomplishment - a readily accessible summary of the range of human knowledge at the time.

But Clark was less interested in the “what” of the Encyclopedia Dictionary, impressive though it was, than in the “why” – its purpose - which its editor, Denis Diderot, maintained was to help people learn for themselves and thus “change the way people think.” Here, said the historian, lay its real impact:
“[A]uthoritarian governments don’t like dictionaries,” Clark observed, “They live by lies and bamboozling abstractions, and can’t afford to have words accurately defined.”

Twice, the work was suppressed; twice it survived to perpetuate the Enlightenment and fuel the French Revolution.

This story assumed new resonance for me when the Trump Administration sought to prevent the Centers for Disease Control from using seven words or phrases in official documents related to their budget. They are: “diversity”, “entitlement”, “evidence-based”, “fetus”, “science-based”, “transgender”, and “vulnerable.” In some cases, the CDC was given alternate language: in place of “evidence-based” or “science-based”, for example, it should say “The CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

Apparently, if the evidence doesn’t reflect or conform to those standards and wishes it must be ignored or denied.

When our government seeks to suppress knowledge that challenges its power, we’re in trouble. A confident, vibrant democracy is a safe place for unsafe ideas, a place where, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” To deny or suppress evidence isn’t leadership – it’s cowardice. And it’s dangerous.

One thing is certain: Bad as it is, such silencing only works in the short term. Like Diderot’s Encyclopedia, truth survives. As historian Whitney Griswold once observed:
“Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas," he concluded, "is better ideas.”

But better ideas take work. And that’s where we come in.