OPINION: CDC's new 'preferred terms' list mimics universities' restrictive speech guides

The CDC's "preferred terms" for specific groups mirrors the speech guides used by colleges.

This guide shows that the CDC's actions are being shaped by the type of attitudes toward speech prevalent on American campuses.

A new “preferred terms” guide from the Centers for Disease Control tells people to avoid terms like “elderly,” “homeless,” “biologically female,” and many more terms that are used to describe the human condition. Gone, too, are the words “smoker,” in favor of “person who smokes,” and “stakeholder."

At Campus Reform, we instantly recognized the format and content of this guide as a direct mirror of content that has been pushed for years by universities that use guides similar to this as a means of controlling speech. 

One could be forgiven for dismissing this as a frivolous nod to the woke left, or a harmless attempt at politeness that instead is just plain weird. But the CDC’s attempt at inclusive language inherently excludes commonly-accepted, inoffensive words that scientists and laypeople use to describe themselves and the people around them. If the CDC is going to be a scientific authority, it should be encouraging scientists to use precise language instead of wonky euphemisms designed to obscure the truth.

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The CDC's language guide is clearly taking its cues from college speech guides. The CDC tells people not to say the word "illegal immigrant;" the University of New Hampshire said the same six years ago. The CDC tells people not to use the word "homosexual;" Florida International University said the same, per a report published just weeks ago. The Biden administration says "birthing people" instead of mothers; Harvard Medical School was doing this a year ago. (The University of Pittsburgh followed suit, and Columbia University Medical School went as far as calling biological women "people with uteruses." Bad ideas about language are contagious.)

The CDC's health communication hub makes no secret of its connection to university language guides. On its resource page, the CDC's guide links to the University of New Hampshire guide, as well as guides from the University of California - San Francisco, Tulane University, and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities. 

Of course, we can, and should, speak kindly and correctly. For example, the University of New Hampshire is smart to caution against using "healthy" as the opposite of "disabled," because people with disabilities certainly can be in good health. 

It is when language guides advocate for meaningless euphemisms that hide facts instead of highlighting them that there is a problem.

It should come as no surprise that the linguistic oddities of college leftists would make their way into the highest levels of government. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky spent nearly a decade as a Professor of Medicine at Harvard; the head of laboratory science and safety used to teach at Washington University St. Louis. The CDC's top brass has advanced degrees from a laundry list of elite institutions. And this is not a bad thing! 

To the contrary, every American should want the CDC to be staffed by the top experts in their fields. The problem arises when the culture of soft language created by academia runs up against the hard truths of medical science. 

Right now, the future leaders of the CDC and every government entity are sitting in college classrooms, absorbing not just knowledge but habits, vocabulary, and more that they will carry with them throughout their careers. The students who are programmed to speak in euphemisms not only take those habits with them into the workforce, but they also go on to preach the merits of Newspeak to other people, and in their workplaces. This language guide from the CDC is one of the first concrete and clear-cut examples of this happening.  

The preferred terms list denies not only biological realities, but legal ones as well, by telling readers not to use the term "illegal immigrant." This, too, is another term that has fallen out of favor on college campuses. But the fact remains that some people do come to this country illegally. We can argue day in and day out over public policy, but that debate has no merit if it does not acknowledge the existence of people in this country who immigrated illegally.

The push to change the way we speak and write is not new. It is also not helpful. Speech guides like this one accomplish nothing outside of making their proponents feel better about themselves. No homeless person’s life is made better by calling them a “person experiencing homelessness.” The lives of the poorest Americans are not made any better by calling them “people with self-reported income in the lowest income bracket.” No alcoholic is moved a millimeter closer to recovery by calling them a “person with alcohol use disorder.” This country will never be able to fix serious problems like homelessness, poverty and addiction if we cannot talk about them honestly.

Truly inclusive language is language that is accessible to all, that is clear and easy to understand. The CDC seems to know this: On a page titled "Using a Health Equity Lens," which is part of the same publication as the preferred terms guide, the agency writes, "Not all members of your audience of focus may have the same level of literacy...Use active verbs and plain language so that all members of your audience can understand the information." 

Public health communication is important - too important to limit to only those who understand wokespeak. 

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It is particularly troubling to see a scientific institution abandon words that describe fundamental truths about human life, all because they relate to gender. I’m no scientific expert, but I do remember 5th grade biology class, which taught us that some members of a species are born in female bodies and others are born in male bodies. This is how the world works. The terms “biologically female” and “biologically male” describe scientific facts, and someone being offended by these words does not make them less factual. Scientists should be using these terms, and the CDC’s campaign against them proves that it is prioritizing politics over science.  

After a year and a half marked by several missteps, the CDC has a long way to go to rebuild public trust. Removing a plainly political speech guide would be a common-sense place to start. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito