On January 20, the nightmarish apparition of the Trump presidency was shifted, thankfully, to our rearview mirror. As weeks turn into months, this image continues shrinking though never fast enough. Fortunately, the Biden administration’s commitment to “building back better” is serving as a catalyst to propel America forward beyond the dark ages of Donald Trump as quickly as practical.
Much of this overdue transformation involves concrete action such as sweeping legislation, consequential executive orders, and skilled foreign policy. But the words we use following the example that is set for us at the top also play a pivotal role. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made clear in February: “The President has been clear to all of us—words matter, tone matters and civility matters.”
Gone is the brash torrent of petty insults, the spiteful nicknames, and the arrogant drivel that littered the most infamous Twitter account in history before it was shut down “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” In its place are websites replete with LGBTQ references, the return of the Spanish version of WhiteHouse.gov, and official documents that include acknowledgements of climate change and more gender-inclusive language.
Biden is also going a significant step beyond changing words on websites and documents by aiming to remove inaccurate, hurtful, and outdated phrases from our longstanding law. For example, not only did officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services advise employees against using the word “alien” in mid-February, but Biden is seeking to formally replace “alien” with “noncitizen” in his proposed overhaul of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
Disturbing new reporting yesterday from the Washington Post reveals that Trump administration officials cheered like mischievous children when they learned that government agencies succumbed to pressure to change language in a way that would kill Americans. In one instance, when CDC leaders apparently rewrote the opening of reports to conform to Trump’s “it’s no big deal” message about the coronavirus, Paul Alexander, the so-called science advisor behind the deadly propaganda effort, e-mailed his boss: “small victory but a victory nonetheless and yippee!!!”
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” Taking the reins after a twice-impeached, anti-environment, white supremacist insurrectionist let a pandemic rage out of control, President Biden and his new administration have a mandate to turn the world upside down. Through bold action reinforced by positive, respectful, and accurate language, they are succeeding.