Have you noticed how a word’s meaning can change over time and with usage? There are some real obvious examples like “gay,” but there have also been some subtler changes. How about a word’s implications becoming different?
Certain words have had certain connotations attached to them. Almost like meanings by association. Then all of a sudden they start meaning different things, or the connotations have changed concerning their usage. Sometimes this happens without any transition period at all.
In some case this abrupt change is deliberate in an attempt to co-opt the words previous inference. This is usually done by politicians who are seeking to make actions more palatable or lend them an air of legitimacy. It’s also a very effective means of disguising a true agenda.
One word that has gone through just such a switch is “reform.” Before ploughing into this potential mine field, let’s start with basics. Here’s the definition as supplied by Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary:
reform: (transitive verb) To make better by removing abuses, altering, etc. 2. To improve morally; persuade or educate to a better life. 3. To give up sin or error; become better.
reform: (transitive and intransitive verb) To form again
Well, that’s straightforward enough. It either means to makes something better, or to rebuild it. But for most of us, the meaning usually falls into the first camp, with all the moral and social baggage that it carries. That, of course, is where the trouble begins. There are a few differences of opinion when it comes to matters of making things better.
Going back to the time of Martin Luther, there is an example of one of the first morality-based reform movements (they even named the time period “The Reformation”). Starting in the early 1500’s and continuing into the 1600’s, the term refers to the establishment of Protestant faiths.
Martin Luther was a Saxon born scholar who became disgusted with what he saw as the corruption of the Church. He is most famous for nailing a list of 96 reforms to the door of a church as an act of defiance. What his hammer blows set in motion would affect the course of European history for hundreds of years to come (and would create the circumstances for the migration of the Mayflower 100 or so years later).
He saw a need to change the way in which the Roman Catholic church conducted its business. But when they refused to reform what he considered misconduct, he decided to reform the church under a new name and with a different set of rules (hence the Lutheran church).
The Reformation took hold in many countries for a variety of reasons, often from the desire to reform what they saw as a corrupt system to one that better served its constituents. It was also the beginning of an upsurge in nationalism, as some countries and states were more then happy to get out from under the thumb of the Catholic Church and govern themselves according to civil codes rather than the laws of the Vatican.
Henry the Eighth was one of those. When the pope refused to approve an annulment for a failed marriage, he decided it was time for a change. He created the Church of England, which would be headed, as it still is, by the Crown of England.
The Reformation is seen as a time of liberalisation from the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church. Previously scientific research had worked within the constraints of doctrine. (The potential for being burned at the stake has a way of influencing what you publish.) The success of this reform would lead the way for further changes in other areas of life.
World events that were occurring simultaneously were giving rise to a new class of people. The continued expansion of trade routes and the opening of new markets birthed a new moneyed class who had not been born to wealth. As merchants and others gained clout, they demanded reforms in governance that would allow for more public say in the rule of countries.
This began the onset of political reforms that were to mark the next two to three hundred years of European and world history. The English Civil War was both political and religious. The Parliamentarians, led by Cromwell, were seeking more say in the running of the country as well as a decrease in what they saw as undue Catholic influence on British life.
Both the American and French Revolutions of the late 1770’s were driven by a need to reform systems deemed unfair by the populace. In America, the heavy taxes imposed upon the colonists by Britain to fund her wars were seen as an insult to the people who had worked so hard to secure the land for the Empire.
When Britain continued to ignore their demands for fairer taxation, self rule became the obvious conclusion for obtaining the desired reforms. As with the French, a complete rebuilding was required to achieve results. While America was successful with its attempt in building a republic, France was not so lucky. It wouldn’t be for another hundred years that they would be able to complete their reforms.
With the middle class firmly entrenched in the political system, and the move towards more representational government on an unstoppable path, social reforms began to take precedence in the minds of people. The first target was the slave trade.
Reformers calling themselves abolitionists pressured governments through a variety of means up to and including armed insurrection as in the case of John Brown in the U. S. By the 1850’s, they had successfully stopped the trading of slaves, and with the exception of states in the southern parts of America, ended the practice of slave ownership.
The end of the 1800s saw the birth of the next great wave of reforms that would carry over well into the twentieth century. This was the fight to establish better conditions for the people that toiled in the factories and mines that had fueled the Industrial Revolution. At first the province of liberal minded individuals within the ruling class who worked to alleviate the suffering of individuals who dwelt in the slums of the cities, it gradually spread into all areas of society.
Unions sprang up to organize workers to ensure safe working conditions and decent wages. Pressure was brought to bear to ban the use of child labour and create a standardised work day. It was also during this time that the suffragette movement was born. With the increased role women were taking in society, they wanted more say in how things were run, which meant being awarded the right to vote.
Two German thinkers, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, were busy at this time devising a system of government which called for the redistribution of wealth to allow for the proper rewarding of the people who worked in the factories. The Communist Manifesto became the blueprint for the failed attempt at reform that was Communist Russia, and for other states that would refer to themselves as workers’ paradises (the majority of which seem to have been less liberal in their reforms then so-called capitalist states).
The twentieth century has continued the tradition of liberal reforms. From Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Johnson and Kennedy Civil Rights Act, the social safety net was strengthened, and equality under the law was ensured. Other countries around the world have followed suit in guaranteeing their citizens a certain quality of life.
Since the 1500’s, the word reform has denoted acts of liberalization. In the minds of most people, when they hear the word “reform,” they think of making things better for society as a whole in a “liberal” manner. But in the late 1980’s, something happened and reform became the byword of conservative politicians and thinkers.
Reforming welfare didn’t mean making sure it kept up with the inflation and the increases in the cost of living, it meant slashing the amount of money given to those who were unable to find jobs. Health care reform in Canada meant de-listing procedures that were deemed non essential, firing nurses, closing hospitals, and generally reducing the quality of care.
Reforming education meant increasing class sizes, closing schools, cutting “extras” like music, theatre, and special education. It also meant reducing funding to universities (which forced them to increase tuition) while the government was also eliminating educational grants for low income earners.
Across the board, reform meant turning back the clock on gains made in the past thirty years that had made society fairer and more just, programming that had been implemented to level the playing field between those born with financial advantages and those not were now considered non essential. The rights of workers and tenants were eroded in favour of landlords and employers.
Technically speaking, the word hasn’t changed. It still means exactly what the definition says it means. But now, when a person says he or she is a reformer, you can’t be sure what is meant. The spirit of the word has been changed from how hundreds of years of usage had defined it to something else entirely. By using the word “reform,” a link was implied to the actions of our ancestors that does not exist. They may believe that their actions are for the betterment of society, but it appears to only benefit a few, not the common good.
That’s not the spirit of reform as I understand it, nor as history has defined it.