Home > Dictionary > Word for Wednesday: Reform (repost)

Word for Wednesday: Reform (repost)

May 9th, 2013

Back in the early days of this blog, I was working on the idea of a new political dictionary, and made a start with a “Word for Wednesday” series. One of them is relevant to this comment from Megan, about whether we should put scare quotes around the word “reform”, to describe policies, advocated as beneficial reforms, but which we believe to be harmful. My general practice on this blog is not to use scare quotes, and I explain why.

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

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  1. kevin1
    May 9th, 2013 at 07:20 | #1

    Top-down initiatives to change general usage of reform lack credence, but restoring the lost hyphen grabs the reader’s attention and may remove the implied approval, if supported in context. Sports journos get this – as in “Buddy to re-sign” versus its opposite “resign”. Political reform, often preceded by “far-reaching”, is a verbal currency so devalued now as to discredit the speaker, especially when uttered by dills like Joe Ludwig or Brendan O’Connor.

  2. Ikonoclast
    May 9th, 2013 at 08:09 | #2

    Of course, words do change in meaning over time. A simple example is “prevent”.

    pre·vent (pr-vnt)
    v. pre·vent·ed, pre·vent·ing, pre·vents
    1. To keep from happening: took steps to prevent the strike.
    2. To keep (someone) from doing something; impede: prevented us from winning.
    3. Archaic To anticipate or counter in advance.
    4. Archaic To come before; precede.

    In Shakespeare usages may be found as in “run, prevent him now” (from memory) which in context mean “run, get there before him”. Or “So Caesar may./ Then, lest he may, prevent.”
    which some study guides translate as “Caesar might act like that. Therefore, in case he does, we must hold him back.”, when it is more likely Shakespeare intended usage (3) “To anticipate or counter in advance.” Though we can certainly see how usage 3 can easily transmute into useage 2. However some subtleties and nuances are lost. “Prevent” comes to mean simply “stop” whereas the old “prevent” was more complex with tones of anticipation and the sly countering moves more appropriate to politics (and even the irony that the sly countering move will be a dagger).

    “Reform” comes via Old French from Latin reform?re “to form again.” Again, shifts in meaning are understandable. To “form again” perhaps literally meant “form again to the same form” when something had crumbled or gone out of shape. In an age where progress and revolution were becoming more obvious to everyone, the very notion of forming again to the same form would have seemed a contradiction in terms. Forming again would almost inevitably entail a sense of new form to meet new conditions.

    I think the attempt to reform “reform” as above is academically motivated; the wish for a value neutral term with a more precise meaning than the range of colluquial meanings. J.Q. says;

    “Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.”

    He will need to do that in his articles, papers and books where such an approach is feasible. In conversation, one will have to remain more aware of the nuances. I prefer “reform” to mean “progressive reform” from my perspective and I term other uses as “regression” or “regressive”.

    I think language matters in the battle of ideas. I abhor what I see as manipulative language imperialism where the neocon oppressors reappropriate words which have had a received meaning for two or three hundred years. They then mangle the word back to an opposite meaning whilst attempting to appear in progressive new clothes. It’s quite 1984-ish and all of a piece with “pacification” and collateral damage” and other such terms.

  3. Ikonoclast
    May 9th, 2013 at 08:13 | #3

    Oops, of course language matters in the battle of ideas. One could hardly have a battle of ideas without it. I meant “nuances of language matter”.

  4. kevin1
    May 9th, 2013 at 08:37 | #4

    Since the news yesterday that the 4 biggest miners now have $6b (I think) of MRRT credits in their kick & will be paying zip for some years, perhaps we can term that policy a failed tax reform rather than tax regression which implies something else. And Wayne Swan was previously a lecturer in management.

  5. sunshine
    May 9th, 2013 at 10:45 | #5

    I like scare quotes . They help contest language and meaning . Language is power – your conclusions are limited by the terms of your thought . Michel Foucault – ‘language both constrains and enables thought ‘. Jacques Derrida -‘there is nothing outside the text’ . Conservatives contest and change meaning all the time , eg: they like to get people thinking they are always merely increasing our choices (work choices ). I think the level of change by deliberate social engineering achieved by neocons is underestimated. Activist ,government ,tax ,protestor, political, academic and deficit are now dirty words .

    Self interest is most glorious . We must make the most of our lives – squeezing everything we can from it while we can .If you aren’t maximising your own consumption (of things or experiences) then you are failing to live an authentic life – failing in an(the ?) essential way .Taken to be natural by us ,has this consumptive self definition been the norm in any other culture or any other time ?

  6. Vance
    May 9th, 2013 at 11:13 | #6

    A history of “reform” (not scare quotes) from the Reformation! An unexpected delight in the day’s reading.

  7. Sancho
    May 9th, 2013 at 12:02 | #7
  8. Jim Birch
    May 9th, 2013 at 15:19 | #8


    Conservatives contest and change meaning all the time , eg: they like to get people thinking they are always merely increasing our choices (work choices ).

    I think it’s not quite that simple: everyone does it and your personal radar is involved in spin detection. Medicare was not named functionally as Australian Socialised Medicine which is what it was (and then you would have to actually figure out if it was a good idea.) A chunk of perceptions come in a simple dumb way from from a name and it is reasonable to accentuate the reflexively positive “care” aspect of the program rather than the bureaucracy and taxation side. Not only reasonable, but you could be failing in your duties if you didn’t pick names that enhance a program’s chance of success.

    The difference between the right and the left in this regard is more one of what constitutes a psychologically positive term. Those of the left probably prefer “care” over “choice”; on the right right “choice” is more of a rallying term. Libertarians perhaps, appear to not mind if they go to hell in a handbasket provided they feel they have personally chosen the handbasket with heroic free will.

    A problem with any name is that it tends to substitute for analysis. A further problem with the term “Work Choices” is it is, to the extent that two nouns thrown together constitute a description or an argument, a flat out lie. It should be called as such.

  9. Fran Barlow
    May 9th, 2013 at 17:34 | #9

    Putting aside the liefe of the word “reform” as a weael word for augmenting the privilege and class power of the boss class …

    for me “reform” is, in a neutral sense, associated with incremental or continuous change to systems, rather than new paradigms or discontinuous change — to use the organisational communications term.

  10. May 9th, 2013 at 20:57 | #10

    I consider the term scare quotes, itself, to be a tool designed to pass a nudge-nudge-wink-wink value judgment. As noted above, it’s all very circular like 1984’s “Newspeak”.

    Destroying the language is an integral component of the tactics used to destroy democracy.

    It keeps moving around. It works just like dog-whistling. Next we’ll move on and invent a term like scare italics to make us self-conscious when trying to discuss important things using language to its best effect.

  11. Ikonoclast
    May 10th, 2013 at 04:37 | #11

    I agree with sunshine.

    “I think the level of change by deliberate social engineering achieved by neocons is underestimated. Activist ,government ,tax ,protestor, political, academic and deficit are now dirty words .”

    I think of them as “irony quotes”. When I write “workplace reform” I being ironical or satirical. When I say it, nobody can mistake the debunking tone in my voice.

  12. sunshine
    May 10th, 2013 at 08:58 | #12

    The new budgetary reality seeping into the popular mind now may be an opportunity for some positive change .Its good to see conservatives being forced to think of government money given to the financially better off as welfare – even if that presupposes the term to be negative .

    Jim B is correct that no language is neutral .A big problem is that neocon language is now so widespread and accepted as natural. When did sporting teams start needing mission statements, and to sell and grow their brand ? I think the dominant paradigm(s) can probably be defeated on their own terms -eg; show the results of their efforts wont be more freedom and choice ( or like that welfare example ). Maybe thats the quickest and easiest way ,easier than always getting bogged down on trying to get someone to change specific terms of their language. But contesting meaning of terms is still important .Hopefully language will incrementally change back our way .

    Conservatives like A Bolt use the terms ‘scare quotes’ and ‘politically correct’ to shut down debate .

  13. Hanrahan
    May 10th, 2013 at 11:32 | #13
  14. Ootz
    May 10th, 2013 at 14:06 | #14

    Hanrahan’s fascinating ‘time capsule’ from two years ago prompts me to share my own Reform moment this morning in a supermarket queue.

    Me: (prompted by repeated corporate coaching to move over to the self-checkout line)
    “I would like to stay here, to keep that lady on the till employed”

    Reply by corporate coach:
    “Thant is fine, if you are prepared to wait.”

    I was not alone – people in the queu verbally and not least by their behaviour, agreed with me. How would such behaviour get coded by the corporation?

  15. may
    May 10th, 2013 at 15:34 | #15

    the rationalisers big con?

    “user pays”

    isn’t that a loverly little bit of obfuscating obviousness.

    the best bit of the phrase is the assumption that the “services” to be paid for come from the goodness of the heart of the “providers”.

    that thatchers non-existant “society” has actually sorted out the payment via a social contract called (heaven,god and the lord forbid) “taxes”,doesn’t enter the picture.

    taxes are bad,bad,bad because the “market” can do business in any personal contingency and if you can’t pay then that means you have be selected out and for the good of the market and every right thinking true believer and need to just go away and stop bothering the efficiency dividend.

    “user pays?”

    we already have paid…..here we have in a nutshell the divide between people who quite like seeing the public purse that everybody contributes to via “taxes”(and no-one gets away without contributing) make sure the place we live is not a hell of a locked in self selected high cash parasites claiming rights (rites?)of superiority.

    health,education,public amenity are not the result of overwhelming market force.
    but the application of public monies distributed through a conduit of governance reliant on the elected governments of the day.

    “user pays ?”

    if you have the money to provide yourself with amenities over and above the normal (for Australia )publically funded neccessities then go for it.
    if you manage to do well in a society that makes sure every one has access to a life where personal abilities are not stifled by closed off avenues of advancement.
    good on you.

    but don’t pretend that your well being is a result of some kind of isolated genius.
    there are plenty of people of genius in a well rounded society who contribute without piling up the assets.

    and don’t try to say that because your contribution is so conspicuous that the contributions and needs of others are of no account.

    “user pays?”

    we have already paid.

  16. May 10th, 2013 at 18:32 | #16

    I don’t know about scare quotes, but I always put the around “skeptic”. Its just my shorthand for “fake skeptic”.

  17. May 11th, 2013 at 23:27 | #17

    There happens to be this wingnut article that for some reason a fair proportion of the population are gullible enough to call ‘Mr. Abbott’.

    I’ve heard him talk about reform.
    Believe me when I say that his idea of reform is something like bringing back the bastinado.
    Well google is there for anyone interested.
    But back to reform.
    Any citizen of a democracy would have a reasonable expectation that, even with a change of government, the situation created by the previous administration would hold weight.
    That for the continuance of governance – no great turnback would happen simply to suit the immediate greed of the new set of bludgers taking over.

    Which is exactly why I mention that.

    There was this geeky looking little twerp from queensland who somehow managed to sell howard down the tube back in 2007.
    He managed that with the gift of the gab and, I’d imagine, at fair cost to himself.

    The dullards of this country (it isn’t by any means a nation) sat silently on their butts and watched corrupt factions in his own party stage a coup to dismiss him from office.
    So we wait for the silent majority (those with no brains or subtlety whatsoever) to cast their protest vote against those traitors to their own cause.

    Yet the result of their protest vote is definitely going to result in an outcome having the bogan class screaming about betrayal in jig time.
    The amusing thing is that abbott is likely to inherit an economy that’ll be pretty much curling up like a dead spider.
    He’ll inherit an economy in a country that has systematically destroyed any indigenous activity of any sort of merit whatsoever.
    I would submit that any opposition with any brains at all should back off from this next election – let the laborites win again – watch ‘em pull another coup and send Gillard back to Wales.
    We do need reform – ‘cos there are going to be massive sackings in the mining industry.
    We need reform in result of thousands of ex-ADF personnel lately employed in mining walking the streets..
    It will not be very funny.

    Yep. If I was Abbott I’d back off and wait for collapse and the hope of a double dissolution in the next year.

    But by then Turnbull, once again, might have started to roar.

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