Words change with time. This is natural and inevitable. It’s just how language works. But it is also convenient, especially if you can guide and even engineer the change to your sociopolitical advantage.
We find that this is common, especially with words that are morally loaded.
For example, the term “individualism” has come to signify a positive, almost virtuous attitude in our culture; yet there was a time when the term did not exist. It did not need to exist because there was already a word for that attitude: it was called egoism. Yet egoism is laden with negative connotation because it describes the vice of self-centeredness. “Individualism” became popular when society began looking upon egoism as a good thing. Thus, the negative connotations were unacceptable, but rather than strip them from the existing term (egoism), the pejorative was discarded and replaced with something new—hence the birth of “individualism”—which referred to the same attitude but was colored with positive moral undertones.
A similar process occurred with regard to political corruption in America. Bribery is an age-old crime, with harsh punishments traditionally attached to it.
Yet, in the United States, money is the driving force of politics. In a sense, bribery is the lifeblood of the system. What then? The answer is simple. We took the term ‘bribery’, which was obviously despicable in the presence of democracy, and called it something else. We began calling it lobbying, and that is what it is called today, and this explains why no one ever hears about bribery anymore. It is seen as normal and accepted without a thought.
The two examples just mentioned did occur in an organic manner. It would be difficult to pinpoint a group or organization that consciously set out to achieve it, although it obviously benefited certain groups. But we can also mention a third, more recent example, that was unquestionably a matter of well-orchestrated media manipulation.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States found itself faced with unusual problems of an extra-military nature, since it had to fight a war on an enemy that was not a nation. Among other things, this meant detaining people that were not technically members of a military force, and it also brought up questions of interrogation and what was permissible during such efforts. Waterboarding as a technique for extracting information has been around since the 1950s, and probably before that, but it emerged as a moral question for the American public, since by any standard it was a form of torture. And yet, being the ‘good guys’, it was difficult for Americans to admit to themselves that they tortured their detainees. That was something only villains do in the movies. The solution was, again, terrifyingly simple. The media outlets against the practice harped on the term ‘torture’, but the media outlets in favor of it simple started calling it ‘advanced interrogation’, which obviously could mean anything above and beyond normal interrogation, and thus enabled their viewers to virtually justify anything to their conscience without ever having to use the term ‘torture’. After all, enhanced interrogation isn’t torture, it is just interrogation, but harder.
Words will always be changing, but it is a process we ought to watch closely because it indicates moral transformations that may or may not be the result of propagandistic manipulation.