This essay, which uses the suicide of Aaron Swartz as a jumping off point for how the term “hactivist” has been manipulated by various powers, has this to say about “lexical warfare”:
I believe the debate itself is far broader than the specifics of this unhappy case, for if there was prosecutorial overreach it raises the question of whether we as a society created the enabling condition for this sort of overreach by letting the demonization of hacktivists go unanswered. Prosecutors do not work in a vacuum, after all; they are more apt to pursue cases where public discourse supports their actions. The debate thus raises an issue that, as philosopher of language, I have spent time considering: the impact of how words and terms are defined in the public sphere.
“Lexical Warfare” is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood. Our political discourse is full of such battles; it is pretty routine to find discussions of who gets to be called “Republican” (as opposed to RINO – Republican in Name Only), what “freedom” should mean, what legitimately gets to be called “rape”—and the list goes on.
Lexical warfare is important because it can be a device to marginalize individuals within their self-identified political affiliation (for example, branding RINO’s defines them as something other than true Republicans), or it can beguile us into ignoring true threats to freedom (focusing on threats from government while being blind to threats from corporations, religion and custom), and in cases in which the word in question is “rape,” the definition can have far reaching consequences for the rights of women and social policy.
Lexical warfare is not exclusively concerned with changing the definitions of words and terms—it can also work to attach either a negative or positive affect to a term. Ronald Reagan and other conservatives successfully loaded the word “liberal” with negative connotations, while enhancing the positive aura of terms like “patriot” (few today would reject the label “patriotic,” but rather argue for why they are entitled to it).
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