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What’s In a Name?

September 22, 2011

Post by Steve Nelson

The name debate …  to those focused on the actual work of making people’s lives better, discussions about  the names we use can seem like such a frustrating detail. But these little name debates are sneaky. They can be funny at times and as annoying as mosquitoes in June at
others. And at times, especially when we’re not paying attention to the harm we might be doing, the sting goes much deeper.

One example from my past: A restaurant I worked in during my
teen years insisted on calling us “waitrons.”  I suppose someone thought it up as a way to avoid gender-focused phrases such as waiters and waitresses but it always reminded me of something you’d call a robot. “Danger Will Robinson! Your coffee may be too hot!”  We joked about it, but I
did wonder if “waitrons” was an indicator of how they thought of us at that
particular restaurant – essentially food dispensers.

Sometimes the use or misuse of a name can be downright dangerous.  In Rwanda and Burundi, the origins and present meanings of the terms “hutu” and “tutsi” are not very clear at all. Originally, they probably meant “dirt farmer” and “cow herder.”  Over the centuries, the terms evolved into a class system – the peasants and the artistocracy. Then European colonizers came in and decreed that the Hutu and Tutsi were actually two races of people, despite few consistent physical differences. In this context, extremists on both sides found justification for thinking of the other as a lesser human being. By the 1970s and again in the 1990s the terms were reasons for genocide – using machetes to hack off neighbors’ heads and burning people alive.  While the genocides of Rwanda and Burundi are certainly extreme examples, they do make it
clear that language can help shape thinking and cause great harm, intentionally or otherwise.

That gets me to the name debate in the re-entry community. Over the years, those who have committed felony level crimes and have been incarcerated for them have been called many names, with most encouraging societal fear, hatred or disgust. A few examples include “Convicts” (or that media favorite, “Cons”), “Felons”,  “Prisoners”, “Inmates”, “Thugs”, “Losers” and of course, “Criminals.”  The terms have varying degrees of accuracy, but they are undeniably effective in separating this group of people from the rest of society – focusing on one aspect of their identities – their misdeeds and punishment, to refer to the whole person.

As Amicus Senior Vice President Russel Balenger asks, “How would you feel if, every day of your life, people referred to you by the worst act you ever committed?”

The term most often used by the corrections industry and many others is “Offender.” It is meant to remind us that those with felony convictions have offended society’s codes. Those who use the term refer to it as one which is sensitive to those
harmed by someone’s crimes  –  reminding the community about who was in the wrong and why they are being punished.

If anything, the term, “offender” is remarkably effective – tempting to use even to those of us who know it’s not perfect. We’re busy people and we gravitate toward “shorthand” in most aspects of our lives. “Offender” rolls off the tongue efficiently. It identifies the group you’re referring to and you can get on to the point of the communication. But there’s a problem here.

If words have power, and I believe they do, might we not be increasing the odds of someone “offending” again by constantly reinforcing their image of themselves as an “offender” or even an “ex-offender”?  There are many factors at play in determining whether someone is likely to re-offend, but “attitudes, beliefs and values” are almost always high on the list. Doesn’t the name we use to label someone play into that?

Sometimes the name debate generates new terms that can be a little bulky, but useful in the right circumstance. Sometimes re-entry focused nonprofits will use a term such as “Minnesotans with a Criminal Record,” to emphasize that, first and foremost, this group of people is part of our community. I love the idea but try saying that label three times, quickly!

Sometimes I’ll also use a phrase such as “those seeking a second chance,” but when you think about it, who among us isn’t seeking a second chance at one time or another?

At this point, I’d like to turn this post over to you for your opinions. Do you think the name matters? What terms do you think best describe someone convicted of a crime who is looking to rejoin society? What terms do you feel are most harmful?

Please comment!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 2, 2011 5:13 pm

    As a contributing writer to the blog, I feel I must mention that I am very partial to the topic of ex-offenders before submitting my reply.

    There is no one way one can refer to an ex-offender that would be comfortable. “Why”, I have wondered, “do we spend so much time trying to label something? Why not just accept that at times, there will be mistakes and just accept that.”

    Its as though we are always trying to figure out how the “other” is different from us. As though in the process of naming, somehow one is protected from being anything “like” the “other”.

    So in response to your question, someone who commits a crime should be referred to by their “own” name. No other name should be assigned to them. No label placed on them. They are a person with a first and last name. With unique qualities and circumstance that are an integral part of the community. The suggestion therefore it to use “Their Name” to describe an ex-offender.

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