We all know words have power. Take the vocabulary of incarceration – the stigmatizing way we speak about people who have served time. Studies show that the words we choose – “felon,” “ex-convict” or “ex-offender” – present a significant barrier to reintegration.
While people are certainly responsible for their actions, there is little room for change when their actions completely define them.
That’s why federal officials are trying to change the lexicon, so that people who’ve served time for their crimes have a better chance of being seen as human beings, re-entering mainstream society and contributing to our society and economy. The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs announced it would no longer use those terms but would instead use “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated.” The department is trying to set an example for society at large.
Some may see these new terms as clumsy and a reflection of “politically correctness,” but the idea is to avoid defining people by the worst moment of their lives and, according to Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, “solidify the principles of individual redemption and second chances that our society stands for.”
Eddie Ellis, a former prisoner and prominent criminal justice advocate who died in 2014, said in a widely read public letter, “The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me,” he wrote, “is that I begin to believe it myself, ‘for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’”
A similar, verbal transformation is underway for people with intellectual disabilities. Terms like idiot, imbecile, cretin, feebleminded, moron, and retarded are offensive now, but were once quite acceptable – led by the medical and scientific community. For years, the preferred term was “idiot.” By the 1950s, the accepted term had become “mentally retarded.”
But now, instead of words that carry the perception of people who are broken, defective or “other,” our linguistic evolution leads us to the notion that disability does not define people; they are human beings with an intellectual disability.
Think of it this way: What if people with heart problems were always called “cardio-defectives” rather than people with heart problems. In the first instance, the person’s whole identity is inseparable from the physical problem. In the second case, the person is a person… with a problem. And we all have those. Big difference.
Call it what you will, but we’ve reached a time when labeling people in ways that take away their humanity is considered wrong, politically or otherwise. Words matter because the perceptions they create become reality. Society is always changing, so words and people must change, too.