Edited by Nigel Warburton
Become a Friend of Aeon to save articles and enjoy other exclusive benefitsSupport Aeon
Debates about people who have committed crimes are littered with epithets. We brand people as offenders, criminals, crooks, felons, convicts, lawbreakers, outlaws and delinquents. We label those who spend time in prison jailbirds and yardbirds. And we call those who’ve completed their sentences ex-offenders, ex-convicts and ex-cons. We also apply more specific epithets to people for particular offences, such as thief, murderer, rapist, sex offender, paedophile and serial killer. Even conscientious newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian use these labels liberally, with headlines such as: ‘Prison Nurse Accused of Sexually Assaulting Convicted Rapist’, ‘To Catch a Rapist’, ‘How Not to Raise a Rapist’, ‘Sex Offender Village’, ‘Sex Offenders Gain Right To Appeal Against Registration’, and ‘Why Giving Polygraph Tests To Sex Offenders Is A Terrible Idea’.
In many other social areas, we have moved away from this kind of labelling. We’ve largely abandoned labels such as the autistic, the handicapped, the retarded, the disabled, the blind, the poor, and the undeserving poor. We now see just how prejudiced these labels are. We recognise that giving people such labels hides the real complexity of their situation, and limits their ability to shape their own lives. Instead, we speak now of ‘people who have autism’, ‘people who are living in poverty’, ‘people with visual impairments’, and ‘people with disabilities’.
So why use epithets in the area of crime?
One reason is that branding can be useful. Consider the red ‘A’ for adulterer worn by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850). Or consider the amputated hand of the man who stole, or a prisoner’s tattooed serial number. These punitive markers publicly identify and stigmatise transgressions. Their usefulness – at least for our ancestors who faced threats from many directions – is obvious, as is their brutality. Assuming that someone who has transgressed once poses a continuing danger was often a safer survival strategy than giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
Another reason that epithets seem justified, some might say, is that anyone who has committed a crime is responsible, unlike someone with disabilities or someone living in poverty. The argument goes that people who offend are blameworthy, culpable and liable to punishment, so we do them no injustice when we classify them by their offence, even if that offence is a one-off.
But this thinking is wrongheaded. People who offend are not always blameworthy. And, people who are blameworthy are not always criminally liable. Moreover, even when people are both blameworthy and liable, they have a life story beyond the simple fact of committing a crime. Psychology studies indicate that we are more lenient in our judgment of someone for an offence when we know the details of their story. They become to us not just a 16-year-old male who engaged in armed robbery, but the neighbours’ son, Jack, whose dad passed away two months ago, whose mother is struggling with depression, and who was beaten up at school again last week.
The life stories of many people in prison are much bleaker than this. Relative to the general population, people who are sentenced to imprisonment are far more likely to have witnessed domestic violence as children, been abused or neglected themselves, had an absent parent, been taken into care, expelled from school, have no school qualification, have learning difficulties, mental health issues or cognitive disabilities, and used Class A drugs.
This point about knowing people’s stories highlights another likely reason why we continue to use epithets to describe people who offend. It’s that we often don’t have full information about them. We hear the sensational highlights of their crime in the newspaper, but we know little or nothing about them as people, or the experiences that preceded – and might have led up to – the offence.
An exceptional story in the news recently is about an Icelandic woman, Thordis Elva, who became reconciled with the Australian man, Tom Stranger, who raped her 20 years ago. Together, they have written a book, South of Forgiveness (2016) published on Women’s Day (8 March), and recorded a TED talk. In their efforts to find peace, Elva and Stranger eschew the label rapist on the grounds that it is dehumanising. Instead, they use another, more generic epithet: perpetrator. Yet, even generic terms such as perpetrator, offender, and criminal carry two misleading connotations.
The first is that the person to whom they refer has a disposition to offend. He or she is not just guilty of an offence, but has a tendency to commit crime. Yet that might not be true.
The second connotation is that these terms pick out someone who has acted wrongly. In cases of rape, they assuredly do (that is implied in the term rape). But, not all offending against the law is wrong, so not all people correctly described as perpetrators, offenders or criminals are morally culpable. Sometimes it is perfectly permissible to break the law. Women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban offended against the law if they sought education, rode a bicycle, wore make-up or drove a car. Historically, men who had homosexual sex in Britain were deemed criminals. Moreover, sometimes offending is not only permissible, but morally impressive. Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Edward Snowden all offended with good reason against the laws of their society, and many of us would consider their actions praiseworthy.
Furthermore, according to research cited in the UK Ministry of Justice report Transforming Rehabilitation (2014), people are more likely to desist from crime if they don’t define themselves purely as an offender, but instead see themselves as basically a good person who made a mistake. By reducing people to their crimes, we see them as offenders and nothing else, and we force them to see themselves that way. Consequently, we might set up the exact conditions for them to become the kind of person who offends.
More subtly, we also give people an excuse not to try to redeem themselves. In South of Forgiveness, Elva and Stranger explore this issue. In conversation with Elva, Stranger says:
The label of rapist stuck to me as if it were my profession, one that was right there with my name, where I was born, and how old I was – the basic fundamental facts that I saw as defining me and the part I had to play in this world. The label would flash in front of me when I was idly chatting with friends. I’d think: ‘Here are these folks laughing with me. Little do they know they sit with a monster.’
Elva then writes that she clenched her jaw in discontent at this, observing that:
There’s a fine line between feeling sorry for having made a mistake and feeling sorry for yourself for having made a mistake. In my opinion, Tom crossed this line a few times in our correspondence, which left me feeling pressured to take pity on him for being the horrible, unworthy failure of a person he felt he was. Not only have I always found it ridiculous and out of place for me to pity Tom, but I also believe that if people settle into the idea that they’re beyond salvation, it hinders them from doing constructive things in their lives.
Admittedly, some people do seem to have a disposition to offend regardless of their circumstances, including, notoriously, many people who are guilty of paedophilia who, even if they are desperate to stop acting on their desires, seem unable to change their behaviour. To take just one example, Leroy Hendricks, an American man who was convicted of 14 counts of child molestation, reportedly declared that, if he were released, he would molest children again. He was eventually given a civil commitment on the ground of mental abnormality. In Hendricks’s case, we wouldn’t mischaracterise him if we labelled him an offender or, indeed, a paedophile. But potentially mischaracterising people is only one reason to dispense with reductive epithets.
Using gentler language could also make us less harsh and hateful toward people who have committed a crime. It could give us a more optimistic, charitable and humble attitude of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, whereby, in time, we let people truly disown their past conduct and redeem themselves. Of course, some crimes are so heinous as not to merit this charitable approach. But, in most cases, for anyone prepared to give people who have made mistakes a second chance, changing our language is a small but important step in overcoming a counterproductive prejudice toward people who have offended.
‘Every morning I look forward to seeing what’s in your email and there isn’t a day that goes by without reading or watching something you guys have published.
It’s like an oasis of sanity in a world gone mad.’
Jack D, USA, Friend of Aeon
‘Aeon is hands down my favourite publication to write for. Deadlines long enough to do the work justice, the best editorial input I’ve encountered and compensation which is respectful of writers’ time.’
Antonia Malchik, essayist and editor
‘Aeon is one of the liveliest, most wide-ranging and imaginative sources of good content on the web.
A fabulous resource for the intelligent and curious.’
Professor Barry C. Smith, University of London
‘Thought-provoking, eclectic, open-minded and user friendly.
Aeon is like no other site on the internet.’
Larry D, UK, Friend of Aeon
‘Aeon is my favourite online magazine.
I have found no other place that so regularly provides interesting, clear and informative articles across academic disciplines on topics that matter.’
Dr Robert J. Hartman, University of Gothenburg