If you are working to influence change, understanding how and why things happen is a fundamental component of ensuring future work leads to improvements, the improvements you say you want to see. I’ve been doing various assignments lately and the research has led to some important discoveries. So, I’ve decided to raise some important issues in regards to the stigmatising langue ‘we’ use in pursuit of our ‘positive change’ work. Let’s be clear from the start, for as long as you continue to use stigmatising language , you will never accomplish your positive change. You may do, on a minimal scale, for individuals and for your own self-worth, but for most of you reading this, I am sure your aims are to see this change on a social and political level.
So, let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room – this blog, and this call to action, comes to you from an ex-offender and the child of drug addicts. Now, how many people have you experienced within a work environment that would completely dismiss the whole blog, as soon as they read the statement about the author? In that same thought, how many people have you encountered within a work environment, that have attempted to explain equality, diversity and inclusion to you, from their privileged status and zero experience of ever being oppressed? Similarly, have you ever heard someone at work say ‘they don’t like being called ex-offenders, buts that’s what they are’? Or, have you ever justified your own use of stigmatising language because some people self-identify as that? If so, you have a personal and professional responsibility to learn how you are complicit in the oppression of those you stigmatise, and what you can do to stop this behaviour. You know, just how we coach and mentor those ‘offenders’ out of offending. We can mentor ourselves out of oppressing those who we pretend to fight for equality for!
I imagine that most of you reading this blog either work in, or have a keen interest in the criminal justice system. On the same note, I assume that most readers will have an idea of labelling theory, the self-fulfilling prophesy and stigma. I would also think that many of you will have idea of desistance theories and how personal identify impacts on reaching a place of desistance.
Do you also keep up-to-date with government policy, criminal justice news and current prison debate? Have you read the Female Offender Strategy, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act? Have you been to conferences where the ‘lived experience’ speaker is introduced as an ex-prisoner or read a report where ‘the lived experience’ team are thanked, rather than their names? Have you ever considered how all of these examples perpetuate exclusion?
Does your work have underpinning values of equal citizenship, of equal rights and inclusion for all?
Historically, stigma(ta) was a punitive practice of branding cattle or making the body of slaves and criminals, for means of identifying ‘the other’, a visible mark of ‘deviance’. Today, we use labels to stigmatise, although calling someone an ‘ex-offender’ doesn’t visibly mark them, it invisibly contributes to their exclusion within society by associating them with deviance. This of course, is not by accident. We are wrapped up in a false idea of systems believing in rehabilitation, the very same systems that continue to stigmatise us with the langue they use in their policies, strategies and speeches. The very same system which claims a belief in people’s ability to chance, but place requirements on some to forever disclose a past conviction. The very same system that uses the desistance evidence base to produce it’s strategies, but ignores the fundamental aspect of macro-recognition of identity change.
To make sense of this, let’s consider stigma as a political and social tool of exclusion. The language that we use to describe people impacts upon their social capital, when we identity people using stigmatising language we are limiting their social capital and increasing their risk of discrimination. On a personal level, when we use ‘ex-offender’ we are linking the ‘current’ to the ‘past’ thus not recognising a change in identify, apart from saying ‘they used to be an offender but they aren’t anymore’. Before you use the term ‘ex-offender’ do you ask if the person identifies as such? Even so, do you understand the broader social and political consequences of using the term and do you question why someone may self-identify as an ex-offender?
Stigma is a form of ‘marking’ to exclude, stigma functions through labelling, so when you use stigmatising language you are ‘marking’ someone, those marks will contribute to their exclusion… get it?
Now let’s consider who creates labels, if we return back to the punitive practice of stigma(ta), branding and marking of slaves, cattle and criminals, this was done to identify ‘ownership’ by those in power. Historically, people who committed crimes had the crime tattooed on their forehead, ‘thief’ – every time that person looked in the mirror they are reminded that they are a ‘thief’ and reminded that someone else had the power to mark their face with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion.
The power to mark a person with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion.
Stigma as a political and social tool to perpetuate exclusion, this is where we begin to see how government policy such as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act has the power to mark a person with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion. This again can be seen in news reports, which love a good ‘name and shame’ crime story, who have the power to mark a person with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion.
Here may be a good opportunity to address the definition of violence
“the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” (World Health Organisation)
Key in understanding how stigma is a form of violence – The intentional use of power, against a person or group, that results in psychological harm or deprivation.
The stigmatising language used in political speech, news reports, conferences, criminal justice reports and so on, can be defined as the intention use of power, against a person or group, that results in psychological harm or deprivation.
Have you ever acknowledged contributions to work by thanking the ex-offenders, have you ever identified some-one at a conference either in person or on the speakers list as an ‘ex-offender’ – have you contributed evidence to policy and strategy which uses ‘offender’ in the title? Have you ever considered that you are complicit in systemic violence again a group of people? Have you ever considered that you are abusing your power, while suggesting you work towards power balance? Have you ever considered that the langue you use to identify people is a political and social tool used to keep the oppressed ‘controlled’ and ‘in their place’?
Have you ever considered eradicating stigmatising language from your professional vocabulary and requesting others to do the same?