I know I am, but what are you?

By Will Mingus . . . As a child, I was taught the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”

But that’s not really true, is it? Ask any child who’s been the recipient of verbal attacks from bullies, or even friends, and you’ll know that words can, in fact, hurt. A lot.

A well-aimed assault with words can leave someone fighting back tears, angry and sad all at the same time, ready for fisticuffs. As a defense, a child might try to reflect the insult with a pithy retort like, “I know you are, but what am I?”

But even worse than the immediate sting of being called some horrible name is the tendency people have to begin to believe what they hear if they hear it enough. The resolute defense begins to melt until the meek voice concedes the fight with a timid, “I know I am, but what are you?”

Long into adulthood, the effects can be heard in phrases like, “Oh, look what I’ve done! I’m so stupid,” or “Wasn’t that dumb of me?” or “Don’t take my picture. No one wants to see ME!” Self-deprecation bolsters the inner voice that has accepted as truth the lies of childhood name-calling.

Name-calling is effective because it wraps up a host of negative connotations into a simple word or a simple phrase. Without having to resort to long-winded rants, we can cut someone to the quick by uttering a simple word that is imbued with inferences and meaning. A “faggot” is just a bundle of sticks until the word is co-opted with alternate meaning intended to bring into question one’s adherence to long-standing sexual norms of heterosexuality. When one is called a “faggot” in our culture, that person is not likely to wonder if they were just referred to as a bundle of sticks. Instead, the message is clear to anyone who hears the word. And it is meant to hurt.

Sociologist Howard Becker noted, “The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied.” And nothing indicates the successful application of a label as much as when a person begins to use the label to refer to him or herself.

People love to label things. It simplifies their lives. Because each label carries with it so many embedded assumptions, there is no need to clarify further other than to state the label. There is no need to say, “The building where they cook food and serve it to people who come in, sit down, eat, and then pay for the meal and the service.” Instead, we just need to say, “a restaurant.” Instead of telling people you are going to “a big building where there’s lots of sick people and doctors and nurses and medicine where they try to make people feel better,” you just tell them you’re going to the hospital. Such is the power of a word that when you say hospital, it conjures in the minds of others images of sick people, doctors, nurses, and medicine.

Such is the power of a word that even common, every-day words can be warped into a pejorative. When you accuse a boy or a man of “hitting like a girl,” it evokes a stereotype of women as gentle and meek and thus becomes an insult to one’s masculinity. To call one a “faggot” is to suggest a perversion and, in many cultures and sub-cultures, a socially-unacceptable deviance. A single word can do more damage than a litany of explanation.

And so it is with people on a registry. The purpose of a public registry is to “name and shame” a person, imbuing them with a host of characteristics that are assumed in the assigned label. People are labeled as “sex offender” or “murderer” or “arsonist” or some other name that is designed to suggest that a person is, in fact, that label. To say the word does not convey the idea that a person “did” something in their past but instead insinuates that they are a person who did, and always will do, something. It is a way to successfully apply a label to a person.

The reality is that the label is applied so often, and by so many people, that those who are on the registry often tacitly accept the moniker as reality. Just like the child who believes he really is dumb because he’s heard it said so often, people on a registry often come to believe that they are, in fact, what everyone says they are.

But like any junk science, these alternative facts simply are not true. A person does not become what he did in the worst moment of his life. We live a linear existence where it is impossible to go back in time and undo what we’ve done, no matter how much we wish we could. Thus our past makes up a part of who we are, but it does not—and must not—define the essence of our being.

It is time for all of us to stop repeating the labels that are associated with being on a registry. It is time to banish words like “sex offender” or “arsonist” or “murderer” and start using “people first” language. Labeling words are more than just classifications. They are laden with negative connotations and stereotypes, and they never accurately reflect the totality of a human being. These labels suggest that there are, in fact, people who are only and nothing more than that label. But as humans, we are always so much more. We are fathers and mothers and brothers and friends, students and lovers and wives and so much more. A person can never be only what is implied by a simple label.

Because it is in our nature to contrive labels, some have begun to use labels like “registrant” or “registered citizen.” The problem with these labels is that they are still labels and, as such, continue to carry with them the negative connotations of those labels. They continue to make the registry the primary focus of a person’s existence, swapping one label for another.

This is where the power of “people-first” language comes in. We are all people, humans, homo sapiens. We are set apart by our ability for self-reflection and our ability to adapt and change. Above and before anything else, we are people. No amount of name-calling can demote someone from the status of “human.”

So I suggest that there are no “sex offenders” or “arsonists” or “murderers.” Instead, there are people on public registries who have committed offenses and paid their debts to society — people who refuse to be labeled by their worst moments.

I’ll concede that it is easier, and quicker, to use the label. After all, it’s more work to say, “people on registries” or “a person who committed this offense or that.” But in the end, I believe the extra work, and the extra words, are worth the effort if it means greater clarity. And if we continue to refer to ourselves with these pejorative labels, how can we ever hope to convince others to stop using them?

a guest writer

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