A Criminal by Words: The Language That Causes Behavioral Confirmation

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

America in the 21st century has a large number of criminals and people who experience incarceration. Almost 3 percent of the population suffer this experience, some only for a specific amount of time, others a lifetime. for the ones that live the background for a lifetime. It can start at a young age sometimes at the age of 12, with the terms delinquent, “gangbanger” or “criminal” from their families, community, or the justice system itself.

The words or “titles” that we are given to us from the start of childhood to the early and mid-adulthood can dramatically affect the actions we take in our daily lives. If we are young, these terms can describe unwanted and possible rowdy childish behavior that can be harmless. But then if a prolonged series of poorly chosen words slip out or are used from a person of cultivating authority in the child’s life like a parent or school counselor could turn the child’s action, thoughts, and beliefs about themself, to become adversarial. The child’s activities at first could be harmless like simple disobedience in the classroom, or the lack of playing well with others. But if an untrained teacher called them a delinquent for it might not do anything, but if that same teacher says it again and again, then the likelihood of the child believing increases and could start to think they’re one.

A cycle begins, and the child could and most often will start changing his or her actions based on that title more natural rowdy childish behavior to that of delinquency. First, in the classroom and then outside the school, after being caught in delinquent behavior, a poorly disciplined counselor in the heat of a passionate conversation of intervention toward the child, starts to use words of emotion. Then unknowingly turns the name from “delinquent” to “deviant” and then if this repeatedly happens from “deviant” to “criminal.”

this child’s actions change from that of a student to that of a criminal if left unchecked causes the child to pick the response that they are perceived to have The title criminal. Because if you call someone something long enough, the likelihood of them becoming that is astonishing. The sad part is the behavior of that child who perhaps is of student age now becomes a product of years of misunderstood behavior that could have been changed by the right word, is now marked with a title that can deteriorate the life of the holder. This is called behavioral Confirmation “Behavioral confirmation is a type of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby people’s social expectations lead them to behave in ways that cause others to confirm their expectations.”

“The process becomes a way of stimulating and evoking the very traits that are complained of. . . The person becomes the thing he is described as being The community expects him to live up to his [deviant] reputation, and will not credit him if he does not live up to it” (Tannenbaum, 1938, pp. 19–20; 477). that is the same for people on the older side of life 18 to 43. In some cases, no age is immune. The deviant or criminal titles and words we give for an adult can be more devastating in some ways, especially if that person is a convicted criminal, even more so if said person is a convicted felon.

society, employment, and education stigmatize that title like the Scarlett letter of yesteryear which only cements the ideology of that criminals are uninhabited in a healthy community, this happens when society uncaringly uses words like criminals and felons to title people who have done such crimes but who may don’t live that lifestyle anymore which could over time cause them to turn back to criminal behavior because that is the only way people see them in their community. A product of their environment, the community’s opinion becomes a vicious and unwarranted search and seizure into the mind of the offender invading the most private domain.

So how do we curtail this outward pandemic attacking the person’s self-worth or identity? Well, the best way is language, and more importantly, compassionate language, according to a national organization about humanizing the language about people who have been involved with the criminal justice system, is The Osborne Association.

“We ask you to join us in using thoughtful language when working with or speaking about people who have some prior criminal justice involvement.” According to The Osborne Association’s website: “too often, people who come home from prison are all-too-accustomed to being called strongly negative terms that easily and often evoke precisely the dehumanizing and demoralizing effect desired by those who speak them. Words such as these negate the fuller identity of the person, who may be a child, a parent, a student, a teacher, an advocate, and more.”

The Osborne Association went further in saying, “They hurt the individuals who hear them and the families of people who are in prison. Osborne joins with other organizations to say that this language is no longer acceptable in a society that believes in second chances.” If we are a society of second chances, then we should implement this compassionate language when referring to people involved or allegedly involved on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. Not only does this help the person with the dehumanizing title, but it also helps us in how we change the future of our community for the better. Together we can help curve crime, the taboos of criminal titles, and help those who are disarray because of this unequal justice system.

A possible example of how we could change our language is to use the term person in the title instead of just the action. instead of using the word “felon.” We should use the phrase people who have felony convictions, and we can use this same phrasing for inmates. We should not use the term inmates, we should use the phrase people who are experiencing incarceration or “Incarcerated people.” this type of language not only humanizes the person. By using the word people, but also the lengthening, the title makes it harder for people to use the term as a “one-word” fleeting insult to disparage the person with this unfortunate background. Together with if we can help to implement this language, we can change the way people look at these people and make them more human so they can start to live productive and meaningful lives.



Bay Area-based writer and content creator. Focusing on media and politics

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C.R. Pattison

Bay Area-based writer and content creator. Focusing on media and politics