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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Dangers of Labeling, Elizabeth Berenguer Megale

The Dangers of Labeling
Elizabeth Berenguer Megale

            Principles of cognitive psychology teach us that labeling and categorizing objects is natural.  From the time language develops, the left brain tends to dominate right-brained activities and categorizes the world around us.  Children are encouraged to label objects through word-recognition books and exercises requiring them to choose the object that “doesn’t belong.” 

            To a certain extent, labeling and categorization are necessary to our very survival.  Daily, we must make snap decisions about the safety of our choices, and labeling helps us make those decisions quickly.  Labeling, however, can also interfere with our ability to truly live and assess the world around us because in the instant that we categorize something, we cease to “see” that something for what it truly is.  As a fundamental matter, this is why the “-isms” (sexism, racism, and others) are so dangerous and breed senseless hate.

            Let me give you an example of what I mean by “labeling.”  In her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards observed art students who struggled to draw a simple object, like an orange, when she placed the object on a table before the students.  One student remarked that she was looking at the orange, but that she could not see the orange.  What Edwards concluded was that the student failed to see the precise orange resting before her, rather the student was relying on a mental image of what an orange should be. 

Based on this conclusion, Edwards developed an exercise in upside-down drawing where students viewed the original drawing upside down and partially-covered.  This technique tricks the left-brain and prevents categorization of the object.  In turn, it permits the right-brain to assess the item for its true value.  In the context of a drawing, this means the artist begins to see the lines and negative space without identifying the object as a whole.  The end result is a nearly perfect and proportional replica of the original piece.

So, what does this mean in the context of criminal law?  If we accept the notion that crime is a construct, we can understand the potential dangers associated with the human tendency to categorize and label.  Basically, the more criminal laws that exist, the more individuals are likely to be caught in the cross-hairs and become labeled criminal.  Once labeled “criminal,” an individual is hard-pressed to overcome the stigma associated with the label because society ceases to see the person as a person; the person is now just a “criminal.”

If we focus on felons alone, we see that most jurisdictions disenfranchise convicted felons.  Thus, once labeled “felon” individuals lose the ability to participate in the political process in any sort of meaningful way.  Additionally, convicted felons often find it difficult to obtain employment because employers do not want a “criminal” working for them.  They also struggle to obtain suitable housing because landowners do not want a “criminal” living on their property. 

Other labels aside from “felon” exist.  In Florida, someone could be a Prison Releasee Reoffender, a Habitual Felony Offender, or a Habitual Violent Felony Offender.  These labels serve as a basis for seeking stricter and more severe punishment against these individuals.  Throughout the nation, anyone convicted of a sex-related crime may be required to register as a sex offender and thereafter labeled sex offender.  To an outsider, though, these labels all mean essentially the same thing: this person is really bad. 

When a society engages in a process of labeling individuals, it should continually question whether the labeling accomplishes any legitimate purpose.  Certainly, members of society as a whole may feel they are “safer” because they “know” who the “bad guys” are.  This premise is likely untrue, though.  First, if we take marginalized members of society who engage in bad behavior, punish that behavior, and later send them back into a society that no longer accepts them, we are necessarily encouraging worse behavior.  The label further marginalizes individuals who likely already struggled to find a place in society.  Therefore the labeling is likely to encourage more criminal behavior rather than less. 

As a society, our efforts would be well-spent studying the numerous causes of crime and potential responses to those causes.  Over time, increased punishment and permanent designation of individuals as criminals has failed to lower our crime rates.  Moreover, separating out individuals who have committed a crime by labeling them “criminal” seems counterproductive to our goals as a society.  Shouldn’t we want individuals to overcome their pasts, obtain gainful employment, and go on to live healthy and productive lives?  If so, we must eliminate any form of continued punishment associated with the label “criminal.”

Elizabeth Berenguer Megale
Assistant Professor of Law
Barry University School of Law
*References available upon request. 

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