How something is referred to can drastically change the way that thing is ultimately perceived by the general public. It’s a tactic used in politics all the time in order to sway public opinion against a new initiative or for it, depending on the goals of the speaker.
For example, in a 2009 memo from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, the way in which he suggests Republicans talk about healthcare has defined the conversation even today, four years later. Words have tremendous power and how we refer to something can color the way people feel about it.
This is a lesson not lost on Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. According to Philly.com, that mayor’s office will be issuing an ordinance that all of those who’ve served time in prison in Philadelphia will no longer be referred to as “ex-offenders” in official city communications. Instead they will be referred to as “returning citizens.”
It’s an old story: a person is convicted of a crime, does their time, and then is released into a world where they are increasingly alienated and their criminal past precludes them from obtaining any honest work. Many private companies have explicit policies preventing their hiring managers from employing those convicted of felonies or other serious crimes. Mayor Nutter and his administration is hoping to both change the way those released from prison see themselves and their perception in the community-at-large.
The rationale—at least from a language point-of-view—makes sense. “Ex-offender” suggests that even though the person in question served their time, that their offense is still an intrinsic part of their identity. “Returning citizens,” however, suggests that someone’s criminal past, is just that—in the past.
Of course, simply changing this term does not address all of the problems that lead to high incarceration rates or those with recidivism, but it’s a first step. In America, perception can be everything.