Date of Writing : 22/02/2015
Many times in my life I have found myself at some kind of social function – perhaps where I’m little known; maybe standing a little awkwardly near the buffet with a paper plate in one hand and a plastic cup in the other; and perhaps exchanging pleasantries on the crispiness of the spring rolls and how this can be used as a barometer for the quality of the catering – when my new acquaintance will ask what on the face of it seems a fairly innocuous question: “so what is it you do, then?” I confess to having used similar phraseology myself on occasion, and I’m not suggesting it to be fundamentally impertinent, but let’s analyse for a moment the thinking behind the enquiry.
If asked very early in the discourse, then such a question is in essence a shortcut: it’s designed to elicit a concise response that will be used as a preliminary synopsis of one’s entire being. At its most brutal, it could be re-expressed more honestly as “tell me why I should continue talking to you”, but of course most people’s intentions are more genial. Nonetheless, even when asked in the most anodyne mode, the query betrays something that seems elemental to human nature: the need to label and categorise.
We can find ourselves uncomfortably adrift without some sense of how a person fits into our world view, and to seek an initial label based on their current employment provides a starting point for our own internal sorting algorithms. Try these: bartender, bus driver, doctor, hairdresser, bin man, lawyer, lumberjack … I’m sure each produces a picture of some sort; each gives a sketch of levels of wealth and intelligence, social background, and perhaps even personality. Whether we like it or not, we all have stereotypes associated with labels. We can’t help it, it’s human. We need this shorthand partly because it’s simply not possible to fit a complete understanding of another person into one’s head, and generalities give us something to work with.
There are, however, two ways we can use a label: either as a very provisional starting point from which to establish further information and understanding, or as a blunt bisecting instrument that divides people into the ultimate base categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s only possible to do the latter if we allow someone to be defined by – or even essentially to become – the label itself. This can exclude any possibility of nuance in character or subtlety of motivation, and can provide a convenient and comforting fiction with which we might shield ourselves from the inconvenient complexities of reality. Whatever the negative aspects of our own character, we can find solace in pointing at ‘the other’ and saying, “ he is bad”, which of course by implication has the ellipsis “I am good”.
Such simplistic dualism may seem like the preserve of popular cinema – where the bad guy is recognisable by his facial scarring, hollowed-out mountain lair, and/or generic East European accent, whereas the good guy is singular in his fine looks, dashing character, and propensity to always win (leaving aside for a moment his misogynistic sense of sexual entitlement) – but society is in reality pervaded by it. The tabloids tell us who to hate, blame, or fear – Isis, Putin, immigrants, Katie Hopkins – but they wouldn’t sell if we weren’t already open to the principle of dualistic categorisation. The broadsheets are far from blameless in this regard, and their labelling and pointing can in fact be more insidious with its between-the-lines assumptions that are all but invisible because of the their very ubiquity. A fish doesn’t notice the water it swims in, and we live in a sea of simplifications, categorisations and labels that are continually presented to us through not just the printed word, but through every medium.
This brings me to a point somewhat close to home: the labelling of ‘criminals’. I’m a criminal – at least if you take the OED definition – and you’re most likely not a criminal (with apologies to those of you who are). Me and you. Us and them. There’s obviously something fundamentally different about me: I’m the sort of person who commits crimes and goes to prison, and you’re a law-abiding citizen. Forgive me for seeming to put words in your mouth to make my point, as I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. I would be astounded if you could tell me in all honesty that you had never committed a crime. Perhaps it was just a little speeding, or maybe you once stole from the Pick-n-Mix in Woolworths. Maybe you even have a dark secret you hope to take to the grave, that would see you put away for a long time, were it discovered. More likely there’s something else, somewhere in-between, but I doubt that you’ve committed no crimes at all. So, despite my label, you and I probably have more in common than some would like to believe. I confessed to my crimes, and you – to put it crudely – just haven’t been caught. I don’t suppose it’s likely you’d be due a particularly severe sentence should your juvenile larceny be uncovered, but I labour this point to highlight the existence of a continuum that cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy.
On a day-to-day basis, my conversations are with burglars, armed robbers, drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. I live with ‘these people’: I sit down to eat with them, I share jokes with them, and I’ve recently started playing badminton with them. Only this afternoon, I helped someone who killed a member of his own family, with the mundane task of adding up the costs of a catalogue order. Over the last year, I’ve met pretty much every kind of criminal, from petty thieves to those detained indeterminately for the sake of public protection. Some have appeared on the local news before arriving in a nearby cell, and some I’ve helped to console after they were vilified in the National press. Some are unrepentant or objectionable, but most are not.
I have as much in common with these people as I would with any other arbitrarily selected group. They – or rather we – are people like any other, with hopes and fears, families and friends, and complex internal lives. We have made mistakes, chosen bad paths, or perhaps suffered from psychological problems, but there is nothing fundamentally different about us. If you’ve read this far, then I’m probably preaching to the converted, for which I apologise. I shall come, therefore, to the core of the point I’m trying to make: words are limited and imprecise, and rarely – if indeed ever – are they able to express whole truths.
We recently won a small battle in this prison that may on the face of it seem a strange one. After much wrangling, a decree has been issued that we are to be called ‘prisoners’, and not the previously ubiquitous term ‘offenders’. The objections to the label ‘offender’ are twofold. Firstly, a significant fraction of prisoners here are maintaining their innocence, and so object to the constant reference to offences they claim not to have committed. The second and probably more important objection, is that an ‘offender’ is ‘someone who offends’. Even if a person has committed offences in the past, the label ‘offender’ is very much active and in the present tense, suggesting that they are liable to offend again at any moment. It’s a label that attempts to define us by our past, and to put us clearly at the sharp end of a pointing finger. The term ‘prisoner’ is of course itself still a label, and as such should not be trusted. However, it at least has its basis in simple fact: we are undeniably held in prison. Although I would of course prefer to just be called by my name really.
I’ll finish with a parable. The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriarch Juineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.” The patriarch responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.” Said the nun: “You cannot even recognise the characters? How are you able then to understand the meaning?” He replied, “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”