A Reflection on a Webinar on Language, Incarceration, Community, and Respect

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On April 21, 2021, I took part in a webinar titled “The Words We Use to Cover Criminal Justice, Jails and Prisons.” The Poynter Institute (https://www.poynter.org/) offered this webinar. The institute, which has been around for more than 45 years, is dedicated to supporting and improving journalism. They offer an array of classes on everything from fact-checking to monetizing content, with prices ranging from the hundreds of dollars to free.

This one was free, which is one of the reasons I took it. I’m a writer, editor, and teacher, and recently I’ve run into several instances where I was responsible for addressing issues of diversity and inclusion in new ways. I was looking for classes to help me do this better — in a more informed and responsible fashion.

I was also curious. I’d thought a moderate amount policing and justice, but to be honest, I don’t think I’d ever given much thought to how I talked about or thought about incarcerated individuals. Okay, no thought. I was a blank slate, and didn’t even know this was an issue.

This webinar was, therefore, an eyeopener. Start with the presentation. Like many of us, I have Zoom fatigue after this last year, but facilitators Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride kept the presentation focused and moving along, and presenters Laurence Bartley, Alexandra Cox, and Akiba Solomon did a good job of three things that sometimes clashed: sharing their experience, explaining complex concepts, and standing up for themselves to negotiate the complex set of pressures they faced, pressures ranging from the mundane issues like having a focused discussion over Zoom to the more complex need to push for space to speak up for important issues.

For all that there were five speakers, the webinar fit together like a good essay: it had a central focus, and a few critical takeaways. The speakers made a number of points:

People tend to use certain language to refer to individuals who are or have been part of the justice system (such as “prisoners” and “inmates”).

They consider this language accurate, neutral, and precise.

They’re wrong. Such language is inaccurate and damaging, because it is static, dehumanizing, and prejudicial.

This matters because the language people use shapes policy, action, and expectations: we treat people differently when we talk about them this way.

The idea that this language matters was supported and illustrated with several examples, ranging from the direct and personal to the more general and statistical.

This matters even more because a surprisingly large percentage of the American population is or has been part of the justice system.

There are alternatives to this language. Part of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to improve journalism about criminal justice, is The Language Project. The Language Project addresses the issue of language through educating people and providing alternatives to damaging existing language.

As I said, this is a subject I hadn’t thought much about, and so had no rigid beliefs for this webinar to trigger or challenge. However, in the weeks since the webinar, the arguments, and, more often, the specific examples of how using language this way hurts millions of vulnerable Americans, have worked like slow motion depth charges in my psyche. I’ll be walking down the street, and examples from the webinar replay as part of my inner dialogue. And then I’ll cock my head and say, “Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that. You know, I think they’re right.”

And I do (think they’re right), so I think you should check out The Marshall Project. And, if you’re looking to improve your journalistic writing, check out the Poynton Institute.

Award-winning poet and story writer (https://beattytales.com/), PhD in English, assistant pit bull, keppa to rockstars. Specialist in doughnut math.

Because the First Date Was a True Stinker…

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

I’ve had some boring dates, dates where it only took a few minutes for us both to realize there was no match or interest on either side.

I’ve had some failed dates, dates where crazy clashed with hormones to see if I had had any judgment at all.

But as far as truly bad dates, there’s one that really stands out. It was also the single most embarrassing moment in my life, but it was— and I want to make this absolutely clear — not my fault.

Let me set the scene for you. It was my first year of…

The Post-Trump Republican Party and the Mutation of Metaphor

money in a toilet bowl
money in a toilet bowl
Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

In addition to killing thousands of people, the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States was a great blow to the country’s soul. People were in pain, such pain that many voices declared that irony was over, and there was no place for comedy or laughter.

In time people healed, and both snark and jokes eventually returned to public discourse. Now, though, we face a similar rupture in our collective mindset. Similar, but stranger.

The juxtaposition of two events creates an X that marks the spot where this rupture is happening.

And that’s dangerous for the rest of us.

Flames and “Welcome to Hell.”
Flames and “Welcome to Hell.”
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Former Speaker of the House John Boehner recently released On the House: A Washington Memoir. In this book, Boehner reflects on his extensive political career, and spills the dirt on the wide array of political characters he worked with.

He shares observations on the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and snarks at figures like Michelle Bachman (as he should). However, he saves his harshest comments for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who he fries in the book and in interviews and commentary he has shared since the book’s existence was made public.


And I say this as someone who loathes him

Stickers of “I Voted” message
Stickers of “I Voted” message
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Several times since the multi-faceted scandal has exploded around Representative Matt Gaetz, he has publicly stated he will not resign.

I loathe the man, and until now, I have agreed with him on nothing. However, I agree with him on this: he should not resign.

There are three reasons for this.

First, there is a chance, however slim, that Matt Gaetz did not do anything illegal. At this point, given the multiple report of his illegal drug use, the accounts of Gaetz and colleague Joel Greenberg visiting a closed tax office…

A nostalgic personal essay

train tracks heading into a curve
train tracks heading into a curve
Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

I get on the train in Toledo, Ohio. I have a footlocker, a suitcase, and a duffel. It is August, and I’m going to college in Texas.

I stow my big bags and find a seat, hauling my duffel after me. I’ve traveled before, with my family and school groups, but this is my first solo trip. I nod to my seat mate and wrap myself in a tight little ball, excited and afraid. I can’t wait for the next things to happen, but they are so new…I shake my head.

I look up. She’s walking…

Chinese food
Chinese food
Photo by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

“I feel like we’ve seen all of this a thousand times,” Shelley said. “You know, in the movies.”

The others with her in the hospital room all nodded or murmured their agreement. They weren’t just being polite. There were countless movies featuring a lovely woman — in this case, Shelley’s sister Becca — lying motionless in a hospital bed, while her loved ones kept watch, waiting, and hoping, for her to recover from her coma.

Just like in the most sentimental movies, they had brought flowers, pictures, and gifts. Just like in the movies, they sat with their sister, aunt…

statue of Justice
statue of Justice
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As former President Donald Trump heads in to his record-setting second impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, it is essential to remember one thing: if you are a conservative, you cannot support Donald Trump in any way, shape, or form.

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A Salute to the Republican Accountability Project

People walking uphill.
People walking uphill.
Photo by Fabrizio Conti on Unsplash

America likes winners. Oh, we cheer for the underdog, but only if they eventually come from behind and win. We don’t have much time for losers. However, I’m going to spend my time here praising a campaign of failure and futility. I’m talking about the Republican Accountability Project.

Greg Beatty

Award-winning poet and story writer (https://beattytales.com/), PhD in English, assistant pit bull, keppa to rockstars. Specialist in doughnut math.

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