The Deleterious Label of “Bad”

First, a little bit about me…

I’m a mental health counselor. This is the result of several years of schooling with many changed decisions with respect to what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” Before I chose mental health as a profession, I was deeply entrenched in my own political beliefs, juxtaposed upon me by my fathers and forefathers with little question or doubt as to he validity of those beliefs. As my political beliefs began to be questioned outwardly and inwardly, I began down the path that many take, and chose Pre-Law as a concentration. Ultimately, I wanted to work with the Innocence Project. My goal — to help people, and change lives. I went on to work for four political candidates (two local, a congressional, and a presidential), which is when my frame of mind shifted in terms of how to help people, and change lives.

Throughout my undergraduate political science courses I was a very outspoken individual that stood in strong contrast to the many classmates who certainly did not share my worldview. I remember many debates concerning the rule of law, the purpose of law, social safety nets, and poverty. I remember quite vividly some of the debates, especially concerning the role that poverty has with respect to crime, and the relationship between poverty and race, and again with race and crime. I remember particularly the emphasis on the part of many classmates (a view that I avidly rejected, and still do), that people were poor “because they choose to be,” or “because they’re lazy.” Never-mind the correlations between poverty and crime, people commit crimes “because they’re bad people.”

I understand the perspective that many people have towards laws being broken, especially when a crime that has been committed is a particularly heinous crime. If it is one thing that I have learned, however, it is that labels can have a corrosive effect on society, and the rule of law will do little to resolve it.

It’s not about “who” is bad, but “what” is bad

A while back, I worked with this family who sought assistance because one of their children presented with some pretty intense negative behaviors, such as cussing everyone out in the family, punching siblings and parents, and destroying property. When I began working with the family, they were distraught, ready to give up. What stuck out to me was the way that they spoke about their son. “He’s a bad kid, a hoodlum, he doesn’t care, nor will he ever.” The issue, of course, was that he wasn’t a bad kid. He was, like all the rest of us, trying to wade through a laundry list of terrible experiences. His actions, however negative they may have been, or “bad”, were a result of something else that was negative, or “bad”. As a result he found some semblance of psychological equilibrium by acting the way that he did. Before ending my first session with the family, I made very clear that the kid was not a “bad” kid, or doomed to be a hoodlum, or a bad person.

Have you ever witnessed, or experienced for yourself, what happens when a person speaks too closely into a microphone? The loud squeal that ensues is a feedback loop. This is a crude example, but the same concept applies to behavior and communication patterns in families, relationships, and even politics. The kid would argue and yell at his mother, or break something so that an argument would ensue — this was his attempt at obtaining attention from his mother, who would feed into this behavior. This is a short explication of a complex situation with many other variables, and my point is not lost by redacting it.

As I continued to work with the family, I began to see a picture of events that the kid had experienced. I began to put this puzzle together with the family to help explain the kids behavior towards his family. I very carefully explained to them that an explanation was not an excuse for the kid’s behavior. This is very important to consider because as far as the parents were concerned, their child was a bad person. But as I continued to provide an explanation for why their child acted the way that he did, they began to realize that it wasn’t just him. They began to realize that they had a very important part in this cycle of behavior and communication. They began to differentiate between bad people, and bad patters. It was a slow process, but very fruitful in the end. The kid’s parents began saying things like “that was a bad thing that you did,” or “that is not productive,” or “you’re not a bad person, but breaking that plate was a bad thing to do.” The reason that this is so vital is because in the beginning, the kid was internalizing his badness. That is to say that the kid was accepting a label, juxtaposed upon him, as being truth. Because he was a bad person, therefore, there was no way to be a good person, all because he had bad behavior. So, what then was the purpose in doing the right thing, because he was a bad person. Yet another cycle. In the end, the family came out pretty well, and the kid went on to do some pretty cool things.

The Conclusion

All too often, society juxtaposes an assumption built upon shallow understanding, or built upon a perspective rooted in frustration, gives it a label, and forces it upon people that we find problematic. This is evident in the way that we tackle crime. The juxtaposition of a label entrenches an idea that people are inherently bad. The law, in many cases, institutionalizes this rationale by imposing strong punitive actions against criminals. A criminal is a person who has committed a crime. Our first instinct is to label all criminals as being bad people — which a great deal of the time is false. This mode of thinking shapes our worldview, which goes on to shape law. The law, the rule of it, and its perpetual enforcement reduces crime, but only minimally. What must change is the way in which we see crime, and we change that view by more accurately understanding the preponderance of evidence pointing to a cause.

Chicago is a good example of the complex relationship between race, poverty, and crime (particularly property crime). Inequality, which is a factor at play when discussing poverty, suffers from geographical, racial, institutional, and generational factors. Punishing criminals, and viewing criminals as being inherently bad people does little to prevent crime.

This is perspective is not a call to get rid of laws punishing those who commit crimes. It’s not a call to stop using the word “bad,” or necessarily to rid the use of the word as a label. There are bad people. I simply believe that our culture maximizes the negatives — the negative actions, the negative thoughts, the negative differences — and spends far less time utilizing an empathetic understanding and a practical concern needed to make efficient policy changes geared towards those who are more environmentally pushed towards committing a crime.

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