Full Reflection Post


Addressing Uncomfortable Recommendations: Perpetrators and Person-First Language

Dr. Hollie Nyseth Nzitatira

Associate Professor of Sociology

Ohio State

Type of engagement

This reflection is relevant to people engaging with government officials, policymakers, practitioners, educators, and those who experienced atrocities.

The Challenge

  • How to advocate for policy recommendations that, at face value, cause discomfort.


Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira (aka Hollie Nyseth Brehm) obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Minnesota in 2014. She is an Associate Professor of Sociology at The Ohio State University. She has studied genocide and mass atrocities for over a decade, including serving on government task forces and working with policymakers and practitioners in numerous local and international settings. In this capacity, her current research project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation examines the reentry and reintegration of Rwandans who served sentences in prisons or community service camps for crimes of genocide. Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira has been asked to share this study’s findings with various audiences, ranging from military leaders and Rwandan officials to policymakers in other contexts and survivors of genocide and related forms of violence. She has also consulted with museums regarding how to teach about genocide and mass atrocity, and she often leads teacher training seminars on these topics.

In many of these instances, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira has emphasized a core insight from her research on reentry and reintegration in Rwanda. Namely, she suggests that people talking about, writing about, or otherwise engaging with content regarding atrocities should consider using person-first language. The value of person-first language is not unprecedented. Many studies on crime in Western contexts have highlighted how refraining from crime-first terms like felon can result in lower rates of recidivism as well as positive senses of self, which in turn help prevent future violence.[1] Research has also demonstrated that focusing on the evil of an act rather than the evil of a person can aid in reintegration following violence[2] and reduce public perceptions of recidivism[3] —both of which are important for peace and stability in societies recovering from violence.

In line with this existing body of work, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira’s research findings from her work in Rwanda suggest that employing person-first language may aid reentry and reintegration following genocide. Not only do many of the Rwandans she has interviewed want to shed the labels associated with their crimes, but the individuals who simultaneously adopt alternative labels—like citizen—exhibit better psycho-social wellbeing and more pro-social behavior, which are key markers of successful reintegration.

Yet, policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and those affected by violence regularly use the term perpetrator when discussing people who commit genocide or other atrocities. For instance, Rwandans commonly employ the French term genocidaire to label these individuals, and they likewise use a Kinyarwanda term that directly translates to perpetrator—a term that can be found in textbooks, museums, and at commemorative events across Rwanda.[4]

Changing common terminology is never easy, as the use of language is highly path dependent. What is more, people who work in spaces that experienced atrocity are often deeply uncomfortable regarding changes to words like “perpetrator.” Indeed, considering the needs of people who committed genocide is often uncomfortable, and recommendations in line with this must be handled cautiously.


While Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira has engaged with numerous policymakers and practitioners in various contexts, this reflection focuses on attempting to address careful attention to language across settings. These settings include working with organizations within Rwanda as well as engaging with nonprofit organizations dedicated to preventing genocide, with government and military organizations, with museums, and with educators. In each of these spaces, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira has discussed the importance of person-first language with respect to genocide and other atrocities.

As indicated, people across an array of settings are often uncomfortable when initially presented with the idea of person-first language. For instance, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira was invited to share her results at a Senior Military Leaders Seminar in West Africa focused on the reentry and reintegration of people who had joined terror groups in the Sahel region. Prior to her talk, one of the commanding officers began the morning by stating, “We are here for another day to learn about how to defeat the enemy.” Panelists presenting prior to Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira regularly used the term “terrorist” as well. Then, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira presented on the importance of person-first language, directly addressing how terms like terrorist or enemy are problematic if reentry and reintegration—along with broader peace and stability—are core goals.

In one of many other examples, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira regularly presents to people working in nonprofit and educational spaces, often including survivors of violence or descendants of Holocaust survivors. Many of these individuals bristle at the idea of replacing the term perpetrator with person-first language as well, let alone at dedicating resources to better understanding the reentry and reintegration of people who caused such great harm.

Steps Taken to Address Issues

To mitigate issues when presenting an uncomfortable recommendation (again, in this case, to use person-first language), Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira first carefully considers the spaces in which she is making the recommendation. For instance, a commemorative event of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda would not be an appropriate venue to advocate for person-first language. Such events are brimming with emotion, and they are spaces to honor the lives that were lost, not make policy recommendations.

However, once the venue or space is deemed an appropriate space to make such a recommendation (typically, a space dedicated to learning), Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira begins by directly addressing the discomfort. Specifically, prior to making the recommendation, she describes how sometimes, research findings can be uncomfortable, but this does not mean that we should not discuss or make them. Directly addressing the discomfort is important for recognizing and validating the feelings that will likely be surfacing as people hear the subsequent recommendations. Addressing discomfort is also important to not appear tone-deaf and to ensure that those present continue to actively listen to the forthcoming content.

To then introduce the recommendation, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira typically provides general evidence about its benefits from various settings. In this case, she points to the vast amount of research on person-first language, often starting with an example from a far-removed context given that this example is less likely to induce discomfort or other emotional reactions. For instance, she may share that a study of almost 100,000 Americans found that those who courts formally labeled as felons were significantly more likely to recidivate as compared to those who were not labeled as such.[5]   She might then explain that it is well established in criminological literature that labeling people by their crimes often leads to continued engagement with crime and violence before providing another example, such as citing research on reintegrative shaming that emphasizes how viewing an act as evil yet a person as redeemable is key for reentry and reintegration efforts.

At that point, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira would share her specific research findings from Rwanda, underscoring how many people who committed genocide likewise seek to shed their labels. Moreover, she would share that the individuals in her study who did actively work to shed the label of perpetrator and who claimed other labels, such as citizen, were engaging with their communities more. As such, she would provide a few stories to highlight the importance of person-first language for the specific individuals in her study.

To supplement this, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira would then remind the listener of other benefits, perhaps even indirect benefits to people in Rwandan society who did not perpetrate genocide. For instance, paying attention to factors that aid reentry and reintegration is likely important for preventing future violence. Moreover, research has shown that crime-first labels can actually increase anxiety amongst the public, meaning that it is indeed possible that terms that center people before their violent acts may also reduce the anxiety of other Rwandans, including survivors of the violence.

Finally, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira would address some questions that might surface and recognize the boundaries of the recommendation. For instance, what about if a person does not want to shed their label? In such a case, the recommendation to use person-first language is much murkier (see footnote 4). Or, what about person-first language with respect to those who orchestrated violence? Much of Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira’s work (as well as existing work) pertains to those who carried violence out on the ground, meaning that her work does not speak to all people who committed violence. Addressing possible questions head-on helps appease concerns that may surface or that may prevent people from accepting the recommendation. Finally, Dr. Nyseth Nzitatira would once again validate the likely feelings of discomfort while still underscoring that her research along with a vast body of other research points toward the utility of the recommendation.

[1] Ted Chiricos and others, ‘The Labeling of Convicted Felons and Its Consequences for Recidivism’, Criminology, 45 (2007), 547–81 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00089.x>.

[2] John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) <https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511804618>.

[3] Megan Denver, Justin T. Pickett, and Shawn D. Bushway, ‘The Language of Stigmatization and the Mark of Violence: Experimental Evidence on the Social Construction and Use of Criminal Record Stigma’, Criminology, 55.3 (2017), 664–90 <https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9125.12145>.

[4] To be certain, other fields have already departed from person-first language, including the disability community and disability studies more broadly. Much of this departure is tied to how people being labeled want to be labeled. Specifically, certain disability communities (including autistic people and deaf people, among others) now advocate for the use of identity-first language rather than person-first language. In the case of atrocities, however, it is likely rare that the commission of an atrocity would be part of someone’s identity in the same way as a disability.

[5] Ted Chiricos and others, ‘The Labeling of Convicted Felons and Its Consequences for Recidivism’, Criminology, 45 (2007), 547–81 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00089.x>.

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