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By Patrick R. Riccards & Brad Galloway

Originally posted on Medium.

There is no question that the countering violent extremism, or CVE, space is big on labels. We identify those who are active in the movement as violent extremists or violent white supremacists. Those who try to leave the movement are labeled as “exiting individuals.” And those who have successfully exited are called “Formers.”

Former is currently a prevalent title at Life After Hate. Those who have finished our tertiary prevention program, ExitUSA, wear the label after successful completion. We use the word as part of the title of our popular and influential podcast, The Daily Former, and it is part of our No Formers Left Behind work, the support we offer to those who have successfully exited from lives of violent extremism.

The founders of Life After Hate with their hands stacked on top of one another in a circle

While the CVE space is relatively new in the United States, a few decades old at best, Former was a title that many expect to wear for perpetuity, a nameplate they will bear for the rest of their lives, acknowledging a period in their lives when they were likely struggling and committing horrible acts. As a self-proclaimed and community-acknowledged Former, they have taken accountability for their past transgressions, have paid the price for previous behaviors, and have continuously been asked to make amends and to pay for their past offenses.

Truth be told, though, Former is a transitory label. While those who wear it realize it is a designation they will hold for the rest of their adult lives, it soon becomes a piece of their past, not a component of their present or future selves. For many of Life After Hate’s staff and clients, being a former extremist is not part of their positionality. It may have driven them to the professions, the relationships, and the lives they have today, but it doesn’t define them. Nor should it.

If we know anything in the CVE space, words matter. Our work is focused on helping individuals disengage from violent extremist groups and online hate spaces, aiding them as they reintegrate into civil society in positive and productive ways. In recent years, Life After Hate has chosen to dramatically reduce its use of the word “deradicalization,” knowing that none of us are in a position to tell others what the proper way of thinking or the appropriate things to believe are. We all have a right to free speech and to believe what we believe. Ideology, no matter how repugnant, is a personal choice. But no one has the right to let their ideology physically manifest itself into violence or harm against others.

We came to this decision realizing that many individuals are unsure about disengaging from violent extremism because they fear it requires replacing a right-wing ideology with a left-wing one. They believe violence intervention organizations seek to “deprogram” them, instilling beliefs they believe to be anti-religion or pro-socialism or some other extreme. At Life After Hate, we do no such thing. Quite the opposite, we respect the personal beliefs one may hold while offering choices that turn away — often for good — from paths of violence, harm, destruction, and even death. Such an approach is the only way to help bring a safer society, a community based on respect and compassion with accountability.

This is why it is so vital that we are deliberate with our words and our labels. One can hold a conservative ideology and still disengage from violent extremism. One can successfully exit a violent hate group and be a productive member of society without having to wear a scarlet F on their chest for the rest of eternity.

None of us wish to be judged by our worst moments. Yet we ask those who have successfully exited lives of violent hate to do just that. We expect them to wear the Former brand to acknowledge where they have come from so that others can judge them for their pasts. We use it more prominently than society at large does with those who have been convicted of crimes, violent or otherwise. We seek those to wear the label F in public to tell us their stories whenever we ask for them and to seek “civil” society’s forgiveness until they have walked their last steps. Former becomes their new first name, a label we expect to see in their obituaries when they pass decades after their involvement in the movement.

F the F label. Yes, it is an essential term to understand as they grapple with the next stage in their lives. It is a condition that one often needs to work through with social workers, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and parole officers. It is an essential stage for taking accountability for one’s past acts. But it is also a label that should be written in pencil, erased when necessary, not in permanent ink.

It is time for the CVE community to recognize that one need not be a Former for the rest of their lives. Nor should they be. After successful disengagement and reintegration, a Former’s positionality should change. Change reflects growth and evolution. They should see themselves as college graduates, working professionals, spouses, parents, community leaders, and positive human beings. They should see themselves as what they are becoming, not what they once were.

The process a former extremist takes is not linear. From active to exiting to former is different for everyone. It requires commitment, hard work, sacrifice, and exploration. Those who successfully exit lives of violent extremism are some of the strongest individuals out there, confronting demons and making amends in ways most of us can never conceive of. They deserve better than being expected to bear a lifetime label in memory of the worst period of their lives.

A Former is a person in transition. So, too, is the term. If we must continue ascribing a label to these individuals, we propose using the term “NeverMore.” That is what Life After Hate is now committed to doing.

From violent extremists to exiting individuals, from exiting individuals to Formers, and then from Formers to NeverMores, that should be the continuum of the CVE space. And that should be how we show the proper respect to those who have taken accountability for their pasts, who have disengaged from hate with no promise that society would welcome them back, and who show they are worthy of our compassion and support every day.

(Patrick Riccards is the executive director and CEO of Life After Hate. Brad Galloway is an exit specialist at Life After Hate and also works with international partners in the preventing and countering extremism field.)