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Why I Prefer “Victim” to “Survivor”

Change the connotation, not the term for it.

People who were assaulted or defrauded or got cancer want to muster their sense of agency and not be construed as passive or helpless. That’s a terrific, important attitude. In fact, it’s why I posted here that it’s not a good idea to tell crime victims that the crime wasn’t their fault, since fault implies agency. But calling yourself a “rape survivor” or a “proud cancer survivor” has unintended implications that give me pause. It seems to me to put in a bad light people who were murdered and people who succumbed to cancer, or if not in a bad light, at least in a separatist light. It seems to me that the person who survives cancer or rape might want to ally with people killed by cancer and rape. I appreciate and applaud how much you want to feel that you had something to do with your recovery, but I wish you would do it in a way that honors those who did not recover or survive.

The word, victim, merely signifies one of the roles in a crime or mishap. There is a perpetrator and a victim in all crimes against persons and property. It is aversive to be a victim, and the word has developed aversive connotations because of that. The same has happened with “retardation,” which replaced equally objective terms like idiot, moron, and imbecile, and eventually was replaced with “intellectual disability.” But you can’t change the aversive connotations by changing the word; in fact, changing the term enhances the aversive connotations, because the change in terminology suggests there is nothing to be done about the aversive nature of what the term refers to. We preferred “disabled” to “crippled” not because the latter was demeaning but because the former had not yet become demeaning. Now it has, and new terms are taking its place. But the solution is to associate people in wheelchairs and people with intellectual impairments with shared humanity and not with fears about one’s own decline and mortality. Similarly, long-term progress on the aversive quality of victimhood will depend on our not thinking of horrible things that could have happened to ourselves and instead thinking of our shared humanity with crime and disease victims. In this respect, the current tendency of victims to speak out and announce their stigmas is, in my opinion, just the right thing to make victimhood less stigmatizing. According to Goffman, you can’t reduce a stigma by treating it differently, because any way you treat a stigma acknowledges that there is a spoiled aspect of the self that needs to be managed. The only way to reduce stigma is acceptance and familiarity.

So I prefer “victim,” and I admire victims who speak out. I admire also victims who mention their victimhood almost incidentally, signifying that they, for example, are not disqualified from playing the role of full-fledged members of the community because of something that happened to them. I admire grieving people who cry in public and don’t ask for the activity to stop and comfort them, cancer victims who don’t bother with a wig and keep the conversation on-topic, and assault victims who acknowledge that something bad happened to them in a way that also communicates that it doesn’t define them.