Anyone who is paying attention to the presidential race will recognize the importance of using the right language. But words don’t just matter in politics; they matter in everyday life, too.
Take the issue of domestic violence. In the 70s and 80s, when activists were setting up refuges and centers to deal with domestic and sexual violence, it was strategic to construct women as victims of male violence in order to win over public sympathy to their cause and government funding for their services. Having portrayed domestic violence as a toxic situation and the perpetrators as indefensible, activists needed to find a way of explaining why battered women often returned to their abusers and answering the age-old question, “why didn’t she leave” in such a way that no blame was attached to the victim.
I learned last week from a colleague at the Eastside Legal Assistance Program, however, that the preferred term today for people who experience domestic violence is “survivor” not “victim.” This is because we have come to recognize that victimization devalues a person’s capacities.
The word victim could imply passivity, acceptance of one’s circumstances, and a casualty. Victim robs individuals of their agency and their ability to fight back. It diminishes the inner strength of those who have experienced any sort of violence. It ignores the fact that many survivors are moving forward with their lives and healing from the trauma.
The truth is when trauma of this level hits an individual even the simple act of surviving – making it to the next day – can involve immense strength. Acknowledging someone as a survivor displays the individual’s resistance, ability to take action in the face of immense obstacles, and the day-to-day work of surviving despite immense trauma. Survivor implies ingenuity, resourcefulness, and inner strength.