“The preference for ‘survivor’ over ‘victim’ is a shift in language that is as much ideological as linguistic”

The preference for “survivor” over “victim” is a shift in language that is as much ideological as linguistic. In “Bright-Sided,” her 2009 critique of America’s obsession with positive thinking, Barbara Ehrenreich noted a similar development among cancer patients. “The word ‘victim’ is proscribed,” she writes, deemed too self-pitying. Martial metaphors are preferred, and those who “lost the battle” are quickly forgotten. “It is the ‘survivors’ who merit constant honor.” And so, the pendulum swings from one extreme to another: from casting rape as insurmountable pain to casting the survivor as possessing superhuman strength.

It’s “looking-glass shame” all over again — that terror of facing your vulnerability — a treasonous thought in a society that is desperately optimistic and addicted to recovery narratives. … But generally, the onus seems to be not only to survive but, as quickly as possible, to lift up others. Sexual-violence activists admit to the strain. Wagatwe Wanjuki, one of the people who stood with Lady Gaga at the Academy Awards, wrote recently at the women’s website the Establishment of the “invisible cost” of being a survivor: “You’re best known for enduring the worst experiences of your life.”

A word that was conceived to free women from stigma now feels, to some, prescriptive. “Compulsory survivorship depoliticizes our understanding of violence and its effects,” Dana Bolger, the executive director of Know Your IX, a “survivor and youth led organization” dedicated to fighting sexual violence in schools, wrote at Feministing.com. “It places the burden of healing on the individual, while comfortably erasing the systems and structures that make surviving hard, harder for some than for others.” The logic of “compulsory survivorship” neatly anticipates the conditions so many victims of violence face: the disbelief or indifference, the paucity of social support — to say nothing of the fact that, as Jon Krakauer notes in his book on campus rape, “Missoula,” if an individual is raped in America, more than 90 percent of the time the rapist will get away with it. It makes sense that an ethos of pluck and hardiness has taken hold. There is simply no alternative.

Parul Sehgal, “Hero Worship”, The New York Times Magazine (8 May 2016), 15.