The words that we use to describe something matters.
There’s a little joke that I’ve seen passed around on the internet from Tumblr user malkiewicz that I think illustrates this point nicely: “Synonyms are weird because if you invite someone to your cottage in the forest that just sounds nice and cozy, but if I invite you to my cabin in the woods you’re going to die.”
Connotation is everything. The words you use might have the same meaning, dictionary-wise, but the double-meaning that we have prescribed to them as a society also affects the way that we think about the matter at hand.
This is why I do not like the word ‘victim’.
I mean, if you look at the dictionary definition of ‘victim’, it’s a fine enough word, as far as words go: “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent”. Chances are, we’ve all been victims at one point in our lives or another.
But there’s a social definition to the word ‘victim’ that I tend to not like.
When I hear the word ‘victim’, I tend to think of someone who is playing a very passive role in the scenario. And perhaps this isn’t helped by the people who I have heard use the word ‘victim’ in a negative way.
“You’re just playing the victim card.”
“Everyone wants to be a victim.”
Especially in scenarios where someone has been hurt by someone in particular, in an instance of abuse or sexual assault or discrimination, I find that the word ‘victim’ can be extremely limiting.
Because a victim doesn’t fight back. A victim doesn’t create change, or grow from the experience, or really do anything at all. A victim is… a victim. A victim hurts and wallows and needs to be saved.
And some people are victims. Some people do exactly this, all their lives. Some people have a very hard time moving passed or confronting their pain. But in a scenario where someone has been hurt by someone else, when they’ve been abused or harassed or assaulted, I don’t like to call people victims. I would rather think of them as survivors.
A survivor is a different connotation. A survivor is not passive. A survivor does not wallow, though they might hurt. And the difference might be slight, but it is important. Because people who have been hurt need to know that they can fight back.
Being hurt is not the end of our story. When we are hurt, we do not have to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves – we have options. We have a whole journey ahead of ourselves that we can choose to take.
We can fight against the person who has hurt us. And I don’t mean this in a violent or unfairly cruel way – I mean that we can stand up to them and make ourselves heard. We can remove that person from our lives if we have to. We can bring these people to justice, if we can and in whatever way we can.
We can fight for ourselves. Fight for our self-esteem and our ability to see our own worth. Fight for our ability to see our own strength, even when we think that it has been taken away from us. Fight for our self-respect and our mental health and our ease of mind. Fight to learn from what we’ve been through, and take those lessons into other aspects of our life.
We can fight for other people. We can reach out to people who have been through the same thing that we have. We can lend them an ear, or a hand. We can listen to their perspective and we can understand it because we’ve been there. We have the power to make them feel valid and heard and respected, and we can make them understand that they aren’t alone. We can reach out to people who haven’t been through what we’ve been through, and we can help them to understand that this happens, and it needs to be addressed. We can help people understand the issue in a way that would otherwise be very difficult for them, because they haven’t been there before.
There are many, many battles that can be fought by a person who has been hurt, and these battles can’t be fought by a victim. These battles are owned and spearheaded by survivors. And, no, not every person who has been hurt will fight these battles; some people get so lost in their own pain that they simply cannot fight them. But I still think that these battles are important, and I think that people should be encouraged to fight them. And I think that so many people can fight them, so long as they can find the strength. And strength can be found in something as simple as changing the language that we use to describe someone.
We are not victims of sexual assault. We are sexual assault survivors.
We are not victims of abuse. We are abuse survivors.
We are not victims of discrimination. We are survivors.
We are strong. We are capable. We are pro-active, and we have the ability to change the world. All we need to do is fight.