Language Check: Victim or Survivor?

Edited to clarify post content.

When it comes to talking about people who have lived through traumatic events people often get hung up on ‘what they should call them’. In most spaces I visit online or in the world at large there are two words that keep being used to label those who have experienced trauma; victim or survivor.  There seems to be a continuous debate on which word is the most appropriate.

Should they be called a victim? Or does using the term victim make them sound powerless and  create a unnecessary negative label? How about survivor then? It sounds strong and empowering! Yet it can serve to minimise the pain and trauma by making it sound like it’s a thing of the past, something the person is clearly ‘too strong’ to still have enduring problems dealing with the event(s).

It leaves us in a pickle. If these two commonly used words aren’t quite right, which label is?

Long answer: Stereotyping people is not cool. When looking at issues of gender there are countless papers written on the harm caused by stereotyping people as either girls (feminine) or boys (masculine). A quick example is that boys get harmed by the societal expectation that they should never show emotion and girls get harmed by the societal expectation that they are automatically weak. In issues of disability we can see the harm the ‘supercrip‘ stereotype causes as it creates an environment where disabled people feel like if they can’t become a paralympian/get a job/’overcome’ their impairment or disability then they are failures. The same goes for people who have lived through traumatic events. Many don’t feel particularly strong for having simply survived, some feel guilty or angry or miserable or numb or a ever-changing mixture of all of the above. Depending on where an individual is they may or may not find it helpful to think of them selves as having been/being a victim. The point is that is their choice and it will rarely be the same choice as another person would make.

At the end of the day labels are powerful tools and are best used sparingly and respectfully. By trying to lump all people who have lived through trauma into one label you will hurt or distance yourself from those who don’t like being labelled that way. It is far better practise to let people tell you what they want to be called. If you have to use a general term to talk about a group of people (as I have had to in this piece) then using non-emotive language to do so is always best. Instead of saying ‘trauma survivor , ‘trauma victim’, ‘trauma sufferer’, ‘person afflicted by trauma’ or similar I simply talk of people that have lived through or experienced trauma. I try not to make value judgements because I realise they can do more harm than good.

Short answer: None of the above. Don’t label people! People have the right to self determine. If you have to label a group avoid using emotive language and stick to facts.

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  1. I thought I'd left a comment here when you posted this, because last night I found a post I remembered mentioining to you but at a time when the other blog was down. Anyway, this is another excellent, though much more personal and anxious, post on the language of victims and survivors: Secret Diary of a Dublin Call Girl: Survivor.

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