Sunday, July 15, 2012

Color Code

Well every person you can know,
And every place that you can go,
And anything that you can show,
You know they're nouns.
If you ask me to explain who I am, I will use nouns. I am a woman; I am a citizen of the United States of America; I am an Italian-American; I am a speech pathologist, even though I am also a retiree; I am a feminist; I am a blogger; I am a Baby Boomer; I am a senior citizen, even though I prefer the term old broad.

Each of those terms describes something related to my identity. Most of those terms relate to something permanent about me, except perhaps the ones regarding my age, but even then, my birth year is something permanent. It doesn’t fluctuate wildly. Some of them relate to choices I have made and values I espouse; others relate to choices made on my behalf or sheer chance, but they all are part of who I am.

This morning, I went to the drugstore to drop off a prescription from a doctor whose patient I am. I took my car, so on the way there I was a driver. Years ago there was a drugstore closer to my house that I could walk to, making me a pedestrian. Later, I treated my husband to lunch and he drove, so I was his passenger.  At the restaurant, I of course was a diner and customer. We conversed at the restaurant, so sometimes I was the speaker and mostly I was the listener

The nouns in blue are different from the ones in red. They don’t tell you anything intrinsic to my identity. If you asked me to tell you something about myself, you’d probably be confused if I said, well, sometimes I’m a pedestrian and sometimes I’m a passenger, and also I’m a diner. There are some senses in which being a speaker can be a job description, but not in the sense I used it here. Of course, one can be a bus driver or a race car driver, but there again, that’s a specialized sense of the word. The words I highlighted in blue are words that label my role in a specific, usually temporary interaction. They aren’t my hobbies, my occupation, my identity.

So why am I babbling on about this (in color, no less) you ask. 

I am thinking of an incident that occurred when Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sex crimes. A reporter on location made reference to “victim number 7” and was interrupted by someone back at the station saying, “I don’t think we should call these young men victims. I think we should call them survivors.”

For a moment, picture a red box filled with nouns like the ones I have highlighted in red, the ones that label people's occupations, hobbies, religion, political identities, values, ethnicity and anything else they might choose to use in constructing their identity. Then picture a blue box filled with nouns like the ones that I have highlighted in blue, filled with nouns that label a transient role you might play in a specific interaction before moving on to something else. In which box do you place the word “victim”?

To me, “victim” belongs in the blue box. It’s a label for a role in a specific, usually temporary transaction (if sadly not always temporary enough). It’s not a hobby, an occupation, a political affiliation. It’s not a choice I made about how to live my life.

Unfortunately, the word “victim” seems to have crept out of the blue box into the red box. Too many people act as if being a victim is a choice the victim made or a core part of a person's character. A sense of shame has become attached to the status of victim like the sense of shame that should attach to being a bigot or a thief or a murderer (a few other red box words). It has become a name to call someone. After all, there are no passengers, only people who flunked driver’s ed.

To get away from this shame, we have replaced the word “victim” with “survivor”.

I am not going to argue that we shouldn’t do that. If you have had an unfortunate experience at the hands of a predator or even at the hands of impersonal fate (say in the form of a weather event or a fire) and if calling yourself a survivor is part of what helps you cope, I will respectfully use your calling customs. It’s the least I can do for you.

I just think that whether we use the word “victim” or the word “survivor” or something else, we need to grab that word “victim” out of the red box and return it to the blue box where it belongs, with its little blue friends.

It’s a perfectly respectable label for a transient role in a specific, usually temporary interaction, not a name to use to stigmatize someone.

(Edited to remove references to identity since Nick brings up a good point. I hope this makes my point clearer.)


  1. Maybe I'm reading you wrong, but I think victim/survivor identity can be permanent. The things that were done to me have left their mark; I might heal, but I won't heal into the same form as I would otherwise have been in.

  2. I think what I call "blue box" words can become "red box" words; for instance, being a good listener or an articulate speaker can be part of someone's identity. Anything you consider part of your identity is your identity, and I am not arguing about that. What concerns me is that we seem to have lost the "blue box" meaning of victim to a great extent. I hear you saying, "I have been the victim of abuse and it has had a permanent affect on me", and I acknowledge that. I'm talking about the use of "victim" that says, "Oh, you are being such a victim, you need to change your thinking and see yourself as a survivor and just move on" as if being a victim was a choice on your part and one that reflects who you are at your core. That's what I see as a misuse of the word victim.

    Does that make it any clearer? I may need to think about that last section and revise it.

  3. Ah yes, that is clearer, thanks for explaining. I don't know that I'd have put the problem down to temporary and permanent identities though. More like people who think they can dictate or even control the identities other people experience. But it was still a thought-provoking post.