How Victims Became Survivors, and Why That’s Problematic


There was a time when being called a “survivor” simply meant that you’d lived through a disaster. But today, the word “abounds with positive meanings” — agency, resilience, fortitude. The term “survivor” is now preferred over the word “victim” to describe individuals who’ve experienced everything from cancer to rape, according to Professor Alyson Cole (Queens College, The Graduate Center). She explores the history and implications of this “lexical modification” in an article in the European Journal of Cultural Studies. 

Cole says a turning point in the valorization of “survivors” was the 1961 internationally broadcast trial of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann. Jews who’d previously been seen as victims gained “moral authority” and “superior social status” as witnesses to crimes against humanity.

The term “victim” eventually took on negative connotations. Survivors, in contrast, were lionized for braving trauma and overcoming its consequences. Advocacy groups and therapeutic approaches also began to prize survivorship over victimhood, “the underlying premise” being that survivors overcame their injuries “by an act of will power.” 

Cole sees a “convergence of neoliberalism and Trump-era populism” in the stigmatization of victims. A right-wing backlash against “the supposed proliferation of victims” has led to a campaign by “anti-victim” ideologues who would deny, for example, the legitimacy of discrimination claims. Neoliberals would also withhold support for those claiming to have been harmed by bias, instead putting the onus on individuals to overcome obstacles on their own, rather than expecting government-backed remedies or compensation for harm.

And that’s where the elevation of survivorship becomes detrimental to society: “When human vulnerability is refused or denied, adversity becomes not a moment for recognition, restitution or care, but instead an occasion to further hone various forms of self-management and self-optimization such as positivity, ‘bouncebackability’, and ‘recoverability,’” Cole writes. “The call to ‘be a survivor, not a victim’ is deployed as a mandate to take personal responsibility and demonstrate resilience in the face of unlivable conditions, disqualifying alternative responses whether complaint, contesting the status quo, or resisting the perpetuation of violence.” 

Paradoxically, “anti-victimism” from conservatives has also created a new set of victims: those who say they’ve been “injured by feminism, racial justice activism, ‘political correctness,’ affirmative action, and so forth.” Examples of “the anger privileged groups feel when they misconceive of themselves as persecuted by progressive policies” include U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanagh “asserting their own victim status to counter accusations of sexual harassment.” 

The pandemic raises new questions about the victim-survivor calculus. We “were not all equally exposed to this pandemic’s dangers,” Cole writes. A future challenge will be to balance our “shared experience of enduring this pandemic with the awareness that our collective political decisions laid the groundwork for the disproportionate suffering and death of those our public policies have left behind.”

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

(Re)Made in America: Survivorship after the Shoah
European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2021

Work By

Alyson Cole (Professor, Political Science, Women's and Gender Studies, American Studies) | Profile 1