“They are not victims!” shouted Gasland director Josh Fox as he stood on stage before a group of about 10 people who had been hurt by hydraulic fracturing. They included Tammy Manning, a house cleaner from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania whose granddaughter Madison got seriously ill from the methane that had seeped into her room, and the Devins family of West Virginia, whose son was killed working on a gas field where worker safety was neglected. Listening to their stories at the September 20 Shale Gas Outrage protest in Philadelphia, I understood Fox’s point, but I wondered, as a writer and activist, what word we should use for people who have suffered so much at the hands of the powerful.
The word “victim” appeared in a lot of news headlines after Mitt Romney’s remark that 47 percent of Americans “believe they are victims.” Despite scathing editorials by the likes of David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, the word “victim” itself didn’t get much analysis, though its connotations reveal a lot about our views of power.
The implication of Romney’s remark is that no one in the United States has ever been treated unfairly or experienced systemic violence, and those who think they have are just a bunch of shiftless whiners. It’s the old canard: We have an even playing field, so if you haven’t gotten to the goal line, you’re just not trying very hard. Unfortunately, we don’t hear any pundits saying, “But wait, the playing field is not even! There is systemic violence. People have been victimized by greedy banks, ruthless corporations, and a grossly unequal education system, for starters.” Instead they criticize Romney for only applying that word to beloved veterans and senior citizens. As President Obama explained during his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman last Tuesday, “There are not a lot of people out there who think they are victims.”
Clearly the word has baggage. One online thesaurus offers synonyms like “fool,” “patsy” and “sucker.” If you are a victim, the implication is that you somehow deserve your suffering because you weren’t savvy enough to avoid it. Our American ethos of individualism conditions us to believe that everything that happens to us is our responsibility, a view echoed in popular pseudo-spiritual teachings like the Law of Attraction or the Prosperity Gospel. We do have responsibilities, certainly, and there is a real danger in going through life with what people call a “victim mentality” if it keeps you from doing what you can for yourself, as an individual or collectively. But to suggest that anyone with a grievance in the United States is a fool or a freeloader is to ignore and hence perpetuate the systemic violence that is part of our society.
Violence is the realm where the word “victim” is used with the most (though not unanimous) sympathy. We talk of victims of rape, abuse, torture and violent crime. Is it such a stretch to think of the wounded veteran as a victim of a foreign policy that manipulated his idealism, told him he was searching for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and ripped his body apart for a lie? What about the death-row inmate who has experienced the systemic racism of our criminal justice system? When coal companies in Appalachia blow up mountaintops and poison a community’s water, leading to increased rates of cancer and birth defects, isn’t that violence? Aren’t there victims?
Despite its negative connotations, there is an important truth we lose when we merely reject the term “victim,” as Josh Fox and Obama did — the truth that where there is a victim, there is also a victimizer. There is a relationship that almost always involves unequal power. Calling someone a “survivor” or “a person who has suffered” may sound more dignified, but it doesn’t implicate the people or institutions that caused the suffering in the first place. A Shale Gas Outrage press release described Tammy and the others on the stage behind Fox as “impacted” by natural gas drilling, which does not quite conjure the compassion and moral outrage that many in the crowd felt listening to their stories right below the windows of the convention center where the natural gas industry was meeting.
George Lakey has pointed out in his columns that the realities of power make middle class people uncomfortable, making me suspect it is middle class people who are most uncomfortable with the term victim and the reality of victimization in America. Ignoring the realities of power makes organizing more difficult, but the solidarity that people can find in naming their own suffering can help them strengthen their campaigns. For example, there is an important role for people like myself who stand in solidarity with those being poisoned by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, but the real passion and leadership is coming from those folks drinking the poisoned water and watching their communities destroyed. As in many other social movements, it is those fighting for their own survival and defending their own communities who have the courage and commitment to lead the struggle for change.
Part of the power of the phrase “the 99 percent” is that it simultaneously takes the shame out of being on the losing end of the economic order while claiming the power that comes with being in the vast majority. It reframes the economic equation and by implication points to the 1 percent as the problem. We need more language like this, more words that reveal the inequalities in our society without blaming the victims, so to speak. We need terms that evoke both compassion and outrage, not pity or disdain. We need to get creative with our language and point out what’s wrong with the labels that people like Mitt Romney use, including the implication that those who have been wronged are incapable of fighting back.
As activists, we need to think seriously about what language we use to describe ourselves and other people who have experienced any form of violence, including the violence of having a home poisoned by a gas company or a son killed by indifference to worker safety. “Survivor” is not a uniform substitute because not everyone survives. Those who do survive can organize, transforming their experience of suffering into something that can empower themselves and inspire others, as the speakers at Shale Gas Outrage did in Philadelphia.
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