Current public discourse teems with allegations of mistreatment. Two aspects of these proliferating claims are striking: their source — that they emerge from above rather than below — and the absence of the term “victim” itself.

It’s not the poor, marginalized, or dispossessed, but those who occupy positions of privilege and power who seem most eager to assume the victim mantle today, those Lawrence Glickman classifies as “elites.” On the one hand, this is not new: American history is littered with examples of dominant groups deploying iconic imagery of suffering and appropriating paradigms of others’ oppression to vividly express their grievances. Our nation’s revolution was founded on rich and powerful slave owners bemoaning new taxation as their own ultimate form of enslavement, after all. On the other hand, the recent outpouring and logic of such declarations warrant further reflection, especially when those who merit victim status by the most stringent criteria disavow the designation, preferring “survivor” instead. Even President Trump, whose tweets are regularly filled with complaints about witch-hunts, lynching, and other forms of supposed presidential persecution, never uses “victim” to decry his treatment. In order to grasp this odd state of affairs, we need to understand how victimhood became tainted. To do so, I will trace the evolution of “victimology.”

What is victimology?

The term “victimology” has two antithetical meanings. The first names an area of research, often considered a branch of criminology, that is focused on crime victims. This victimology emerged in the 1930s, when French barrister, Benjamin Mendelsohn, sought to establish a new, scientific discipline to uncover and aggregate the “whole of the socio-bio-psychological traits common to all victims.” As a contribution to this etiological enterprise, he constructed a scale of victims’ responsibility, ranging from “complete innocence” to “ignorant guilt” and “false victimization.” The field was formally established in the aftermath of the Second World War with the emergence of new categories of crime. “Crimes against humanity” was one.

In 1948, German researcher Hans von Hentig proposed what became the foundational paradigm for this first kind of victimology: “victim precipitation.” Criminals, Von Hentig reasoned, select their victims based on certain dispositional factors, in addition to physical or social characteristics. In this view, the paths of the criminal and his prey were on an almost inevitable collision course: the victim was always already a victim, vulnerable and “perceived by the offender to be performing the role of victim, and…therefore an appropriate target.”

In its second usage, “victimology” denotes individuals and social groups invested in portraying themselves as victims, a status they claim for themselves, not one that is assigned to them by way of official criteria. The lineage of this colloquial meaning can be traced to the 1980s, when a new and cynical conception of “victim” was used to dismantle the welfare state and challenge multiculturalism, identity politics, and progressive policies such as affirmative action. Other disdainful victim idioms surfaced in tandem (e.g., “victimist,” “victimism,” “victicrat”), and “victim” itself became a term of derision deployed to condemn the character of sufferers irrespective of their condition and to chastise them for enfeebling and effeminizing the nation.

This alternative use of “victimology” was integral to a campaign I call “anti-victimism.” Anti-victimists consider most assertions of victimization to be fraudulent — generated either by imposters (who are neither harmed nor deprived by any sensible standard), or swindlers (who exploit their disadvantages to achieve gains incommensurate with their actual circumstances).Here the victim’s status as a victim is not accepted but contested, and “victimology” is used to criticize groups and individuals as fake adopters of the victim label who seek to manipulate others and extract undeserved rewards. Instead of guiding us in how we might better evaluate victim claims, anti-victimists concentrate on claimants’ psychological state, their “victim mentality” — that they blame others rather than accept personal responsibility for their condition. [1]

Distinctions between deserving and undeserving sufferers are hardly new, and disentangling misfortune from injustice can be politically necessary. But individualizing systemic power and oppression as matters of choice and personal responsibility is a more recent and problematic development. Indeed, “victim mentality” entered our lexicon only three decades ago. It functions as a synonym for “victimhood,” a word coined early but not previously in everyday use. A pernicious discursive tool of neoliberalism, anti-victimism depoliticizes injustice by casting it as a matter of personal attitudes or feelings. It then becomes extremely difficult to address institutional hierarchy or privilege, systemic domination, and the pervasive social injustice that elevates some by subordinating others. After all, no one needs to be a victim because each of us could be self-determining if only we possessed the right character.

Now, decades after the cultural skirmishes of the 1990s that were crucial to disseminating anti-victimism, it has returned with a vengeance. [2] The current targets have different names — #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions — but anti-victim discourse has not substantially changed. Once again, we hear that America is imperiled by a new moral culture that, as sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning put it, displaces “standards of honor and dignity.” Simultaneously, new and dubious claims to victim status have emerged from dominant groups. Condemnations of “victimhood culture” are widespread, especially on the right, and yet in the White House our commander-in-chief professes to be a victim of a nefarious conspiracy (subjected to “presidential harassment”), and to represent “the forgotten men and women” of America who without him would be, as they were before, victimized by China, the EU, and cultural elites.

Ironies (or, more precisely, hypocrisies) aside, what is perhaps more remarkable is how the anti-victimist use of the term “victim” has penetrated mainstream social science scholarship in recent years. In a glossary of core concepts featured in Routledge’s Introduction to Political Theory (2015) for instance, “victimhood” is defined as “a belief — usually from victims — that their plight is caused by…others who must be blamed and punished, as a substitute for actively seeking the roots of their problem.”

Likewise, the entry for “victim” in the University of Pittsburgh’s “Keywords Project” explains: “The identity of a victim has been transformed, from being inflicted to one voluntarily adopted.” The authors clarify, “[t]his is almost certainly because individuals (and groups) have come to be identified as victims, not because…of what has happened to them, but rather because of who they are” [emphasis added]. Even more astonishing is that anti-victimism now appears in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster lists both definitions of “victimology,” offering as an example of proper usage: “Yes, victimology has actually become something of a competition, particularly on college campuses.”

Although the two uses of “victimology” emerged from different contexts, both ultimately serve to curb the population of victims. And both do so primarily by finding fault within victims themselves. This has become our common sense about victimhood. The customary injunction — “Don’t be a victim” — conveys this message concisely. Unlike other warnings (e.g., “Mind the gap,” “Steep hill ahead”), the imperative simultaneously instructs us to avoid the possibility of being victimized, but also to reject the status of victimhood itself. Replacing the verb (“victimize”) with the noun (“victim”) syntactically reconfigures victimization as a function of risk and choice, depicting the victim’s behavior as the causal factor rather than the macrostructures of violence that render some more vulnerable than others. That the injunction frequently appears with the in place of a (“Don’t be the victim”) underscores the centrality of the subject position over the fact of injury. Another common construction, “Don’t play the victim,” further obscures the division between subjection to harm and performativity.

I’m not a victim; I’m a survivor

Much like “victim,” “survivor” has become a keyword of our era. Until the second half of the 20th century, the term “survivor” referred simply to individuals who outlived others in the aftermath of a disaster, or who stood to inherit the remains of an estate. With the notable exception of the 19th century Social Darwinist expression “survival of the fittest,” a survivor was not seen as possessing any exceptional or laudatory qualities. But today the designation “survivor” has been eagerly adopted by those who endured a variety of injuries, ailments, or hardships — from rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and child abuse, to cancer, AIDS, gun violence, drug addiction, and even divorce. In these broader applications “survivor” connotes agency (braving a traumatic event) and/or an accomplishment (overcomingthe physical and emotional consequences of such an event). Survivorship now abounds with positive attributes, signifying personal fortitude, courage, and insinuating a heroic moral stature. Since the 1970s it even attained a ritualistic quality, expressed in speak-outs, marches, and fundraisers that celebrate resilience.

Detached from the material and structural causes of victimization, the current use of “survivor” has a different temporality — sequential rather than coterminous. RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States, advises that the term “victim” should be used when referring to someone recently affected by sexual violence, whereas “survivor” should be used for someone who has successfully completed the recovery process. Predictably, the internet has become a resource for those who might be teetering on the brink of embracing victimhood. Helloflo (a popular app offering “fem-spiration”) puts it more plainly: “There’s a sense of mobility with the word ‘survivor.’ [It] implies progression over stagnancy, and serves as a term of empowerment.”

Like victimhood, survivorship has become a subject position that can, and should, be chosen. Being a victim or a survivor has little to do with vulnerabilities, injuries, or injustices themselves. Rather it is an expression of “who you are.” Consider the comments of Austrian Natasha Kampusch. Abducted at the age of 10 and imprisoned in a basement for eight years, she told the press upon her release: “I am not a victim simply because other people say I am. Other people cannot make you a victim; you can only do that to yourself.” The UN Goodwill Ambassador responsible for addressing human trafficking expresses a similar sentiment: “[T]he use of the terminology ‘victim,’ is synonymous with weakness[,]…with shame. The people that I have met…are survivors, they are resourceful, alive, and productive.” At this political juncture, a therapeutic rationale that may have helped victims of harrowing experiences (from rape to genocide) “work through” and recover emotionally from trauma intersects with the anti-victimist discourse that attributes personal failure to individuals and groups who politicize their suffering.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that genuine victims now choose to rebuff the “victim” designation, embracing “survivor” instead. Feminists have enthusiastically endorsed this lexical change, as less passive, negative, and disempowering. And victim advocates (such as those working in battered women’s shelters) followed suit by renaming their organizations “survivors’ agencies.” This preference for “survivor” not only ignores the role of anti-victimism in distorting our understanding of victimization. It also disregards how hard-fought in, for instance, the case of sexual violation, was the effort to establish that naturalized heterosexist behavior can be a form of violence, that the rape victim is, in fact, a “victim” of both a particular individual and of a larger patriarchal system. Before the mid-1970s, the term used in courts was “prosecutrix,” and defense attorneys still maintain that referring to a rape victim as a “victim” is prejudicial. Furthermore today, while victims of sexual assault and their supporters elevate survivorship as empowering, the Trump Justice Department has raised the bar on the criteria required to establish harm, making these crimes more difficult to prosecute. Changes enacted without much attention restrict the DOJ’s definition of domestic violence to physical abuse, and also roll back Title IX’s standard of “affirmative consent.”

Victimology 3.0

Why focus on a word? Does it matter if victims call themselves “survivors” rather than “victims”? As we can see, the term performs important political work by turning attention from the sources of injustice and injury to how the individual sufferer grapples with her suffering. We need, therefore, to wrestle “victimology” from its current uses — as a name for a subfield of criminology, or as a bludgeon to shame victims. And we should not cede to dominant groups the political potency of “victim” as a way to call foul. Following recent theorizing of epistemic injustice, I want to suggest that victimology 3.0 might instead designate victims’ distinctive perspective, which we reflexively mistrust, because it inevitably disrupts and contests the status quo.

Victims are never only victims. But in order for those who have been victimized to share their knowledge, they must be able to speak as victims. I am not suggesting that “victim” has some inherent valence that is absent in other terms that constitute the vocabulary of injustice. At the same time, reclaiming “victim” — as a term of political engagement — would constitute a critical step in dismantling anti-victimism, in destigmatizing victimization, and thereby open the possibility of actually addressing injustice.

Tackling injustice requires more than comprehending what is wrong. We also need to grasp how it operates: injustice often works through indirect means (such as ignorance and apathy) rather than deliberate violations. The victim’s point of view is essential to uncover these subtle routes that injustice can take. It is not that the victim’s perspective is necessarily more accurate or more comprehensive, but that we are inclined to look away, to recast injustice as a mere misfortune, and thus to dismiss victimization and silence its victims. By reflecting on the changes in how we talk about victimization and survivorship, we can see how language regulates our understandings of suffering and injustice, rendering some matters unspeakable.

[1] E.g., Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character (1990); Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education (1991); Charles Sykes,Nation of Victims (1992); Robert Hughes,Culture of Complaint (1993); Naomi Wolf,Fire with Fire (1993); Katie Roiphe,The Morning After (1993); Alan Dershowitz,The Abuse Excuse (1994); Christina Hoff Sommers,Who Stole Feminism (1994); Rene Denefeld, New Victorians (1995).

[2] E.g., Bruce Bawer, The Victims’ Revolution (2012); Diane Enns, The Violence of Victimhood (2012); Robert Juliano,Cry Bullies (2017); Joseph Epstein, Victimhood: The New Virtue (2017); Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture (2018); Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (2018).