Student Column on Friend’s Assault, Victim vs. Survivor Debate Triggers Backlash

A column last month in The Daily at the University of Washington about a student’s assault and the subsequent difference between responding to it as either a “victim” or a “survivor” inspired an outsized helping of viral hate. It also prompted the student writer to reflect and admit “my own words betrayed me.” And it has spurred a dialogue among the Daily crew about the proper use and contextual meaning of victim-survivor terminology.

In her original column, “Don’t Play the Blame Game: Be a Survivor,” Daily arts & leisure editor Danielle Palmer-Friedman tells the story of an assault her friend suffered at the hands of her partner. Her friend reported the assault to police. She felt guilty about this. Initially, Palmer-Friedman felt that guilt was justified — she deemed the involvement of police as unnecessarily cruel to the friend’s partner.

Then, her friend opened up to her: “I was the one who was hurt. I should not be the one feeling guilty. I was wronged, and it wasn’t wrong for me to report it.” Boom. Cue an about-face. According to Palmer-Friedman, “The sudden conviction in [my friend’s] voice made something click in my brain. … Although it is still difficult for me to fully comprehend why, I know that what [my friend] did by reporting the assault was not wrong.”

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The column enters controversy-ville with Palmer-Friedman’s decision to dub her friend a survivor, not a victim. Why? Because, as she writes, “A victim blames themselves. A victim makes excuses. A victim hides, and a victim lies for their assailant. It is easy to become a victim. It is easy to stay silent, to feel guilty about the violence that has been committed against you. But the road to becoming a survivor starts with the first tap of that backspace button: Delete those tendencies to feel responsible. Delete your questioning. Delete the shame, and tell your story.”

This perceived victim-bashing quickly became, in Palmer-Friedman’s own words, “infamous.” The piece has triggered nearly 120 comments online — many of them negative — and some social media scoldings. It also compelled Palmer-Friedman to pen a follow-up mea culpa column.

As she shared with admirable candor:

“It pains me on such a personal level to know that my words hurt others. It is a frightening wake-up call to learn that my own words betrayed me, that they conveyed a message that was offensive rather than helpful. When the first onslaught of responses started I was completely unaware of what I had done wrong. I could not fathom how my well-intentioned article had been misinterpreted so severely. … I learned that not all victims blame themselves. I’ve learned that not all victims make excuses. Not all victims hide, and not all victims lie for their assailants. I learned that while ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ are different words on a technical level, their connotation and denotation depends on the individual’s personal definition.”

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What is your outlet’s policy on the victim vs. survivor debate?

Here is Palmer-Friedman’s description of how the Daily approaches it, and some of the questions she has about it:

“At The Daily, we have a certain policy when it comes to the word ‘victim.’ When the word is being used to describe someone who has suffered assault, we change the word to ‘survivor.’ As writers, we are taught that a survivor is different from a victim. The way it was explained to me was this: Using the word ‘survivor’ takes the power out of the hands of the abuser. Survivor implies conquest, rather than being conquered. … I always felt it unfair to change the status of someone with such a general policy. What if the specific person actually felt more in tune with the nature of the word victim? What if they didn’t feel like they had survived, at least not yet? Was it fair for us, The Daily, to impose our desires for their emotions into their story?”

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