“Don’t be a victim!” — a victim-blaming message that needs to be stopped
I went to an event designed to help local police and the community to get to know each other. There were tons of officers in uniform, detectives in slacks and sports coats, ADAs in suits, politicians in nicer suits, and Crime Watch Volunteers in pastel jogging suits. They had cookies and coffee. There were brochures on the tables and coloring books for the kids about safety, etc. They had a table for code enforcement, a table for fire prevention, a table for Volunteers In Patrol, a table for Domestic Violence…
There are lots of thefts from vehicles going on right now and various other non-violent thefts. Several of the brochures about this said “Don’t be a victim!” followed by crime prevention and safety tips like lock your doors and don’t leave your stuff in your car.
At the end of the night the terminology of the brochures was really getting to me. “Don’t be a victim!” What does that say? To me, it gives the message “Don’t be a burden on society!” so it stigmatizes victims. Maybe that message comes over to me partly because of the exclamation mark at the end. It sounds like an order, a directive from the authorities, the ones who are more powerful than the everyday folk (including us ‘victims’) and they are telling us what to do and what not to do. Haven’t we as targets of abuse been told what to do and what not to do for long enough already? Does it help when the police force us not to be victims? I know they are trying to help us, to warn us, to give us good advice, and I know it was just a sign and signs are meant to catch your attention, but the tone bothers me.
In considering Persis’ post on the Just-World Phenonmena [Internet Archive link] it seems to me that society is hard wired to hate victims. No one wants to be one. And once they are, they want to shed the label asap and be a “survivor.”
I was chatting with my neighborhood officer and I mentioned the terminology on the handouts and how regular folks perceive those words. The chief was next to her and she got his attention and had me talk to him. I explained that those brochures communicate that victims are bad. It’s a punch in the gut to victims of crimes. I asked him to consider changing the bold print to “Help prevent crime!” He explained that “victim” is a legal term. I acknowledged that. I can see how it is something he works with everyday and it doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to the general population.
In my writing and in my advocacy, I make an effort to only use the word victim in a legal context. Otherwise I say “target of abuse.” I suggested to the police chief that changing the phrasing would engage the community to effectively empower us and make us feel like we can help, rather than the present phrasing which orders us not to become a burdening victim. I asked him to consider changing the phrasing as the brochures are updated. I don’t know if he will or can, but that’s what I did and I wanted to tell you about it.
I think it’s a subtle thing, but very powerful. It’s one more message that tells society that victims are bad; a covert victim-blaming message. It needs to be changed.