In a particularly shrewd episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, a cast member from the CBS reality show Survivor finds himself across a dinner table from a survivor of the Holocaust. The two men argue about who most deserves the designation. Funny stuff, but also a kind of warning to those who would apply heroic labels to the undeserving. For “survivor” inflation persists in American culture, threatening to warp moral authority and accentuate a culture of victimhood.
Examples abound. For every defensible use of the term (e.g., “survivor of [a] Russian missile strike”), three or four deployments are silly, wanton, or otherwise wrongheaded. Slate alone has referred to, in only the last few years, “survivors” of the dot-com bubble and teen wilderness-therapy programs. A visit to the New York Times’s archive turns up references to “survivors” of foster care, psychiatric abuse, the National Hockey League, and college rejection. A glimpse into the scholarly literature reveals further instances of survivor creep. A 2007 issue of the APA journal Traumatology alludes to “survivors of bullying.” Not to be outdone, a 2013 article in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling considers “survivors” of dissociative identity (i.e., multiple-personality) disorder.
To use the designation “survivor” is to summon images of righteous combat. Not for nothing have left-leaning media outlets taken to referring to “January 6 survivors,” the better to turn that day’s events to Democrats’ political advantage. Something similar is at work whenever one hears of “Covid survivors,” a population consisting of nearly everyone who contracted the virus. So obvious is the rhetorical sleight-of-hand in moments such as these that it hardly needs explaining. Because “survivor” calls to mind legitimately deadly occurrences like school shootings, even promiscuous application of the term carries moral weight. If a circumstance produces survivors, then the rest of us should take it very seriously indeed.
The most profligate instances of survivor misuse are easier to mock than the borderline cases. Perhaps under the impression that boorish men typically kill their victims, a 2017 article in Vox referred, with apparent sincerity, to “survivors of [sexual] harassment.” A 2013 New York Times profile of Graham DeLaet characterized the Canadian golfer as a “survivor of back woes,” never mind that bulging discs are experienced daily by millions around the world. In June 1977, the Gray Lady described author and “student rebel” Sara Davidson as a “survivor of the 1960s.” A similarly overwrought Washington Post portrait of Patty Duke called the actress the original “survivor of dysfunctional child stardom.”
Further afield, a recent panel at a UN-sponsored sustainable-development event invoked present-day “survivors of climate change”—as if such men and women constituted a special class. The Harassment-Free Homes Project refers, on its website, to “survivors of housing discrimination,” while broader nods to “survivors of discrimination,” full stop, are a dime a dozen online. Though Slate advises against it, women who have had miscarriages are frequently labeled “survivors.” So, too, are men who have been incarcerated.
More difficult questions arise when the “survived” event is truly horrific, as in cases of sexual assault. Diminishing such crimes is itself monstrous, and some victims do legitimately survive them. But does it follow that the phrase “sexual-assault survivor” is reasonable in all cases? The use of the term to describe victims of non-fatal events or circumstances is inherently political. Consider, for instance, the motto “believe survivors.” An outrageous example of question-begging when a criminal matter is still in the investigatory stage, the phrase makes sense only if one accepts that survivors are owed a special debt or deserve unequal treatment. Perhaps they are and do, yet to decide as much is to make a political choice with real-world consequences. With apologies to George Will, when we make “survival” a coveted status, “survivors” proliferate.
This is precisely the motive in forever dredging up new categories of heroic perseverance. To be a victim, though indisputably valuable, is of diminishing partisan utility. To be a survivor is to soar to new heights of authority and insight. It is to sit with men and women who endured the Shoah itself and not blink. But in truth, it is the rare human being who has not battled through something—such are the slings and arrows hurled at us by a fallen world. To the extent that persistence brings wisdom, it is surely accompanied by our unshakeable foolishness and vanity. We are, after all, only people.
Writing about the “language of remission and recurrence” common among cancer patients, the critic Susan Gubar once argued that “we need a word for the murky in-between zone that a number of us inhabit daily.” We do. But let’s not use “survivors.”