Thoughts on a Sentence
by Chris Hyde
So, consider the sentence: ‘She is a victim’. A perfectly normal sentence. I have no issues with the word ‘she’ – even though pronouns are big in certain areas of discussion at the moment – nor the indefinite article ‘a’.
Victim, on the other hand, can – as my colleague discussed – be problematic and I want to draw out two specific aspects of that.
Firstly, a victim is defined as someone to whom something is done. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a victim as ‘someone or something that has been hurt, damaged … because of the actions of someone or something else…’. That is a completely neutral definition. However, that ‘acted upon’ characteristic can be (and too often is) then extrapolated to define victims as people who are not capable agents, but who are passive objects (in the grammatical sense) and who are therefore slightly lesser, less competent human beings.
And in that sense – and this is my second point – they can then come to be seen as other ‘other’; different from us independent, self-reliant types, and can be judged accordingly.
How many people do you think would say: ‘Well, I’m not like that. I’d never let that happen to me. I’d tell him to go **** himself’. There is definitely a stereotype of the kind of woman who is subjected to domestic violence as being from lower socio-economic backgrounds. But the truth is that this can happen to anyone, or more precisely: people who experience domestic violence do not conform to stereotypes or labels.
In a recent report...
roughly 72% of those in the study who had lived through domestic violence were either graduates or professionally qualified. All these women are described as victims of domestic violence, but few conform to the stereotypical image engendered by the word victim.
Back to our sentence. We are also influenced by the nature of the word is and specifically whether it refers to a temporary state or a permanent characteristic. We can see it clearly in Portuguese, which has two verbs that translate into English as ‘to be’. They are estar and ser. The verb ser is used to talk about permanent states, whereas estar relates to current, temporary circumstances. Thus, the English sentence I’m happy can be translated as estou contente when used in the context of ‘It’s been a good day. I’m happy’; or sou contente when used in the context of ‘As a person, I am happy’.
So, in our sentence, “she is a victim”, which applies?
Temporary condition or permanent state?
Let’s add in the domestic violence aspect. A woman gets married and after a couple of years,the husband starts to get violent. She leaves 5 years later. Two years after that, do you still say she is a victim of domestic violence? I think that sentence sounds quite possible.
So, has victim-hood become part of her character, a stain never to be removed? Once a victim, always a victim?
And is it something you can apply to domestic violence more easily than other things? Can you say she is a victim of a car accident? That sounds a bit strange. So, is judgement involved?
You don’t judge people who get hurt in car accidents. Might you judge victims of domestic violence? Might you think she is the sort of person who would attract/put up with domestic violence, that it was her fault?
Or – to paraphrase the SBS documentary: ‘See what she made him do’?
Slippery little word is is. They all are.