The connotations of the term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ (SJW) have changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. What was once merely a description or even a compliment is now mainly used as a disparaging label for people being vocal about a cause – predominantly online. As the expression has become more mainstream it has been applied to a wider range of people according to the views of the user. As a result the term ‘social justice warrior’ means different things to different people. For example, a definition once found on Urbandictionary conveys the term’s negative connotations:
A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation. A social justice warrior, or SJW, does not necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of. They typically repeat points from whoever is the most popular blogger or commenter of the moment, hoping that they will “get SJ points” and become popular in return. They are very sure to adopt stances that are “correct” in their social circle.
Although the Oxford Dictionary definition categorises the term ‘informal, derogatory’, the definition itself doesn’t paint as black a picture of the social justice warrior:
A person who expresses or promotes socially progressive views.
A danger is that the term can also be used to discredit people working for a fair society by others who are opposed to their work. Because of the ranging uses of the term, and people’s differing opinions on SJW causes, it is impossible to group all social justice warriors into one category. It is debated ‘whether the [social justice warrior] movement is a dangerous pseudo-progressive authoritarianism or a long-overdue effort to achieve justice for all’.
But why is it important that charities and social organisations address issues around social justice warriors? As will be discussed, some SJWs’ methods inadvertently turn people away from social justice causes and as a result, reduce support for the organisation. To counter this, organisations may want to encourage people speaking out for social justice online to adopt a more constructive rhetoric or take up practical action in addition to awareness raising.
So what behaviour is it that can give people supposedly fighting for a fairer society a bad name? The fact that this label has an overwhelmingly negative connotation to many people suggests that some social justice warriors’ actions are counterproductive – they are turning people away from their causes, even those who were originally sympathetic but fear saying the wrong thing and being turned on like many others before. The Observer gives an example of when well meaning statements have been deliberately misconstrued and used to blacken the writer’s name; ‘At California’s Claremont McKenna College last fall, Dean of Students Mary Spellman had to resign after protests. Her crime: In an email replying to a student who had written to her about racial issues on campus, Ms. Spellman had mentioned her wish to “better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold,” supposedly implying students of color don’t belong at the school.’ Certainly the statement was clumsily written given the context and with a little more thought could have been made watertight; however, the nitpicking to find fault rather than recognising the intention has become a trademark of the social justice warrior. Fear of constant corrections, character assassinations and anxiety that their views will unintentionally offend, keep people from joining discussions and can make them view the adamant commenters, as well as their opinions, as unreasonable. People involved in the Gamergate controversy, were so riled by the social justice warrior movement that it was ‘widely seen as a key event in the formation of Steve Bannon’s beloved ‘alt-right’, who helped propel Donald Trump into the White House on a wave of anti-SJW feeling.’
However there are also examples of people being given the label ‘social justice warrior’ in a calculated attempt to dismiss their work. For example Dan Scratch, a teacher working for social justice, believes that social justice education should be for everyone. He emphasises that it ’is not about imposing an ideology or way of thinking on students’ but ‘providing a lens and framework to help educators make decisions to help create more equitable classrooms to ensure all students can have success.’ He goes on to say that ‘Social justice education is acknowledging that issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and colonialism (among many other forms of oppression) impact our society and that educators have a responsibility to help students navigate these conversations in a good way.’ It is important that these conversations can happen in a respectful setting to promote understanding. Making students aware of challenges and inequalities can build the foundations of a fairer society. However, educators in this area are often dismissed by being referred to as ‘social justice warriors’. In these cases the term can be ‘used to diminish and demonize social justice issues and those who advocate for them’. In fact, social justice educators are a far cry from the most common assumptions about Social Justice Warriors – that they ‘argue without evidence and “call-out” folks who are not politically correct or upholding “identity politics.”’
So how can we raise awareness and tackle injustice in our societies? Certainly we shouldn’t stand by and accept this world where approximately 150 million people are trapped in extreme poverty while ‘the world’s richest 1 percent, own 44 percent of the world’s wealth’ and only 6 countries give women equal legal work rights to men. These examples barely scratch the surface, so how can we advocate for social justice without putting people’s backs up? It is worth noting and celebrating that around the world many people who might consider themselves social justice warriors are committing their lives to promoting more equal societies without invoking anger and disillusionment. Tia Osborne feels that challenging income inequality, corporate corruption, or systemic racism and sexism would be a better way forward compared with ‘calling out’ individuals. She argues that ‘call-out culture doesn’t shift the narrative, it only victimizes the folks that need to understand that they have privilege and where that privilege comes from. It shuts down privileged people’s ability to interrogate themselves, and opens up the floodgates of self-pity and resentment, reaffirming to them that there is indeed nothing wrong with them or “the system”.’ Instead of using social media to take on people with opposing views angrily, it can be constructive to post awareness raising, educational content about injustice so people are introduced to the ideas without feeling like there are sides to pick in a conflict. While social media can be a useful tool for spreading the world, we need to be mindful of being caught in echo chambers which reinforce our own ideas and shut us off to other people’s differing opinions. When we encounter people with opposing views online but know nothing else about them personally, it is easy to develop a confrontational ‘us vs them’ mentality. Alongside taking a more constructive approach on social media, other ways exist for individuals to work for a more just world. Supporting ethical businesses and boycotting exploitative companies’ products is a powerful way of voting with your feet against injustice. Supporting charities by volunteering or donating can help their work for social justice. Attending protests, writing to political representatives, choosing to vote for parties who stand up for social justice and even signing petitions shows governments that the people want change for a fairer society.
To live in a world where everyone enjoys the same freedoms no matter what their race, gender, sexuality or where they were born, it is necessary to educate people and make them sensitive to the challenges others face. This cannot be done if they are alienated and shut out of discussions. All people need to have the opportunity to educate themselves and ask questions within a constructive dialogue, because equality simply cannot co-exist with division.
Credits – Francesca Meynell