As a werewolf who used Twitter at least once, I’ve seen the term “SJW” come up.
It stands for “social justice warrior.” It is almost always used negatively, as an insult or a criticism. To be a social justice warrior is not a good thing in the eyes of most of the people who use it, although certain people – almost invariably those who are regularly accused of being one – have reclaimed the term and wear it as a proud, albeit perhaps ironic badge of honour.
In almost any conversation on social media about gender, race, sexuality or disability, you will likely encounter the term at least once. Seeing this, you may ask: “but what does it mean?”
The answer, as we are about to discover, is simple: absolutely nothing at all.
Regression to the Meme
When examining a phrase’s loss of meaning, we probably first need to examine what it’s meant to mean.
Breaking it down, the term “social justice” does refer to a meaningful ideology that can be described… sort of. It’s an incredibly vague umbrella term. Ultimately, the unifying factor in the various beliefs it encompasses is “belief in the necessity to ensure fair interaction between individuals and institutions.” This can range from economic factors like mobility and distribution of income to social factors like racial equality in legal treatment and bodily autonomy. The “social” qualifier in social justice refers to the belief that fair treatment by institutions can’t always be delivered by legal measures alone, because issues often arise exclusively in social and cultural norms or behaviour..
You can probably already start to see the problem: “social justice” is an incredibly broad and vague label for a lot of different special interests and ideologies – often with significant overlap, but not always closely related or exactly comparable to one another. Affordable access to healthcare is an element of social justice advocacy, as are efforts to reduce incarceration, as are movements for accountable government and policing, and they all have some shared concepts but aren’t always working towards exactly the same goals.
When a term is so broad and – importantly – open to interpretation, it runs the risk of turning into a box into which almost any even remotely related concept will fit. Any advocacy against the status quo based on a belief that individuals are being treated unfairly by institutions could be seen as social justice.
Warrior With A Cause
As for the “warrior” part, until fairly recently, being a warrior for social justice wasn’t really seen as a bad thing. The change in context came fairly recently, upon which it became comparable to the concept of “god warrior.” What is a god warrior?
Marguerite Perrin was featured on the FOX reality TV show Trading Spouses, the core concept of which is that two wives swap husbands and households for a week. A devout Christian, Perrin is remembered mostly for her emphatic attempts to convert the family hosting her to Christianity, particularly an unhinged rant in which she accused them of practicing “dark-sided stuff” and referring to herself as a “God warrior.” The internet found Perrin worthy of mockery because she had strongly held beliefs that she communicated poorly, incoherently and – most importantly – in a very irritating manner, and it quickly blossomed into the “God Warrior” meme.
You can consider internet memes to be a sort of visual shorthand, in which surprisingly complex ideas can be communicated in a very compressed format. Obviously, like any language, people have to be fluent in it, with fluency in this case meaning understanding the context of the images, but to anyone who understands the concept of the above picture, it communicates a lot of ideas very quickly.
A picture of Marguerite Perrin or the phrase “God warrior” essentially became a useful way to quickly communicate the concept of preachy, screamy, overbearing, incoherent, intolerant, opinionated Christian fundamentalists.
The concept of the “social justice warrior” is meant to be just like that, but instead of being a warrior for God, you’re a warrior for social justice.
This is Chanty Binx.
Chanty Binx is a feminist from Toronto, Canada. However, the internet’s memebase knows her as “Big Red,” if they know her by any name rather than a nameless stereotype. She was filmed arguing with people outside an Men’s Rights Activist event in 2012. In the video, she’s animatedly discussing feminism, occasionally referring to a sheet of paper she’s holding. She’s visibly irritated and confrontational during the entire video, and isn’t always communicating her points very clearly or politely.
This was not, admittedly, the most competently executed advocacy of feminism ever, but it might be one of the most widely known to internet subcultures. Feminists didn’t choose Chanty Binx to be a representative of feminism as a whole, nor do I think she intended to volunteer herself for that role. But she was memorable, and an easy target for mockery, and so she became an unflattering memetic representation of feminism.
Chanty Binx, or rather the memetic version of Chanty Binx the internet calls “Big Red” has become visual shorthand for the closest thing to a concrete definition the term “social justice warrior” has: a strongly opinionated, deeply confrontational advocate for a progressive cause. Posting a picture of Chanty Binx very quickly communicates, to anyone who knows the context, a fairly complex concept.
So, there we have it, right? We’ve actually worked out what “social justice warrior” means, haven’t we?
“Social justice warrior” as a term is still meaningless, largely because while it is almost always intended as a criticism, it doesn’t really have a concrete meaning. It’s a judgement of moral character without any moral standard by which to judge. It’s applied to everything from the leaders of national activist movements like Black Lives Matter to transgender teenagers on Tumblr discussing their experiences.
When a left-wing individual calls someone a “Nazi,” they may be wrong or right, but “Nazi” can at least be understood to refer to a fairly well-defined ideology of highly authoritarian white nationalism that uses both direct and structural violence to “cleanse” society of people it considers “undesirable” to the white race. While it’s possible to misapply the term to people who don’t fit those parameters, those paramters do exist and are generally well-understood.
When someone calls someone else an “SJW,” it communicates that the accused is saying something the accuser don’t agree with and/or in a way the accuser doesn’t like. But it doesn’t communicate anything else. It says nothing about why the ideas or their presentation are disagreeable, or even what those ideas actually are, so there’s no basis for comparison or debate.
Taken to the extreme, anyone criticising sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or any other form of bigotry or discrimination can be accused of being an SJW, because the term has no built-in standard for what is and isn’t agreeable other than the preferences of the person using it. It’s largely a criticism of the tone of an argument, rather than of the argument itself.
This is closely related to the concept of “virtue signalling,” the accusation that someone is conspicuously expressing a moral or ideological position solely for the purpose of improving their social standing. The problem with this accusation is that it’s an attack on the character of a person, not on their viewpoint. The accusation could easily be true, but if the idea itself is sound, the reason someone has for expressing it is irrelevant. That said, the term “virtue signalling” is at least able to precisely describe what it objects to, whereas “SJW” can’t.
The Other Problem
Then there’s the way in which “SJW” is used, in that it has become a convenient way of dismissing the concerns of marginalised people and their allies if they seem in any way emotionally invested in fixing inequality.
There is a concept known as “tone policing,” and it’s a form of ad hominem fallacy that attacks the way in which an argument was presented, rather than the content of the argument. It’s very often used against women, LGBT folk and people of colour when they present arguments with even the slightest bit of emphasis behind them – “why don’t you calm down so we can discuss this properly?” Functionally, it demands oppressed people not be angry about their oppression, and also carries the unspoken assertion that you can’t be angry and rational at the same time.
This is, of course, nonsense. It’s nonsense to expect victims of oppression to be perfectly dispassionate about it, and it’s nonsense to accuse them of being unable to effectively discuss that oppression because it angers them. But it’s highly effective nonsense, because we’re conditioned to prefer civility to disorder and to find angry people concerning.
It develops an idea that marginalised people are in some way unreliable sources of information on the oppression their demographic faces. That they are being deceptive, that they have something to gain from deliberately misrepresenting the difficulties they face. The argument, in its most base and obvious form, reads something like “of course you’d say racism exists – you’re black!”
Therefore, for a marginalised person’s argument about marginalisation to be listened to, it must meet a frankly impossible standard of detachment and composure to be considered “rational.” Women who get even slightly annoyed by a man speaking over them are “hysterical.” People of colour who discuss aspects of their own lives where they encountered racism are “taking things too personally.”
There’s the arbitrary standard of the “good feminist” – the idea that some level of discussion about marginalisation is acceptable, but if you go “too far” then you’ve either got a hidden agenda or you’re too emotionally invested. We’ve seen this tactic for decades, of course, but SJW is a recent and useful catch-all term because it compresses well, and compressed information is easier to communicate. It’s also less, shall we say, obvious than talking about “uppity blacks” or “loose women.”
It’s also a useful psychological tool for dismissing views that make you uncomfortable – by examining their least articulate defenders, and assuming “well if that’s the sort of person defending this idea, it can’t be very good.”
Feminism makes a lot of people uncomfortable, because it implies that they’ve been participating in a society that subjugates women and have probably personally engaged in behaviours that perpetuate that subjugation. That’s a deeply uncomfortable thing to have to consider.
But if your chosen mental representative of modern feminism is a college student with oddly-coloured hair who yells and swears a lot and sometimes has to read her talking points off a print-out…
… it becomes way easier to dismiss the entire concept as ridiculous. Which, of course, is exactly what the right wing wants you to do with pretty much all critical analysis of modern society.