If you consider yourself a liberal and have ever talked about politics online, you have probably at some point been referred to as a Social Justice Warrior, or an SJW. I’ve been called it plenty of times — both to my face, and behind my back. I’ve always had some questions about why people use this term and what exactly they intend to accomplish with it, but I was reminded of my ongoing confusion over this term when I recently saw a blog mention being annoyed by people in the dating scene who are into “social justice crap.” It reminded me of all the times I and other people I know have been referred to as an SJW.
So what IS an SJW? It is meant to be an insult, but what does it actually mean? It is hard to nail down what exactly it refers to, especially because the term sounds overwhelmingly positive. (A warrior?! Fighting for good causes?! Sign me up!) I think everyone defines it a little differently, but according to Wikipedia:
Social justice warrior (commonly abbreviated SJW) is a pejorative term for an individual who promotes socially progressive views, including feminism, civil rights, and multiculturalism, as well as identity politics. The accusation that somebody is an SJW carries implications that she or he is pursuing personal validation rather than any deep-seated conviction, and engaging in disingenuous arguments. The phrase originated in the late 20th century as a neutral or positive term for people engaged in social justice activism. In 2011, when the term first appeared on Twitter, it changed from a primarily positive term to an overwhelmingly negative one. During the Gamergate controversy, the negative connotation gained increased use, and was particularly aimed at those espousing views adhering to social liberalism, cultural inclusiveness, or feminism, as well as views deemed to be politically correct.
Essentially, at its core, when people use the term SJW, they are insulting people for….what exactly? Being liberal? Calling themselves a feminist? Believing in equality and talking about it online? Do people using this term realize that NONE of these things are insulting?
Now, I am not saying that everyone who has ever been referred to as an SJW is perfect. Obviously there are issues that people who are liberal can be guilty of, but most of these issues are really not much different than people who believe strongly in anything can be guilty of. Aside from maybe being a bit oversensitive or “too PC” at times, most of the issues that “SJWs” can be accused of also apply to ultra-conservatives (or ultra-anythings) who discuss their views online — primarily, only talking about stuff online and not ever putting your time or money where your mouth is. However, even being aware of these “SJW” issues…I am still confused about why people use the term SJW as though it is so insulting. If you want to criticize a group, why not criticize the things they are ACTUALLY guilty of? Call someone out if you think they are being oversensitive. Point out if people are, as wikipedia puts it, “Engaging in disingenuous arguments.” If you think someone rambles on about equality but you know they never volunteer for any good causes or donate to any charities or even attend a protest here and there, put them on blast! While I think sharing ideas online can help to educate people so I believe it can be important to a degree, it is definitely also important to make sure people’s alleged strong values are translating to their real life as well. If they aren’t, they deserved to be pushed to do better.
But, anti-liberal people seem to use the term SJW as though they are being clever (spoiler alert: they’re not), without really thinking about what they are accusing people of. Here are a few of the reasons I have been referred to as an SJW on the internet in the past:
- believing Trump is unfit to be president
- correcting inaccuracies about people’s anti-immigration arguments
- talking about privilege, and issues people of color and low-income face in our society
- pointing out actual studies about POC-related issues, such as the studies that show that people with non-white sounding names get fewer calls from potential employers, even with identical resumes
- talking about the need for better police training, changes in what happens when an officer tries to report a fellow officer, changes in how low-income areas are policed, and the fact that it is simply outrageous that people like Tamir Rice and John Crawford can be shot on sight, with no warning, for just existing, but many white criminals get a lot of negotiating time
- reminding people that feminism is about equality, and that while we have made a lot of progress in this area, women are at a disadvantage in some ways in our society
- believing that many (not all, but many) aspects of income inequality can be solved through policy, that generational and concentrated poverty are both very real things with very negative impacts on people, and that there are currently many tiny things built into our society that present challenges to low-income people that contribute to them not being able to save money (e.g. high bank fees for accounts without a lot of money in them)
Now, I am not saying that everyone has to agree with every single aspect of my social and political views. I obviously feel I am right or I wouldn’t bother sharing my thoughts, but very few of the world’s problems are ever solved by just one way of thinking. It often takes a variety of viewpoints coming together to solve issues, and I think people with strong opinions should be open to a debate. (This is another thing SJWs can be criticized for — not being open to a debate. But anyone who has ever tried to correct an ultra-conservative for a FACTUALLY inaccurate view, not even necessarily a debatable view, knows that we are definitely not the only ones! Again, attack the issue itself, don’t just throw a random blanket-term at it.)
So, if someone wants to call me a Social Justice Warrior for having strong opinions, and for discussing them online and trying to educate others, they can have at it! I am proud to hold my views and to try to use my position of privilege to help spread what I feel are important messages. If someone thinks I am being oversensitive, they can tell me. If someone wants to know what I do in my real life to back up my internet claims, we can have a conversation about the nature of my full-time job, where I make monetary donations, my ACLU volunteering, committees and school boards I serve on in the community, my rally attendance, and much much more. So go ahead and put SJW on a t-shirt for me, and I will wear it proudly, because ultimately trying to insult someone for caring about social justice only makes the person throwing the term SJW around look worse than I can possibly look for caring about things bigger than myself.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is the Desmond Tutu quote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I’d rather be an SJW than an oppressor, and anyone who disagrees should take a moment to reevaluate their priorities. Until then, I’ll be over here being a warrior, in every sense of the word.