Brian Leiter has only just discovered the term “social justice warrior,” and has had its meaning explained to him by someone with what looks to me like an incomplete (or tendentious) understanding of it.
Functionally defined, “SJW” designates someone who monitors cyberspace for slights or miscues that reveal bias, and then exploits the various tools of social media to shame the offender, express outrage, and summon the digital mob, whilst achieving for themselves a righteous fame that ties their identities and their actions to the heroes and achievements of the civil rights movement, the landmark moments of which preceded their adulthood. SJWs divide the world, GWB-like, into the evildoers (“shitlords”) and the oppressed, with the possible, but problematic remainder, being allies, whose status is ever tenuous and usually collapses into shitlord. SJWs do not distinguish between major and minor offenses — unintentionally using “transgender-ed” instead of “transgender” is as unforgivable as any other act of oppression — nor do they distinguish repeat and systematic from first-time offenders. They employ a principle of interpretation that is something like the opposite of charity. (If the utterance gives offense under one interpretation, that interpretation is correct.) It is a harsh “justice”.
Well, no. There are people who fit that description, certainly, but that is not the primary meaning of SJW.
Leiter quotes a reader pointing out the inadequacy of the above definition in an addendum:
I wanted to send you a quick note with regard to your most recent post on “social justice warriors”. Whilst I am entirely sympathetic to your criticisms of the online mobs, vague identity politics, etc. I thought that seeing as you hadn’t heard the term before you might want to be made aware that it originated and still continues to be used almost exclusively (to the best of my knowledge) as a pejorative by so-called ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ (read: genuinely horrible and regressive misogynists) to describe anyone with a liberal or progressive disposition. Without impugning your correspondent, I am immediately suspicious when the term is used as it suggests (and originated from) an entirely different and also toxic version of identity politics. I think the most mainstream use of the term so far has been in the ‘Gamergate’ movement, which many (myself included) think was a thinly veiled attempt by the same misogynists to create an aura of legitimacy around their sending of rape and death threats to relatively benign (if sometimes mistaken) critics of video game tropes/culture.
And so on. A useful corrective, I think, but Leiter pretty much brushes it off by saying (basically) that he still likes the first definition. There are more correctives in an open thread, along with some endorsements of the more tendentious first explanation.
With regard to “Social Justice Warrior”:
The term was coined with something like the interpretation that Brian’s correspondent indicated. It still has this use, but I think is now somewhat disfavored among honest participants in the debate, due to semantic poisoning.
What semantic poisoning? There was (and still is) this internet thing called ‘gamergate’. Supposedly it was about ethics in video game journalism, but mostly it was entitled male gamers sending death threats/ rape threats/ persistent harassment to women who criticized the rampant misogyny both in the companies that make video games, and in the content of those games. “Social Justice Warrior” as used by the gamergaters, came to be a pejorative for “feminist/ lgbt activist/ anyone who actually cares about actual social justice.” Google ‘Anita Sarkeesian” + “social justice warrior” and you will find how nasty the people who use the “SJW” label are. Google ‘Anita Sarkeesian’ and you might learn how little that term applies, if you are using it with the original meaning.
I personally think “SJW” is more of a taunt than a criticism, and its current use seems mostly to be to bully women and to justify bullying them. If someone has bad arguments, you can just point them out. It’s not ideal, in my opinion, to use terminology that (nowadays) most clearly aligns you with 4chan and the gamergaters.
In other words, if in doubt…don’t use it. It’s the same as that endless argument over “cunt” and how it’s used in the UK and why should we listen to Americans on the subject and yadda yadda yadda. I don’t see the point of defending epithets unless you’re very sure your particular treasured epithet is not more loaded than you realize. (And sometimes not even then, because some people can be very sure of things that are 100% obviously wrong.)
Leiter, rather surprisingly, completely missed the point.
BL COMMENT: The definition my correspondent offered had nothing to do with these usages.
Yes but that’s the point. That definition was incomplete at best, and the point is, the term has a lot more baggage, of a different kind, than the correspondent explained.
Another commenter tried to help.
My own impression is that the term “social justice warrior” followed a trajectory similar to “politically correct”, although much more rapidly.
As readers here are no doubt aware, PC was originally coined by the left to mock a certain type of ultra-doctrinaire Marxist back in the 70s, and by the late 80s the term was being used in earnest by conservatives to attack leftist thought.
Similarly, my impression is that SJW was coined by progressives during the early days of social media as a term of (mild) mockery. It referred to someone on twitter/tumblr, usually young, who had just discovered activism last week and was REALLY REALLY SERIOUS ABOUT IT EVERYONE!!! The term was subsequently adopted by the right as a genuine insult aimed at online progressives. Although this story is complicated by the fact that progressives have “reclaimed” the term and now unironically self-identify as SJWs in a way they didn’t before.
Do they? I don’t. For a start, why would I call myself any kind of “warrior” unironically?
Yet another tried:
From my experience, “social justice warrior” has nothing like limited meaning the correspondent describes (someone who cannot distinguish between minor and major offenses, participates in cybermobs etc.) but is actually used against anyone who advocates on issues like racism and sexism to disparage their concerns. (Which I think is really exactly what the term suggests) I have never, ever heard the term “Social Justice Warrior” used by anyone that thinks social justice issues are real and to be taken seriously, and it’s very often directed against anyone who brings up any social justice concerns at all.
One of the easiest ways to get called a SJW is to disagree with a racist or sexist joke online. I’m not talking about calling a mob in response to a slightly sexist joke, I’m talking about voicing disagreement with blatant racism and sexism that’s “just a joke.” I’ve been called a SJW a handful of times, every time because of something along these lines.
BL COMMENT: Given the evidence already adduced in this thread about the myriad uses, I don’t understand how the preceding can be seriously asserted. The term obviously has different meanings as used by different people. This is a familiar phenomenon in language.
Right…so if some people used “nigger” to mean “congenial amusing comrade” would it make sense to adopt the word oneself to mean that? No, it wouldn’t, because it would almost certainly be misunderstood. This too is a familiar phenomenon in language.