What mean “social justice warrior”??

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.


  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I don’t know who Brian Leiter is, but it appears from his responses that he’s pretty much made his mind up and isn’t open to having any thing explained to him.

  2. Emily Vicendese says

    It seems to me that “social justice warrior” is clearly a pejorative: it was the common thread running through all the definitions. The fact that “social justice” is being used in a PEJORATIVE sense should ring alarm bells as to the speaker’s intention / political persuasion. The use of “warrior” is common to “keyboard warrior” which is also a pejorative, but politically neutral, unlike “social justice warrior”.

  3. says

    I follow BL’s blog, and I was troubled by his casual dismissal of that message he quoted from a reader.

    I can understand that he gives more weight to a philosopher than to a possibly anonymous reader. But the reader’s comments should at least have been troubling enough for BL to do his own investigation.

  4. Emily Vicendese says

    I commented there. It’s being held in moderation. I suggested that anyone concerned with social justice shouldn’t use “social justice” as part of a pejorative expression. I also pointed out it that it is interesting that there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent term for someone from the conservative side of the fence, but that I am pretty sure the sort of bad behaviour “social justice warrior” is supposed to refer to is not limited to the progressive side of the fence.

  5. Lady Mondegreen says

    I also pointed out it that it is interesting that there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent term for someone from the conservative side of the fence, but that I am pretty sure the sort of bad behaviour “social justice warrior” is supposed to refer to is not limited to the progressive side of the fence.

    The same has long been true of “Politically Correct.” The right has plenty of its own not-to-be-criticized shibboleths. Somehow those aren’t “P.C.” though.

  6. Emily Vicendese says

    Yes, a good example of right wing “not to be criticised shibboleths” might be things to do with nationalism and the military. Here in Australia, anyone who criticises Anzac Day (a remembrance day for Australia’s tragic attempt to invade Turkey in WWI) is subjected to all kinds of bullying on the internet and IRL.

  7. Emily Vicendese says

    *Correction: it was an invasion of Gallipoli as part of the Ottoman Empire, so not really Turkey then, although Turkey now.

  8. Silentbob says

    @ 7 Emily Vicendese

    Well, if we’re going to quibble… 😉

    … it wasn’t Australia’s invasion, either. The ANZAC troops were under the command of the British.

  9. footface says

    I guess the fact that people who might get labeled SJWs use the term “microaggressions” indicates that they can’t tell major offenses from (more) minor ones? Or, wait, no. It indicates the opposite. Maybe that is another term this BL person doesn’t yet know?

  10. says

    Do they?

    Um… uh… *raises hand*

    I figured a while back if certain people were going to keep dismissing me as an “SJW”, I might as well embrace it. I was going to name my first album (I actually have music written… it’s a matter of getting it recorded) “Social Justice Warrior”.

    Should I not do that, then?

    It’s at least partially meant to be humorous… but… then… not sure I want to add to this misunderstanding of the phrase, either…

  11. Morgan says

    It referred to someone on twitter/tumblr, usually young, who had just discovered activism last week and was REALLY REALLY SERIOUS ABOUT IT EVERYONE!!!

    This was my understanding (of its origins, not its current usage): I’ve seen it for at least a few years, and while it pretty much always had the problem of being over-applied as a pejorative to anyone who dared to talk about social justice, the root meaning as I understood it was a person who was overzealous and spoiling for a fight, more concerned about performing and being seen to be properly clued-in to the issues than about actually accomplishing anything. I don’t think it originated with MRA types, and it definitely didn’t come from GamerGate, though both surely made it more visible or widespread.

    Do they? I don’t. For a start, why would I call myself any kind of “warrior” unironically?

    Well, complete lack of irony is often difficult to achieve on the modern Internet, but I do see lots of people happy to say “you want to call me a ‘social justice warrior’? As in, someone who fights for justice in society? And you expect me to be insulted? Fuck no, you bet I’m a social justice warrior, jackass.” There’s a campaign for better social justice party balance, with some calling themselves Social Justice Rogues, Social Justice Healers, Social Justice Wizards, etc.
    See also.

  12. veil_of_ignorance says

    While I agree that the term has come to be used pretty nondiscriminatory, I also believe that the particular mode of thinking and arguing at the interface of identity politics, postmodern critique of reason and standpoint epistemiology that the term SJW originally used to describe exists in abundance both outside and on the internet . While the comparison to doctrinaire Marxists during the 60s / 70s might be justified when referring to the academy types which exhibit this phenotype, what really unites those people is stereotypical (I am always surprised how accepted racialism / racial essentialism and culturalism / cultural essentialism has become in certain activist circles) and conventionalist thinking. As a result, people oftentimes seem to lack an ethical basis to ground the conventions they defend upon. They defend identities instead not principles. But social justice without some universalist moral fundament is hollow and self-defeating.

  13. Scott John Harrison says

    As someone who has seen some people who do identify with the term – They see the term as a joke – a meme. Something idiot MRAs throw at them and they can just shrug off.

    A recent post I read about 30 minutes ago of this sort of thing:


  14. Deepak Shetty says

    Hmm – I always thought it meant people who are commenting about Social Justice issues but who are perceived to be armchair activists (Usually there is a very obvious double standard being applied)

    I also see the usage being extended to cases where the commenter thinks I dont believe this is a problem anymore or I dont think this is an important issue or I dont think this is as important as the other issues I am interested in .

    And finally anyone who posts or comments at FTB (unless it gets them banned), is by definition , also a SJW.

  15. brucegee1962 says

    I can only aspire to be considered a Social Justice Warrior, but I haven’t done enough yet to deserve the title.

  16. amrie says

    The definition he got is what people who use the term pejoratively to refer to anyone who advocates on issues like racism and sexism will say it means; that’s the whole point. It’s not so much an incomplete definition as a dishonest one.

  17. says

    Yes, except that there are people who do what that definition described, so in that sense it’s not dishonest, but treating that as the whole meaning is.

  18. John Morales says


    I am vastly amused when I get called that: it’s so very inappropriate, it’s obvious it’s used purely as an epithet.

    (So revealing it is! 🙂 )

  19. says

    Do they?

    *raises hand* too

    IMO there’s an air of toungue-in-cheek in people reclaiming the term SJW, but some of the reclaiming is also more than half serious. I have friends, mostly through A+ spaces, who call themselves Social Justice Archers, Social Justice Bards, Social Justice Fae/Fairies, Social Justice Scribes, Social Justice Wizards etc. The words replacing “Warrior” that I have seen, often have a medieval and/or fantasy connection. Personally, I’m working on developing a skill set suitable for a Social Justice Scribe and/or Social Justice Town Crier.

    Because fuck if I’m going to cede every expression that begins “Social Justice” to the very people who want to silence us all.

    NateHevens @10

    By all means, go ahead with the album name! Or, if you prefer: “Social Justice Guitarist”, “Social Justice Rhapsodist”, “Social Justice Troubadour”, “Social Justice Scop”, “Social Justice Songster”, “Social Justice Sonneteer” or “Social Justice Warbler” (I would LOVE that last one!)

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