“SJW”: A Lame Insult With A Troubling Meaning

There’s a derisive term that’s entered the mainstream now, which tends to be uttered by some people with either very apathetic or very unpleasant political views: “Social justice warrior”, or “SJW”.

I’ve been accused of being this a few times now over the last few months. This insult, when it’s actually backed up by claims (however sociologically naïve), is often accompanied by claims like “what you’re doing is hurting people on a larger scale than you think”.

But the moment I heard it, I started thinking, “This is the insult you use?”

Let’s refer to another classic one that I’ve actually seen used with increasing frequency in recent years: “Feminazi”.

It’s an ugly insult that invokes Godwin’s law. But at least the implication is clear: “You are advocating a position that is Nazi-like in some way”. Those who accuse people of feminazis argue that they are being rhetorically abusive, or bullying people into silence with political correctness, or advocating repressive policies. And, as much as the insult itself is pure ad hominem, the argument behind it isn’t something without any merit. There are policies one could implement to try to mitigate sexism, from banning sexist speech to onerous workplace harassment policies to banning or regulating pornography, that would be odious even if the intent of addressing some pernicious gender-based inequality was a good one. Any serious feminist should certainly be concerned with values like liberty, autonomy, non-coercion, voluntary action, a broader notion of equality beyond mere gender equality, etc.

The point being, “Feminazi” is an insult whose logic I get. It’s a real attack.

But “SJW” as an insult shows just how utterly weak the position of those who are on the other side is.

It’s said sarcastically: “Oh, here’s the ‘social justice warrior’, fighting a battle that’s quixotic and unnecessary”. And sometimes, someone might even argue that there may be harm from implementing policies that are irrational.

Is that the best that people on the other side have? Really?

An “SJW” type, if they are of the mind to be unfair, can castigate the opposition as homophobes, misogynists, wifebeaters, neo-Nazis, Klan members, cheerleaders for rapists, peeping Toms… Those who seem to be apologizing for sexism, racism, homophobia, and so forth are in some pretty bad company. (And, if the tone I am taking so far doesn’t indicate this, let me make totally clear: There are plenty of perfectly rational people of conservative or centrist values who have valid concerns about the positions of people who have a social justice policy or cultural agenda or mission. There are real concerns that people have about competing rights, policy overstep, implementation, funding, etc. that any activist should take seriously and respectfully).

This insult basically boils down to someone saying, “You’re fighting passionately for a cause I disagree  with!”

It almost sounds like a compliment.

It’s amazing to me that the people who offer this insult are both so angry and so apparently ideologically conformist that they don’t seem to see that the insult basically implies that they themselves are social injustice warriors.

I say all of this not to castigate trolls on YouTube or Facebook comments but to make a broader point.

Those of us on the political left, from anarchists like myself to more centrist progressives or liberals, advocate for change and policies regarding things like gender and race discrimination, workplace harassment and bullying, gay marriage, wage inequality, etc. because we honestly believe, often based off of a review of evidence from excellent sociologists and social scientists, that there are inequalities that need to be corrected.

Most of the people who offer this “SJW” barb or who are on the side of those who do tend, in my experience, to be very grossly uninformed about the basics of this work. They often don’t know Peggy McIntosh from Tim Wise, or Claude Steele from Shelby Steele (a mistake I myself have made once). They often are very uninformed about what those arguing on the left side of the spectrum actually say about the statistics regarding inequality and discrimination.

Again, I reiterate that it is possible to believe that gender discrimination is largely a thing of the past and not be a raging sexist. I would hope that rational people on the other side would be in turn willing to admit that it is possible to believe that gender discrimination is real and pernicious and not be a paranoid misandrist.

So I would suggest that people on the other side of the social justice debates consider for a second why they’re so angry at those who disagree with them. Isn’t it possible that they just see the world differently? Sure, there are dishonest scholars and hucksters, on all sides, and they should be castigated. There are times when I disagree with some of those who are generally on my side of the spectrum on these debates: For example, I have repeatedly asserted that those who simultaneously argue that we can be confident about the number of women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and then claim that most women do not report their assault are being grossly inconsistent. Anyone who’s actually worked with victims knows about the legacy of doubt, uncertainty, fear and shame that makes getting a real handle on the sexual assault issue from a sociological perspective quite tough.

I would hope that they realize that angrily calling someone else an “SJW” is just saying loudly, “I disagree with you but I am admitting that you are clearly sincere about your beliefs that this is about social justice”.

And I would hope that they could see that many of those offering the “SJW” barb (or related barbs like “Tumblr lesbian feminist”) are operating from a perspective where they pretend a superior rationality. “Of course there’s no inequality, and anyone who disagrees with me is an irrational shrieking banshee”. The fact that this pretense to superior rationality not only often covers up extreme “angry white man”-type rage about these issues but also extreme ignorance about the basic assertions being offered by the other side should in turn be a warning sign.

Social injustice is a real issue. If a conservative views some policy as being unjust, I would expect them to speak loudly about it. That’s what us “SJWs” are doing too: Speaking loudly about an injustice we perceive.

Maybe those on the other side may want to respond with less volume and more reason.


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