i dream of being possible

One man's social justice warrior is a woman's freedom fighter


So in my recent explorations (and perhaps apologism) for liberalism, I learned that ‘social justice’ is one of the ways that more recent developments in liberalism have been labelled (also known as ‘new liberalism)1. This is partly what motivated the title for this essay, since it has been going around and around in my head. The fundamental, primary value of liberalism is, um, liberty2. So how is something like ‘social justice warrior’ fundamentally different from ‘freedom fighter’?

These days, the difference is obvious. Social Justice Warrior [sjw] is a pejorative. It wasn’t always but it is now. No such negative connotation has (so far) attached itself to ‘freedom fighter’ even though they basically amount to the same thing. The title of this essay used ‘man’ and ‘woman’ for the example (because it fits into the original saying). But these can be swapped out for any given oppression/oppressor dynamic.

In all the slew of articles and general denouncing of ~social justice warriors~, I don’t think I’ve seen many open ‘defenses’ by a self-identified sjw. Critiques of many of the articles I’ll discuss in this essay aren’t usually explictly written from this particular perspective. And I do get why.

One of the main reasons why a person ought to avoid labelling themselves as an sjw if they are trying to engage ‘liberals’ and/or ‘progressives’ who criticize us, is that the term itself is generally used to dismiss opposing viewpoints. To be labelled a social justice warrior is to be quickly and easily exiled from the ability to participate in these kinds of discussions. But more on this later.

Now. I’m used to see conservative/reactionary critiques of the mystical social justice warrior. But I’m actually far, far more interested in critiques of people on the ‘left’. You know, liberals. Progressives. Or whatever the kids are calling themselves these days. If only because what liberals have to say about the ever-feared and loathed sjw is basically the same thing that conservatives have been saying.

But the framework shifts. The social justice warrior is at once liberal/progressive to extreme absurdity but also reactionary, conservative, and anti-liberal in ways far more dangerous than any conservative. Its kind of a unique position in the sense that all sides of the political spectrum resoundingly condemn and distance themselves from the social justice warrior.

So where does the sjw fall into the political spectrum? But also, sjw has become to activism/whatever much like ‘hipster’ has become to fashion/subculture/whatever. Its always someone else who is a social justice warrior. And that Other comes to represent all sorts of negative traights and qualities that always always belong to them and them alone. There is a little bit of precision as concerns who, exactly, is a social justice warrior. But the main purpose these days is to stand in as the rhetorical Other and, for those who like this sort of thing, the Straw-gender-neutral-and-politically-correct-person of our times.


A recent article in the Washington Post discusses how ‘social justice warrior’ has now entered the dictionary3. One of the more interesting things about the wapo article is that they don’t know why/how ‘sjw’ became an insult… She marks 2011 as the major turning point since this is when it was added to the urban dictionary.

2011 does correspond with my own experience of how ‘sjw’ became the bogeyman, catchall insult it is today. For those of us who were on tumblr and tended to talk about certain subjects like gender, race, and other personal experiences of oppression, we know where ‘sjw’ comes from. It became an insult on reddit, anon livejournal communities, and 4chan.

It was primarily used against Black women and femmes who talked about their life on tumblr. The very same people who’ve been erased in the recent gamergate stuff. And this missing history ellides the vast amount of harassment and abuse these people experienced, in order to frame this to be more about the ever-vulnerable, but worthy of protection, white woman.

One aspect of how this became a perjorative that I don’t see many people touch upon is that part of how it became so is the move to reject ‘social justice’ as a label itself. Many of my friends at the time were – and remain so today – very much against anyone calling them, their writing, their blogs, whatever, ‘social justice’. They repeatedly said that they weren’t running ‘social justice’ blogs but personal blogs. But because they are all people marginalized in more than a few ways, talking about their lives necessarily means talking about oppression and how it impacts their/our lives.

(I’m going to stop putting the rhetorical distance here. I was there and an active participant, although I never wholly rejected the ‘social justice’ label in the same way, since I do actually write about things beyond my personal experience. My writing and blog and whatever aren’t ‘personal’ in the sense that they have no broad applicability and relevance. They are personal in the sense that I do experience the types of oppression I talk about, its just that my brain tends towards abstract, meta levels of analysis.)

One thing that is definitly true of most (if not all) of the people I know where were on tumblr when ‘sjw’ came to mean what it does today, is that very few of us identified as activists of any kind. I certainly still do not consider myself an activist. In general, while people may have rejected being labelled as ‘social justice’ and/or ‘activists’ to varying degrees, one thing was broadly true: few if any of us considered ourselves to be participating in any kind of organized, movement.

This is important, btw, because it strikes at the heart of the sjw as monolothic entity. Rather, this is about a heterogenous groups of individuals being slotted into a community/group that none of us actually recognize. But I think that’s exactly how/why it was social justice warrior and not, idk, something like ‘feminazi’ – which does refer to a specific movement.

I mention all of this because one of the usual accusations of ‘sjws’ is that we love to dogpile (its in the first pejorative urban dictionary defintion of the term). Or that sjws – as a whole coherent group – are doing various things like ruining freedom of speech on campuses. It makes the people named by the term appear far more unified and organized than is even remotely true.

Which does matter because they same cannot be said of the very same people who made ‘social justice warrior’ the commonly known insult it is today. It has been documented that some of the incidents leading up to gamergate were organized, planned actions. People on 4chan (or whatever they call it these days) deliberately engaged in mass harassment and abuse campaigns on purpose and as an organized (not matter how loosely) group.

The diversity and heterogenous nature of so-called social justice warriors is important because what people perceive as, idk, mass movement towards restricting speech on college campuses is usually individual people getting mad and vocal about something they don’t like. And much like any other political position, you’re rarely alone in thinking like this. Five hundred inviduals choosing to care about the same thing and trying to do something about it – again individually – give the appearance of organization where there is none.

Again this matters. Because a heterogenous, group of individuals acting on their own accord pretty much cuts the legs of the accusation that we seek to undermine free speech. If social justice warriors are not a coherent group with a shared ideology – which we are not – then it leaves open the question as to how we expect other people to adhere to an ideology we don’t espouse, much less actually have. How can we be pushing an agenda when most of us (at least the ones I know) won’t even identify themselves as being involved in any kind of movement or activism?

This is all why ‘social justice warrior’ was a necessary term. Its vague and broad because it refers to something that doesn’t exist and never has. Because people who loathe and deride us need some way to refer to a diverse group of people with no shared ideology. In cases where there is an identifiable movement or ideology, people tend to use that. They’ll talk about how feminists are ruining the world for men. Or how communists hate freedom and innovation or whatever the fuck ppl say.

And so: social justice warriors were born. And it often is intended to refer to behaviour rather than belief or ideology. This is very clear from liberal/left/progressive criticism. They’ll say the ‘agree’ with our values and principles but loathe how we act and behave. Yes, conservatives and reactionaries will certainly attach based on perceived ideology, but even what they say generally amounts to a criticism of behaviour, rather than one of ideology.

The rhetorical impact of ‘social justice warrior’

Now that we can understand some of what motivated the creation of the perjorative sense of the term, this allows us to start digging into the rhetorical impact of the term. And how it is used and mobilized in these ‘conversations’ about race, censorship, free speech, gender, and whatever else.

Again, being labelled an sjw is a comment/critique on your behaviour not your values or beliefs. Which is interesting because this tends to allow both the right and the left to mobilize the ad hominem fallacy without much consequence. What we say or advocate for can be dismissed because we are social justice warrior. And this dismissal is only based on my perceived behaviour and most definitely not the substance of my ideas.

This also allows them to sneak in that other popular fallacy that people love to invoke, the straw man one. Because the social justice warrior is a person of excess – too extreme, too much, too far – are claims are de facto absurd and extreme as well. For those that don’t know, the straw man fallacy is about arguing against a weaker version of an argument advanced by the other party.

Its easy to use a strategy like reducto ad absurdum when your opponent is, by defition, always already absurd. People who critique social justice warriors do not have to actually demonstrate that our positions or arguments are absurd, because the mere fact that it is a position held by an sjw means it is absurd. You would not be an sjw if your arguments, beliefs, or values were reasonable because this excess is essential to being an sjw.

This is how it becomes so easy for left/liberal critiques to dismiss us by waving their hands and using hyperbolic rhetoric. A deman for trigger warnings on course materials is clearly a desire to surpress all free speech on college campuses. How or why exactly we get to ‘no free speech’ from trigger warnings is never actually explained or demonstrated. Its clear that this is what sjws want because we are sjws. So obviously, if we want trigger warnings, it means that we want anything that could require a trigger warning to simply be removed from the course.

See how absurd I am?

Zomg! Convicted!

But honestly, I don’t even have to point to that general thing, since I have great examples from my own life:

This sort of perspective is not confined to Twitter and the comments sections of liberal blogs. It was born in the more nihilistic corners of academic theory, and its manifestations on social media have severe real-world implications. In another instance, two female professors of library science publicly outed and shamed a male colleague they accused of being creepy at conferences, going so far as to openly celebrate the prospect of ruining his career. I don’t doubt that some men are creepy at conferences — they are. And for all I know, this guy might be an A-level creep. But part of the female professors’ shtick was the strong insistence that harassment victims should never be asked for proof, that an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict. The identity of the victims overrides the identity of the harasser, and that’s all the proof they need.4

For those who don’t yet know, I’m one of the ‘female professors of library science’. This article led to the harasment of a friend of mine (noted in the editorial comment) but also for me and Lisa.

But anyway, look at how unreasonable my position is. Look at it. My god, I’m saying that all someone needs to do is identify as a victim in order to send someone to prison (or whatever). How fucking ridiculous and absurd? How intolerable.

Now… this article doesn’t explicitely use ‘sjw’ because it is somewhat before gamergate made this as widely used as it is today. But… it is, about many of the behaviours attributed to the social justice warrior. As well as, introducing one of the two groups often slotted into this category (college students…5).

He literally calls my position here ‘terrifying’. And sure, the way that he has it framed here, it does sound terrifying. I mean. Anyone could identify as a victim and send ppl to prison! What a world that would be.

But of course this isn’t, in fact my position. Its a straw man. His characterization, though, of my position is one that many people shared. Something to laugh at because it is so patently absurd. I think this will always been one of my favourite ironies about The Case. The blog post I got sued over was title, “Lets talk about community accountability”. In this post, I regretably named a name as an example but literally my entire post is about…. community accountabilty.

For those that don’t know, ‘community accountability’ and/or ‘restorative justice’ is actually a notion that has been proposed as an alternative to the current, carceral system of ‘justice’. Its an alternative to the carceral justice system. This means that when I say that victims shouldn’t be asked for proof, this has nothing to do with a ‘guilty verdict’. That’d only make sense if my comment is interpreted within a carceral system of justice.

But this is typical of these liberal/left criticisms of social justice warriors. See how absurd I am?

Just who are these warriors exactly?

If you happen to be like me and notice trends in how people talk about things, it doesn’t escape my notice that 2015’s ‘problem student’ is 2016’s social justice warrior. Sara Ahmed still has the best analysis and response to 2015’s moral panic about trigger warnings and censorship and all that, in which she discusses this problem and the figure of the ‘problem student’:

I want to begin by explaining the title of this post. What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts, which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilisation: we might even say, to life itself. In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. These values are identified as requiring the reproduction of norms of conduct that students are themselves failing to reproduce. Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing the failure of a whole system.6

This paragraph is pretty much the same in content and implication as descriptions of the social justice warrior:

This phenomenon has now touched every facet of modern life, especially on social media. The main problem is that anyone who doesn’t agree with strict rules on language is often labelled as a rabid right-winger, even if they are actually moderate progressives. What used to be a characteristic of the left wing fringe is now creeping into the mainstream ether, a pitchforks and torches method of forcing regular people to abide by unwritten rules of interaction. These members of the reactionary class are known as social justice warriors.7

Latter in the article Di Fiore touches upon many of the same points discussed by Ahmed and anon professor guy. Di Fiore even references a case that happened in canada that many people made parallels to with my own (I don’t think the situations were similar, btw). But his framework is much the same. SJWs are subverting justice by presumming the guilt of the defendent! Who cares about all the research and evidence demonstrating just how violent and awful the carceral justice system is to victims. He sure doesn’t.

And he doesn’t need to because we are threatening freedom! Democracy!

But just who, really, exactly are these most-powerful individuals who threaten the very core of democracy and freedom? Who.

Because its clear that it isn’t just ‘problem students’, not know that we have a broader term to implicate the same people with similar ideas. Not when a professor writing about how his students terrify him goes on to name a mother and two 30+ professionals? And thus leading to a giant pile of harassment and abuse.

Again note how the defining characteristic isn’t so much a particular ideology or age group, but rather a set of behaviours.

You are a social justice warrior if you won’t debate or discuss something. You are a social justice warrior if you don’t believe in 100% unrestricted free speech (unless the reputation of a man is at stake and then suddenly there are proper restrictions to free speech).

I particularly like this last article about sjws and free speech, because of the disclaimers. He keeps pointing out how he’s a ‘moderate progressive’. He keeps putting up these disclaimers in anticipation of the imagined backlash he fears (hopes) he’ll get. Again, notice how this is about hyperbole and absurdity.

See how wanting even a more fair carceral system becomes a desire to enact a kind of community, vigilante justice that undermines everything that justice means or whatever. Because he elides the details of the judge’s behaviour in the case instead implicitly framing the carceral system as fundamentally just and fair. Or at least the most just and fair system he can imagine so that even if there are problems, its a question of reform.

What matters is that these dangerous and powerful social justice warriors are threatening freedom and democracy. Which is an interesting conclusion given that if sjws were nearly as influential as he thinks, the verdict of the case would’ve likely been very, very different. Instead, he is able to sit comfortably on his platform and, well, speak his mind in this environment of ‘an Orwellian expectation of uniformity’7.

The dwelling of the worm

The other group often cited as being social justice warriors are ‘activists’ or whatever on social media. The focus on social media by these people is important (same with the one of college campuses). Online ‘activists’ are often also derided as ‘slacktivists’ and other such things. The idea being that because we exist online and on social media, we cannot possibly be doing anything substantive in the ‘real’ world.

The same ‘real’ world that is not a college campus, where these students make endless demands to be coddled and protected. The same campuses where, apparently, students hold all the power. They decide what is or isn’t on the curriculum. They decided who gets to teach, speak, or even exist on campuses.

The Germain Greer thing from last year is often used as an example of how students have run amok on campuses and are threatening free speech. Lots and lots of commentary from that one incident. But not so much commentary on the apparently insignificant fact that she still spoke. Yes. Students there protested against her and didn’t want her to speak.

But ultimately… she still spoke. All this talk of silencing and censorship when, well, it never happened. Sure its an open debate whether or not no-platforming counts as censorship and a debate I’m sure will live on for a good long time. But… all this debate ends up doing is erasing some real, salient facts. The main one being that social justice warrior victories are vanishingly small compared to the how the mainstream continues to function.

There’s a reason why these people writing for large media organizations are always pointing to random people on social media. Social media has created a context where many kinds of people are being directly exposed to those they oppress and disagree with. And because, as it happens, sometimes many people in a particularly group get unhappy about the same thing, this is perceived as a systemic effort to silence and censor opposing viewpoints.

That all of this just so happens to coincide with a certain set of values and attitudes used for centuries to oppress people all over the world, is an accident, I’m sure. Because the real problem is that people like me hate democracy, freedom, and kittens. Or whatever.

But it is the collective action of individuals that gives the sjw the appearance of belonging to a coherent movement and ideology. I – better than most – understand how fucking overwhelming it can be to have hundreds of people pile on to you spouting all kinds of abuse and various things. I get it. Heck. One of the articles I discuss in this essay directly contributed to my own experience of this.

So… sure. Maybe its alarming when one of these left/liberal/progressives gets flack for being an oppressive asshole. Maybe they too get a hundred different people calling them all sorts of things. And its awful and hard. But… this is not actually equivalent to wielding institutional power.

A thousand ‘angry’ feminists can tweet about rape culture and the carceral justice system, but still the judge will blame the victim and a likely guilty man will be judged innocent. I can write a bajillion fucking blog posts about alternatives to the carceral justic system, but that will not protect me from someone mobilizing the violence of that system against me (lol). Just like a bunch of students in Wales can complain and petition to prevent a hateful transmisogynist from giving a speech… only for that speech to still happen and get the broad support of left/liberals wanting to stand up for her freedom of speech.

Bad liberals. Or maybe not liberals at all. Hard to say.

Note how Di Fiore explicitly calls social justice warriors ‘reactionaries’. This isn’t a new framing, others are things like the ‘anti-liberal’ left. Etc and so on. All this attempts to locate the sjw on the political spectrum amuses me, since as repeatedly noted the sjw is defined by behaviour and attitude not a coherent ideology.

I think my favourite example of this is the article about how conservatives are mobilizing ‘left-wing rhetoric’ to attack trans people8. Which is a bizarre thing to point out because conservatives and many people on the left have long reached a consensus that trans women are Bad and that we all need to die. Or sorry, not exist in public lest we threaten the privacy of real women.

The important thing to note about the sjw is that we are against fundamental liberal values. And democracy.

We most especially hate free speech.

I think the thing that gets me about all of this is that these ppl tend to miss the contradictions in their own viewpoints. Because I know, a lot of liberal values find their source in the enlightenment. So, its natural that Lukianoff and Haidt would end their lovely article with a quote from noted enlightenment thinker, Thomas Jefferson9.

These things always kill me because I cannot imagine the amount of cognitive dissonance required to think that a person who thought an entire race of human beings were actually property that he owned has anything meaningful to contribute to a discourse on freedom. No person who owned slaves is in any way in the position to even begin to have the most basic understanding of what freedom is.

But of course, whenever I speak out against the enlightenment and its attendant ideology, (white) people always insist that I’m mistaken. That how Jefferson lived isn’t really relevant to his philosophy. They insist, always and forever, that I must accept enlightenment ideology because is the foundation of our free, democratic society.

Yes. Really.

A lot of what all this criticism amounts to is that rejecting this type of liberalism (ie, one grounded in the enlightenment) is to be conservative. Because I’m apparently supposed to trust in the institutions built by people who wouldn’t think I am human.


Contradictions and conclusions

Again. The irony of ‘sjw’ being used to preclude discussion will never cease to amuse me. We can’t have a civil debate because those social justice warriors refuse to engage in civil debate. So obviously, their claims and positions can be dismissed without evidence or argument (it doesn’t escape my notice that most of the ‘evidence’ used to support the growing threat of social justice warriors is annecdotal).

But yeah. This is a great rhetorical move because it allows people to engage in the very behaviour they are projecting on their imagined Other. We must protect free speech unless that free speech is being used to protext free speech. Or something. Its an endless russian doll of non-sensical straw men.

Because the invocation of liberal values and whatever, are a continual reminder that if and only if we engage these people on their terms, will they bother to listen. Its a reminder that, yes, they actually do have real, institutional power on their side since they are able to dictate these terms. Because being liberal is rational and to be anything else is irrational. Just like white people are rational but people of colour are not. Or how men are rational but women are not.

There is nothing ideologically loaded in the notion of rationality and civil debate.

These are neutral because they are status quo. Engaging these liberal/left/progressives on their terms is only natural because it is neutral ground. Common ground can only be meaningfully established if the irrational social justice warrior accepts any number of reprenhensible premises. My unwillingness to sit down and ‘rationally’ debate whether or not I’m a woman with ppl on the left or right, demonstrates not the reality that I’m being silenced but that I’m censoring open discussion. Discussion of the type I just so happen to read everyday in my news reader.

That I’m being told that I cannot speak unless I do so in ways supported by a slave-owning white man, is all about me and how I threaten free speech and democracy. That since I’m being told that my views are irrelevant since I refuse to negotiate on terms set by a slave-owning white man, I chose not to engage these same people is an act of censorship on them.

Remember. Up is down. Students hold all the power. Social justice warriors require a moral panic because we are about to topple the bastion of democracy, justice, and freedom we call the united states. Or whatever. That being told that we are professional victim whiners is somehow a different message than the one we’ve been told all our lives and part of what we want to resist.

Don’t listen to a word I say because I want people incarcerated simply because I’m a victim. Or because someone somewhere is a victim.

  1. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on liberalism

  2. Gaus, Gerald, Shane D. Courtland, and David Schmidtz. “Liberalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2015., 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/liberalism/. 

  3. Ohlheiser, Abby. “Why ‘social Justice Warrior,’ a Gamergate Insult, Is Now a Dictionary Entry.” The Washington Post, October 7, 2015. http://archive.is/018A4. 

  4. Schlosser, Edward. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” Vox, June 3, 2015. http://archive.is/ZWLSE. 

  5. Which is interesting because in this – the conclusion of the article – everyone he talks about isn’t actually a college student. All of us are over 30. 

  6. Ahmed, Sara. “Against Students.” Feministkilljoys, June 25, 2015. http://bit.ly/1XfBpoG. 

  7. Di Fiore, James. “Are Social Justice Warriors Stifling Free Speech?” The Huffington Post. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://bit.ly/24UPqLc.  2

  8. Goldberg, Michelle, and Ruth Graham. “When They Say No, People Won’t Listen”: How Anti-Trans Conservatives Turn Left-Wing Rhetoric to Their Advantage.” Slate, May 13, 2016. http://bit.ly/24UJJNe. 

  9. Haidt, Jonathan, and Greg Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic, September 2015. http://bit.ly/255L5Iv.