[ETA: It has been pointed out to me that “social justice warrior” is sometimes used as a neutral term for what I call in this post “social justice person.” I am totally okay with this use, although I would advise people who use it that way that other people might understand them as using SJW in a pejorative sense. This post is only complaining about its use as a pejorative.]
I used to use the phrase “social justice warrior” a fair amount. Then I started to notice something.
When my friends complain about people using feminism as an excuse for ableist attacks against mentally ill and developmentally disabled men, they use the phrase “social justice warrior.”
When men’s rights activists complain about gender studies teaching women to hate men, they use the phrase “social justice warrior.”
When anti-social-justice people complain about (to look at the top three posts on wtfsocialjustice as I write this) blogs named BPD(insert character name here), nonsexual BDSM, and fat people who have the temerity to think that they shouldn’t hate themselves, they use the phrase “social justice warrior.”
And when misogynist douchebags complain that people disagree with them about whether women are good at anything besides making babies, cleaning, and finding the car keys, they use the phrase… “social justice warrior.”
This is sort of upsetting because I would really not like to say any words that might conceivably lead people to mistake me for Jim.
The reason that such a wide group of people can use the phrase “social justice warrior” is that it doesn’t actually mean anything besides “social justice person that I don’t like.” You personally might define “social justice warrior” more narrowly, as “bullying social justice person”– but such narrow definitions do not reflect how the word is actually used (indeed, even by the people who have narrow definitions).
There’s a couple of reasons why it’s bad to have words like that. First, there’s an illusion of transparency issue. I, the hypothetical MRA, the creator of wtfsocialjustice, and Jim have very different critiques about social justice. I think social justice is often full of bullies who use fighting oppression as an excuse to perpetuate oppression. The MRA shares my values about not irrationally hating large groups of people, but has a factual disagreement with me about whether gender studies involves this behavior. The creator of wtfsocialjustice has a bizarre hateon for asexuals, trigger warnings, and self-diagnosis. Jim objects to anyone who thinks that women are not pets who can talk.
But the problem is that if you say “social justice warrior”, all four of those groups are going to think you’re talking about the same group of people. (…Well, maybe not Jim.) It can take a surprisingly long time to figure out that someone else’s true rejection of social justice warriors is that social justice warriors think asexuals exist. This is particularly true if someone is just making contextless negative statements about social justice warriors– if someone says “I like real social justice, but not social justice warriors”, do they mean “I believe that social justice people can also be sexist and racist” or do they mean “I think it is hilarious and funny to viciously mock teenagers online who think they’re wolves”? This is really an important distinction!
Second, if you say “so-and-so is a social justice warrior” or “such-and-such is a thing that social justice warriors do”, it makes your argument sound a lot more credible than it really is. Imagine replacing “Jane is a SJW” with “Jane is a social justice person and I don’t like her”. The former sounds like a fact about the world, while the latter sounds like a fact about your preferences– even though they literally have the same meaning!
Third, it creates a category which really doesn’t exist. There are some times when “people I don’t like” is a relevant category– for instance, drawing up invitations for a party. Intra-social-movement politics is really not one of those times.
It’s not necessarily true that everyone I used to call social justice warriors– people who are mean to others, people who claim to be in touch with the Universal Oppressed Person Hivemind, people who are sexist or ableist, people who erase male rape survivors, people who make really silly claims about how language works– are the same group of people. It is perfectly possible that no one who erases male rape survivors makes silly claims about how language works. It might turn out that all the people who do those things are mostly the same group of people, but that’s a claim that needs to be argued for, not smuggled in one’s language.
And if they aren’t necessarily correlated, I’m going to make bad predictions. I will relax my guard around people because they aren’t ableist and are therefore not a social justice warrior, only to discover that they regularly bully others. I’m going to assume that people who believe one thing I disagree with believe other things I disagree with, which makes me more likely to misrepresent their views. I will assume problems in the social justice movement are the result of a few individual actors that we can easily eliminate, rather than widespread bad ideas and incentive structures.
The solution here is really simple: instead of saying “social justice warrior”, say the actual trait you’re critiquing. Social justice people who bully others. Ableist social justice people. Social justice people who hate men. Social justice people who think asexuals exist. Social justice people who believe that women should have autonomy. This practice will lead to much clearer thinking and communication.