The past few months have been eventful. A prominent Canadian radio personality has been publicly condemned for sexual abuse and violence; a group of female celebrities’ personal photos was leaked and quickly spread across the web; a vaguely formalized community rallied against the changing tide of video game culture under the guise of an ethical crusade.
Tension surrounding the power dynamics of gender — especially on the internet — is generally par for the course, but in the second half of 2014, it’s hard to avoid just how much this dynamic structures our lives online.
Amid these seemingly constant crises, a new pejorative term has cropped up in online communities like Reddit and 4chan: the ‘social justice warrior,’ or SJW.
From what I’ve gleaned online — and there are literally hundreds of blogs devoted to this archetype — SJWs are generally young, white, and spend their time on social media condemning those who fail to live up to their own moral and ethical standards. This reclusive specimen is either hypocritically unaware of their own privilege in society, or overly general in their condemnation of an entire group of people, usually white men.
There are, predictably, plenty of memes and jokes to go along with the SJW figure. Most popular among them is Social Justice Sally, an affluent white woman and ad hominem abuser meant to stand as a symbol for SJWs everywhere — her relentless requests that you “check your privilege” are portrayed as cloying and generally hindering of meaningful online discussion. Other memes spoof the concept of checking one’s privilege entirely, or portray feminists as hateful, draconian banshees unwilling to engage in any critical discussion they can’t win.
Those who openly express support [for human rights] are vilified for their “hypocrisy” and “shallowness.”
It’s worth noting the many forms that SJWs supposedly take, if only to tear down each thinly imagined straw man one by one.
Problems that social justice advocates have been stressing for decades are finally finding themselves in the spotlight — issues of sexual abuse and coercion, objectification and sexualization, gender imbalance in the cultural industries — and this has forced those who cling to tired, oppressive ideologies to find an insult for those who dare to challenge the systems of oppression that have kept white, straight, able-bodied men on top of the heap. Hence, the social justice warrior.
We’re led to believe those who hold ideologies which fit under the umbrella of social justice — feminism, LGBTQ rights, body positivity — are attempting to dominate what should be a conversation and are forcing themselves into discussions in order to parrot rhetoric they don’t fully understand.
But what’s really going on is that those who do dominate the conversation are reacting with fear and confusion to the shifting tides of cultural acceptance and values. Female, non-white, LGBTQ, non-binary, disabled, low income, and other formerly silent voices are slowly gaining a foothold in our society, and those who openly express support are vilified and deprecated for their “hypocrisy” and “shallowness.”
The occasional overly pedantic Tumblr user targeting white men in power is dwarfed by the thousands of racist, sexist, and homophobic tirades which flood online comments sections every single day. Who’s the real problem here?
So, yeah, maybe not everyone who posts about social justice online gets every single detail right. But these ideologies are built to be open to the exchange of ideas, and evolve along with those who are a part of them. At the very least, the rise of the SJW shows that people are interested in advocating for a more egalitarian and open society in which power is shared rather than consolidated — and that’s a start.