Friday, July 17, 2015


I want to talk briefly about the acronym “SJW”, or “Social Justice Warrior”.  It’s a pejorative that’s now commonly applied in online discussions to a specific type of political progressive.  I wish it wasn’t.

We’ll start by discussing what social justice is.  The Platonic definition of justice is “…to give every man his due.”  Social justice is the application of that principle in social settings.  That’s what it is.  That’s ALL it is.

Social justice requires, at a basic level, that a person’s circumstances be the result of their own merit, or lack thereof.  If a person’s actions are meritorious but factors unrelated to those actions result in that individual suffering a bad outcome, that is unjust:  for instance, a person who is qualified for an opportunity but who is denied it based on skin color or gender.   If a person’s actions are objectively bad but factors unrelated to those actions result in that individual achieving a good outcome, that too is unjust:  for instance, a person who breaks the law but obtains immunity from legal consequences due to wealth, social status, or for some other reason.

Again:  that’s ALL social justice is, at least at an objective, definitional level.  It seems to me that the basic principles of social justice are uncontroversial.  I don’t know that there are many people on the American political spectrum who would disagree with the statements above.

Of course, the term “social justice” has been appropriated by specific religious and political traditions. It has become one of those words like, “discrimination” or “Puritanical,” the denotative meaning of which has been completely eclipsed by the connotative.  Social justice does not, in and of itself, require that all people be guaranteed a specific outcome or minimal lifestyle.  Social justice does not, in and of itself, require mechanisms such as income redistribution or affirmative action.  These are matters that are legitimately debatable by people of good will who share social justice as a goal.  But let us be honest:  those individuals who oppose social engineering have largely absented themselves from discussions concerning “social justice.”  As the right has generally appropriated terms like “family values” and “patriotism” for itself, the left has appropriated “social justice.”  It is now thought of as shorthand for a specific set of progressive policy interventions.

Now cometh the Internet, its atmosphere of anonymity and insulation from consequence polluting everything it touches.  There has arisen a tradition of describing a specific breed of left-wing discussant a Social Justice Warrior, or SJW.  As best I can tell, the SJW is alleged to have six specific characteristics:

1.  An exclusive concern for the welfare of members of a specific subset of disadvantaged groups, including women, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ individuals, and members of ethnic and religious minorities; and an absence of concern with abuses of power perpetrated by members of those groups on those occasions when such power is acquired

2.  An eagerness to police the language of other commentators

3.  A general belief that those who disagree do so through either through willful ignorance or as the result of a hidden agenda, which the individual in question may either be aware of but deliberately concealing, or which the individual may be blind to due to cultural conditioning; in either case this is viewed as sufficient reason to dismiss the opponent’s arguments, even without refuting them.

4.  A sort of college-sophomore preening in which dogma substitutes for argument and in which familiarity with postmodern buzzwords substitutes for intelligence, often accompanied by demands that an opponent "educate yourself!"

5.  A general tone of moral superiority, which the commenter acquires through ideological fidelity rather than through concrete actions in the real world; a general elevation of ideology over action

6.  False modesty and fake self-criticism, for instance:  A white person entitling a post “here’s what’s wrong with white people” while describing a set of behaviors or ideological characteristics that don’t apply to the commentator or members of his/her in-group.  This is discussed in some detail in what I still consider to be one of the greatest things ever to be published on the internet.

Do SJWs exist?  Suffice it to say that I read that list and I find myself thinking of a few particular names.  Political sites have discovered that the Outrage Economy is a primary driver of ad revenue, and articles of that sort draw SJWs and their deadly enemies like flies to a manure pile.  Of particular interest are left-wing and feminist fora in which these sorts of commentators predominate; deprived of right-wing targets of opportunity, they turn on one another, seeking increasingly fine distinctions about which to rip out one another’s throats.  There’s nothing like the cacophony that occurs when people scream in an echo chamber.  Of course, that’s not a problem that’s exclusive to the left; I direct your attention to the Republican Presidential primaries, or to more or less any meeting of more than two libertarians that lasts for more than fifteen minutes.

Look:  I get it.  I understand the complaint.  I recognize the stereotype and that it is not without a basis.  But I don’t think that people who start slinging the term “SJW” around whenever they hear a perspective they don’t care for are doing themselves any favors.  And at the risk of being guilty of SJW trait #2 above, I’d like to propose that we abandon the term entirely.

For starters, the SJW stereotype falls afoul of the same problem all stereotypes do:  it’s intellectually lazy.  It assumes that a person who possesses one characteristic must possess a whole range of associated characteristics, which is untrue.  There are progressives who concern themselves exclusively with misbehavior by socially “dominant” groups who nonetheless believe that their opponents are arguing from sincere premises.  There are language cops who thoroughly understand the arguments behind reshaping discourse instead of relying on dogma.  It’s unwise to make assumptions about your argumentative adversaries based on categories you put them in; they’ll wrong-foot you and you’ll look stupid.  And if you happen to be one of those rare unicorns of the internet—a person who engages in discussion in the hope of achieving common understanding, rather than to wave your dick around—then making false assumptions about other discussants will ruin any hope you have of making progress.  Trait #3 of the SJW is their belief that they can read your mind; if you dislike that, you probably shouldn’t presume you can read theirs.

Moreover, let’s be frank:  the sins of the SJW are by no means confined to progressives.  Parroting the phrase “white privilege” or “cultural appropriation” is not a substitute for an argument, but “pre-9-11 mindset” or “nanny state” don’t qualify as superior.  Loving God, or America, or liberty, don’t grant you any more of a sanction to fluff your moral feathers than tweeting #BlackLivesMatter; until you act meaningfully on your convictions (and no, internet discussions DO NOT QUALIFY) you’re still as much of a slacktivist as the worst SJW you know.  “America Doomed” is no more sincere or honorable a form of self-abasement than “White Men Suck”.

As an educator, I deal regularly with the new obsession over “bullying”.  Whenever the term is discussed, people are willing to talk about things they’ve SEEN.  Utterly absent from the discussion is people talking about what they’ve DONE.  Everyone agrees that bullying is bad—and because it’s bad, bad people do it.  I am not a bad person, ergo what I do cannot be bullying.  It is easy to criticize people, because when we point the finger at someone else, it absolves us.  It is harder to criticize behaviors, because when we do that, we have to hold ourselves to account for our own actions.  Each of the six characteristics of the SJW which I list above is richly worthy of rejection.  But we will always have more control over our own behavior than that of other people, so it will always be more constructive to police ourselves than to criticize others.  When your own ideology comes under fire, do you act like an SJW?  What will you do to change that?

But I think the best reason to leave the term SJW behind is that it concedes SJ to the Ws.  It implies, in some subliminal way, that to go to war for the principle of social justice is a bad thing.  I find this unfathomable and unnecessary.  Arguments about the nature of social justice should not and cannot be the exclusive domain of political progressives.  If social justice means that we give every person what he or she is due, then justice must by definition be individualized, that it must stem from the behaviors of a single human person.  This, in turn, means that justice cannot be applied in categorical terms to groups of people.  Black people collectively deserve nothing.  White people collectively deserve nothing.  Black individuals and white individuals are due justice, pleasant or unpleasant, according to the nature of their actions and the content of their character.  To wish positive consequences on an individual because people like him have been historically oppressed, or to wish negative consequences on a person because people like her have been historically dominant, is to fail the principle of social justice.  This strikes me as a fundamentally conservative argument.  It seems to me that it might suit conservatives to actually, you know, make it, as opposed to spouting an acronym.

There are wars worth fighting.  The war for social justice is among them.  There are tactics that are out of bounds in any war; that, too, is worth recognizing.  So let’s make this a fight about the tactics, not about the term.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Road Goes Ever On And On...

I've been away for a while, so it's time for a project update!

As I've recently noted, and as the "Published Works" column off there on the right side indicates, THUMP DUMPS A CHUMP, my foray into blaxploitation fiction, dropped in the July issue of Fabula Argentea.  "Thump" has always been my "wild child," but early indications are that my professional concerns were misplaced.  The story has been very well received (and, judging by the hit count, reasonably widely read); those who've disliked it have maintained a decorous silence, and I haven't been fired yet.  Welcome aboard, by the way, to those of you who are reading this blog due to the editors' redirect at the conclusion of that story; where this blog is concerned, you may expect infrequent updates, preposterous narcissism, and way too many semicolons.  "Thump" is by a fair margin the edgiest thing I've written or will write for some time.  I enjoyed putting it together and remain astonished that anyone was willing to pay me for it.

THE COMMANDER, a short story about a Congolese child soldier, will be published in A Thousand Words For War, a young adult anthology from CBAY books.  The tentative date of publication is April 2016, and you can certainly expect me to be on hype duty for the book as the deadline approaches, both on this blog and elsewhere in social media.  "The Commander" is my "good" child, a very mainstream and accessible piece of work that's heavy on voice and featuring a twist that Yann Martel fans may find familiar.  Of all my work, it wins for "most likely to work as a prose piece in high school forensics."  Those of you who feel that what the literary world really needed was another white guy's take on what it means to be African should watch this space in the months ahead.

DON is my weird kid and probably has the most upside of any of the bunch.  It's best described as a Lovecraftian take on Don Quixote (the windmills shot first!).  There's a fair amount of detail regarding climate science and renewable energy technology involved, so it might pass for hard sci-fi under the right lighting.  The story's biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the source material isn't universally known; it reads MUCH better for people who've read Don Quixote (or who have at minimum seen "Man of La Mancha") than for those who haven't, and I don't know that hard SF is full of those folks.  Be that as it may, I've aimed very high market-wise; "Don" is making the rounds of submissions to cutting-edge periodicals with wide print circulations and which produce Hugo and Nebula nominees.  The downside of that approach is that there's a lot of waiting involved; almost all journals in that echelon demand exclusive submission and some of them take up to four months to review work.  We'll see what happens.

AXIS OF ETERNITY is of course my firstborn and the reason this blog was invented, a 90,000 word young adult sci-fi novel that takes place in a strange and complicated afterlife full of historical figures, hidden agendas, and bizarre soul-harvesting technology.  Bringing Axis to market has been an experience.  It's been through six full drafts, each of them involving multiple sub-iterations; the title has changed, as has the narrative perspective.  The love interest went from being a Mary Sue to a co-protagonist and arguably the most complicated and formidable character in the book.  I've sent out over a hundred query letters and have been alternatively praised, rejected, and ignored by many of the most respected agents in the business--some of whom I've gained a new appreciation for and some of whom I've lost all professional respect for.  I've taken it to Twitter pitchfests and writing conferences and rammed it down the throats of over a dozen preliminary reviewers, willing and unwilling, who've called it everything from "legitimately great" to "sounds like the name of an off-brand cologne".

Axis has been thrashing around in the slush pile for far longer than I'd ever imagined it would.  Every time I think it's dead, some new literary agent or publisher emerges with a manuscript request.  One way or another, though, we are approaching the end of the line with this project; I am literally running out of agents and publishers.  The brightest hopes for the book at present are:

1.  one of the most experienced and respected agents in the business is reviewing the full manuscript; he's someone I didn't submit to earlier for no better reason than that I didn't think there was ANY possibility he'd be interested, and

2.  the book is on its third set of spec revisions with a small publisher whom I have a lot of respect for.

And, of course, there's still a smattering of unresolved queries out there; any day I could get a new man request out of them.  But, as I said, we're nearing the end of the line here.

After some consideration, I have decided that I will not self-publish Axis.  I recognize and respect the new legitimacy of self-publishing operations and I have heard the success stories, but to be honest, that market is just too crowded and it tends to reward skilled marketers (which I'm not) over skilled writers (which I am).  One also needs, by all accounts, a nearly insane work ethic to push a novel to the front of the queue via the self-publishing market, and while I'm a very good worker, I'm also a full-time high school teacher in the highly time-intensive discipline of policy debate.  And I'm PARTICULARLY not looking forward to having to find a cover artist, failing, and winding up with some godawful photoshopped THING as the public face of the book.

So if Axis should fail to make it to market via an agent's representation or via the independent publisher mentioned above, I'm going to release it here, on this blog, in installments--one chapter a week, every Sunday, for most of a year.  You who've had to listen to me jabber about this book endlessly, for two full years, have a right to read it for yourselves and make up your own minds about whether the publishing industry was right to run screaming from it.  Besides, all I've REALLY wanted to do is to give people something they can read.  If you wind up reading it here and liking it, tell your friends.  Tell your kids.  We'll see if word spreads.  To be clear, however, we're still months away from going down that road; even after all this time, there's still several different paths to publication open, and I intend to walk them all.