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.

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