by Jonah Berman
Social justice warrior (SJW) is a derogatory term for someone who expresses socially progressive views - it includes the charge that such views are held disingenuously and promoted for individual gain or validation. It is a term used to mock progressive or left wing activists.
Historically a neutral term to describe campaigners, the Social Justice Warrior label became negative around 2011 through its use on Twitter, and grew in popularity as an insult following the mid-2010s Gamergate controversy, a regressive harassment campaign in online video game culture. It was added to the US Oxford Dictionaries in 2015.
Social Justice Warriors are allegedly insincere and only engage shallowly with issues they express concern for. This is closely associated with virtue signalling, where someone expresses an opinion to highlight their own moral superiority.
Progressive activists would defend that this accusation is a cynical slur to try to undermine their movements: name-calling and attaching cheap labels to people and movements is not conducive to constructive or reasonable debate.
Growing awareness of new progressive theories of gender, race and culture have unquestionably stimulated debate and arguably brought on a reckoning in the West.
“The negative use of Social Justice Warrior is not unlike the negative use of political correctness, in that both are denigrating something which, on its surface, is fairly unobjectionable, but the perceived orthodoxy [of progressive politics] has prompted a backlash among people who feel their speech is being policed.” - Katherine Martin, Head of US Oxford Dictionaries
Is calling someone a Social Justice Warrior an anti-progressive slur? Or does it accurately point to a shallow performative element of progressive movements?
A. “Often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are” - James Bartholomew
Bartholomew bemoans the degeneration of debate into a situation where people criticise others to establish their own moral superiority.
In the past, he argues, “you could only be virtuous by doing things,” while today people believe their words or “silently held beliefs” can make them virtuous.
Social Justice Warriors or virtue signallers, are, according to Bartholemew, guilty of assuming a moral superiority without actually doing anything substantial.
Bartholomew criticises progressive social movements not for their intention, but for their practice. He suggests it is “much more convenient” to criticise others online or from a distance than put in effort or sacrifice.
Bartholomew’s argument raises questions around public performances of solidarity and commitment to social movements, particularly on social media. It may, however, be the case that campaigns to raise awareness about issues online are important in generating momentum and inspiring action.
B. “SJWs don’t hold strong principles, but they pretend to. The problem is, that’s not a real category of people. It’s simply a way to dismiss anyone who brings up social justice - and often those people are feminists.” - Allegra Ringo
Ringo argues that ‘Social Justice Warrior’ is a useful weapon in the anti-progressive’s armoury to use cynically when issues of sexism, racism and other forms of oppression are raised.
It allows them to disengage with the issues raised and divert attention to the individual, accusing them of not truly caring and only using their voice to make themselves look good. This is aimed at discrediting entire feminist, anti-racist and other progressive movements as motivated by the desire for validation of their proponents.
Ringo claims ‘Social Justice Warriors’ is “not a real category of people,” suggesting that progressive campaigners are genuinely trying to bring about a more just world. The Black Lives Matter movement, even whilst #BlackoutTuesday was criticised for encouraging virtue signalling, has undoubtedly catalysed progress since the killing of George Floyd.
Shareable campaigning content on social media may enable individuals to jump on progressive bandwagons in order to enhance their own social status or make themselves feel good.
But the insult of the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ label consists in more than just raising the question of authenticity - it can also imply the cause is illegitimate.
This is not the case when corporations are criticised for promoting movements inauthentically.
C. “CEOs and companies attach themselves to ideas and policies that elevate their economic or moral status – in corporate America’s case, policies that generate profits or, at least, don’t get in the way of generating profits.” - Jill Priluck
Priluck’s argument, that CEO and company campaigns on social issues are motivated by the desire to enhance their own reputation, seems to level the social justice warrior criticism at corporations.
Charges of greenwashing, pinkwashing and rainbow-washing are often made against corporate campaigns, but these terms carry less weight or are less provocative than the parallel critique of individuals. If a company is accused of greenwashing, it is usually held that whilst their motivations are perhaps selfish, even high-profile cases do not seem to significantly damage corporate reputations.
This reveals an asymmetry between how the individual and corporate cases are perceived: it is hard to establish that an individual is acting in bad faith, yet the labels of social justice warrior or virtue signaller undermine their credibility as an activist. The profit-motive and sensitivity to public perception of corporations are arguably more visible, but corporations seem to avoid lasting condemnation.
Further, when a company is accused of greenwashing, for instance, the legitimacy of the environmental cause is not called into question as is implied when an individual is said to be virtue signalling or being a social justice warrior.
This points to individual authenticity lying at the heart of the issue, perhaps confirming Ringo’s assertion that individuals are easier targets in the backlash against progressive ideas.
Social Justice Activism
A. “The goal of most SJWs is not to repair or improve society. Instead, they want to overthrow the existing social order. Accordingly, they are untroubled if pursuing social justice is actually socially divisive. Like Lenin before the revolution, they believe ‘worse is better’.” - John Gray
Gray’s understanding of social justice warriors paradoxically implies their convictions are indeed authentic - he takes issue with their convictions rather than their disingenuity.
For Gray, social justice warriors are intent on disturbing social and political stability; he attributes this to their conception of justice as centred on redistribution. He argues that instead of seeing justice as zero-sum, “the goal must be to ensure a decent measure of economic security for everyone” and doing so “need not invoke any ideal of social justice”.
Gray appears to use the term ‘social justice warrior’ as part of a broader critique of progressive movements and culture, not related to virtue signalling as described above.
His primary issue with social justice warriors is that they are “intolerant of criticism” - this is emblematic of a criticism of progressive ideas, not the more specific charges against social justice warriors or virtue signallers.
B. “The social justice approach — which emphasizes the dynamics of power and oppression — that many fear has taken over the humanities and social sciences at its best is actually an improvement over the “disinterested pursuit of truth” and more in line with the Socratic method.” - Matthew A. Sears
Sears argues new theories of race, gender and sexuality do not close down debate but enrich it. He draws on Socrates as symbolising civilisation and knowledge, arguing the Socratic method actually involved challenging influential and established ideas and individuals as contemporary critical theory does.
Here, Sears sees value not recognised by Gray in disruptive ideas that challenge the status quo. Again, his discussion of social justice warriors in the further education setting indicates that the specific meaning of the term has been somewhat lost since its early 2010s origins.
Acknowledging the value of ideas and campaigns which we may not agree with is key to expanding our understanding of the world, Sears argues. Dismissing progressive ideas as “divisive” as Gray does or by using cheap slurs to try to discredit Social Justice Warrior campaigners does not help us grow or overcome problems as a society.
“If they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” - Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher cheered up “immensely” when her opponents attacked her personally. Criticisms addressing the source of an argument rather than its content are known as ad hominem.
Progressive activists might similarly find comfort in the Social Justice Warrior insult, signifying the accuser’s inability to engage in reasonable debate. If opponents of progressive movements were confident in their views, they should not need to resort to name-calling in political discourse.
Donald Trump’s political career highlights the power of name-calling: his range of nicknames for political opponents and allies have served to polarise public opinion and reduce politics to a one-dimensional cartoon where everyone is either a villain or a hero.
Debates around Social Justice Warriors and virtue signalling enter the Culture Wars where ‘woke’ critics argue those who express progressive opinions do so for social validation, alleging their activism is shallow and lacking substance.
Others would defend that this is a bad-faith attempt to undermine the legitimacy of progressive campaigns, protecting the status quo in doing so. It also raises deeper questions about the value of convictions not acted upon, or acted upon in tokenistic fashion, as well as regarding social media activism or so-called ‘clicktivism’.
Name-calling and ad hominem arguments may also trivialise political debate, whilst charges of acting in bad-faith might obstruct constructive discussion.