Understanding “SJW”

I have a good, sweet, funny friend called “Sketch” who works as a freelance animator.  I first met him through the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and ever after I’ve known him to be the sort of man that people are darned lucky to have in their lives. He has even helped me make my blog site look so good. In recent years I’ve come to think of him as “King of Facebook,” because he’s better than almost anyone else I know at starting funny and thought-provoking Facebook discussion threads. About a week ago he posted the question, “How would you define ‘Social Justice Warrior’?”

That’s intriguing, since a definition that everyone can agree upon has yet to be laid out in plain terms. It’s one of those mercurial phrases that means whatever the person using it wants it to mean, and even that person may not have the clearest idea of what it is. After all, it sounds like a positive thing. We all want a just society, don’t we? Even if we really didn’t, we’d say we did. Justice is an ideal to aim for, and those who fight for it, as warriors do, should earn our admiration, right? Yet the term “Social Justice Warrior,” or “SJW,” is nearly always used as a jibe or insult.

So, what did Sketch’s friends have to say?

Some responded with humor. Probably my favorite comment: “People who believe in social justice, but didn’t go cleric, mage, or rogue.” Another poster quipped, “I’m pretty sure that’s a superhero from the ’70s.” Another witty reply held an edge, a bite: “A phrase used to express that the user is an asshole.” The funny posts highlight the vagueness of the term’s meaning, and also the truth that it usually says as much, if not more, about the one using it as about the one it’s being used against.

Others suggested that the term as a negative might have some validity. One poster explained that when the phrase was first tossed about, it referred to a person who was, as it were, all talk and no walk, and/or was perpetually offended by anything and everything. Plenty of posts went with this meaning:

“I generally approve of social justice. HOWEVER there is such a thing as a person misconstruing everything as a slight against SOMEONE. These are the people that… I refer to as ‘social justice warriors.'”

“Similar to white knighting, it’s someone who is fighting for their own personal image more than the actual injustice.”

“They might . . . be very concerned about small issues while ignoring larger ones.”

Some posters took care to lay out distinctions between those sincere and sensible in their pursuit of social justice and those who took it to an illogical extreme:

“Someone who wants to censor free speech for simply disagreeing or finding speech offensive. Someone who is willing to debate and have an open dialogue is [a social justice] advocate.”

“I keep a very distinct line between ‘social justice warrior’ and ‘social justice bully.'”

Yet for some of the posters, the term has ceased to be a sound criticism. One post pointed out that it has been “co-opted by the alt-right as coded speech for ‘anybody that has a problem with me saying shitty things about women, people of color, homosexuals, and Jews.'” Another declared, “To be perfectly honest? Social justice warrior is exactly what it sounds like. Someone who fights for social justice. . . SJW is how hatemongers mark those who stand against hate.” Here it’s clear that an insult in the eyes of one person can be high praise to another.

When a post proclaimed, “Just substitute ‘Antifa Thug’ it’s the same thing,” I wasn’t sure quite how to take it. The poster might have meant that “SJW” has as little merit as “Antifa Thug,” but it’s difficult to tell from a Facebook post; while one can easily hear sarcasm, reading it may be trickier. Whatever the intent, I have to confess this one put a bad taste in my mouth, less because of the post itself than because I react more viscerally than sensibly to the word “Antifa.” I remember the very first time I encountered the word in print: in an article quoting the rants of a slobbering puke-monster (doubtless under the mistaken impression that he is human) who murdered two men on a Portland train because they stepped in to stop him from bullying a pair of young girls. I’ll have a hard time hearing or reading the term “antifa” without remembering that man and his crime, or the young men who lost their lives because they took a stand for basic decency. These young men, we might say, were “social justice warriors” in the purest sense of the phrase.

Then there were the posts that offered a more personal perspective on “SJW”:

“I think it means a person who calls others out on their bullshit. I say this because when I do that, I am called a social justice warrior.”

“Apparently I am one. I get called one several times a week by people who do not like the things I openly talk about.”

These posts got me thinking about where I come down on the “SJW” scale. What kind of social justice warrior am I? What kind do I want to be? Do I get offended too easily, and by too many things? Do I let my dislike of confrontation keep me from speaking out? What would I have done, had I been on that Portland train?

To be continued.

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