What ‘SJW’ really means

What ‘SJW’ really means September 13, 2016

“The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior,” the angel says to Gideon in the book of Judges.

That’s pretty harsh because Gideon is neither a warrior nor is he mighty. When the angel shows up, he’s hiding in a wine press, trying to thresh wheat where he won’t be seen by the raiding and pillaging Midianites who have been ravaging Israel in this story. “You mighty warrior,” is a withering bit of scorn.*

Something like that same sarcastic epithet has become the go-to insult online for a tribe of belligerent, usually misogynist and racist, trolls. Whenever they can find anyone speaking out against racism, or against misogyny, nativism, homophobia or xenophobia or Islamophobia, they sweep in to mock that person with what they seem to imagine is the harshest possible insult: “SJW.”

That stands for “social justice warrior.” I’m not sure if that’s where it originated, but the use of “SJW” as an epithet really took off with the “gamer-gate” business — a vicious harassment campaign that attempted to bully women into never playing, creating, or talking about video games. The agenda of these “gamer-gaters” has morphed and expanded over time to include things like spiteful condemnation of the Ghostbusters remake, the “sad puppies” attempts to rig literary awards, the white-supremacist and anti-Semitic harrassment campaigns of the “alt-right,” and the desire to elect Donald Trump as president. The latter bit became a formal, institutional reality when Trump tapped Breitbart maven and chief “alt-right” cheerleader Steve Bannon to be his campaign “CEO,” bringing Bannon’s whole gaggle of gamer-gate veterans into the fold.

To most people, particularly those fluent in English, the use of “SJW” as an insult is somewhat bewildering. “Social justice” is a Good Thing. That’s what it means — what it names — the common good. Right relationship. Fairness. Liberty and justice for all. To be a “social justice warrior” then would mean one is a champion for the greater good, for the greatest good, for good for all. So how is that an insult? It’s not even slightly pejorative. It’s like using Superman or Captain America as an insult.


I’ve asked that question of several online correspondents who have attempted to mock me with this epithet, “SJW,” and they’ve all told me that it’s “sarcasm.” (Most went on to explain that my failing to grasp this obvious “sarcasm” makes me a “fucking retard,” and speculated that my mental deficiencies were related to my being a “Jew-lover” and a “faggot.” Those were among the more polite responses.**)

As the story of Gideon shows, something like this can be used as a sarcastic insult. “Mighty warrior,” without context, would seem like praise. But when spoken to a scared little man cowering in a wine press, it comes across as more, “Oooh, look at the mighty warrior.” And it’s possible to imagine “SJW” as a similar kind of sarcastic rebuke. “Oooh, look at the mighty social justice warrior. Yeah, you’re exactly like Captain America. You’re Rosa freakin’ Parks. Bayard Rustin’s got nothing on you, there, Mr. SJW.”

But that won’t do. That’s never how these folks employ the term. It can’t be that kind of  “sarcasm” because they’re not being sarcastic in that way.

To describe this use of “SJW” as sarcasm would entail mockery directed at the insufficiency of the “social justice warriors'” battle for social justice. It would require an affirmation of an agreed-upon framework that regards “social justice” as a good and noble, desirable thing, and truly being a “warrior” advocating for it as an honorable, praiseworthy trait. If it were sarcasm, the scorn would be directed at the “SJWs” for being only so-called “SJWs” — for posing as SJWs while actually failing to be the true, genuine article, the steadfast advocates for social justice that we all agree we all ought to strive to be.

But there is no such shared framework. And that is not the target toward which the scorn here is directed. What is being scorned, rather, is the very idea and standards of that framework — the idea that “social justice” is, in fact, a Good Thing. Their attempted mockery of “SJWs” is an attempt to mock the very idea of social justice itself.

This is a kind of sarcasm, but it’s not ironically saying “Oh, yeah, you’re a real warrior for justice, just like Martin Luther King.” It’s saying, “Oh, yeah, ‘social justice.’ That’s terrific. … Not!”

This “SJW” business doesn’t involve an argument contrasting opposing views of the nature and meaning of social justice. It doesn’t involve some ideological dispute between competing visions of the proper role of the state, or of law, or markets, civil society, neighborliness, etc. It’s a wholesale rejection of the idea that social justice — in any form — is worthwhile.

There’s something Hobbesian at work here — a vision of human society as an oxymoron, as merely an ongoing “war of all against all.” Musical chairs and dog-eat-dog and every man for himself. To believe otherwise — to imagine that some form of social justice, fairness, or liberty and justice for all might be possible and desirable — makes you a fool in their eyes. And fools are losers.

That’s how a world without any standard of justice works. There’s no just and unjust, no good and bad, no better and worse — only winners and losers.

The potentially confusing thing is that these folks get upset — very, very upset — whenever anyone else criticizes them for being racist or misogynist. They recoil from such language as though struck by a blow, deeply offended and furiously indignant.

I initially saw this as a hopeful sign. To reject an appellation, after all, usually implies that one accepts and acknowledges its meaning. To reject a pejorative judgment usually means that one agrees that such a judgment is, in fact, pejorative. Thus I interpreted it as hopeful that these folks were offended when others described them as racist. Yes, it was ironic and mordantly comical that their anger at being described as “racist” often provoked them to strike back by spouting a string of ethnic slurs, but I mistakenly believed that this anger was still — on some semi-conscious level — a concession to a shared moral framework that regards racism as a Bad Thing and an injustice. That may be a teensy-weensy mustard seed of a starting point, but it would be something we could work with.

Ah, OK, see? We agree that racism is bad. We agree that injustice is bad. … The road from there may be a long one, but the path is discernible.

But any attempt to agree upon even such a subterranean lowest-common belief gets nowhere. If you ask these folks to set aside everything else, reassure them a thousand times over that you’re not attributing anything to them personally, and attempt to find common ground around even such basic propositions as “racism is bad” or “justice is preferable to injustice,” they will only become ever more infuriated, indignant and offended.

Can’t we at least agree that “racism is bad”? No. No we cannot because, in their view — as far as I am able to discern it in their less-than-articulate, incoherent and spectacularly profane responses — this question is some kind of trick. To agree to even such a basic proposition, they believe, would be to give words and ideas a power that might then be used against them. The question thus provokes a kind of fight-or-flight defensiveness — a raising of hackles and baring of claws. It’s some kind of trap with a hidden barb or a pit beneath palm fronds and they refuse to be taken in.

And so they will do or say almost anything to avoid answering that question. Very often, this involves deflecting by attempting to change the subject to Robert Byrd (someone we’ll discuss more later). Unfortunately for them, this response only reaffirms an implicit shared moral consensus — that being a member of the Klan and then filibustering the Civil Rights Act is a source of lasting and appropriate shame, even for one who later apologized and renounced those views. That only goes to prove true the very thing they’re desperately attempting to avoid affirming — that racism is a Bad Thing.

But yet still they won’t say that, wary of the trick or the trap they’re sure some SJW is setting for them. And they’re not entirely wrong about that. It is a trap of a sort — although there’s nothing devious or sneaky about it. Even just this tiny concession — “racism is bad” or “justice is preferable to injustice” — would, in fact, grant power to ideas and morals that would, in turn, compel them to change. It would mean accepting the reality of some standard, of some good other than “winning.”

I’m not saying, “They can’t admit racism is bad because they’re racist.” The problem is more that they can’t admit that justice is meaningful because to acknowledge the meaning of justice is always to be judged.

And that, above all, is what they can’t stand. That is what infuriates them and offends them — the prospect of being judged, being assessed according to any standard not in their immediate control. This is reflected in their tendency to make any form of award or public recognition — Hugos or Oscars or box office sales or elections — a focal point of their spite. And it’s why their epithet of choice — “SJW” — is not just an insult directed at others with whom they disagree, but a rejection of any standard by which such disagreements might be adjudicated.

I don’t think it overstates the case to say that’s what’s at stake in an election involving Donald Trump. He’s the preferred candidate for the anti-SJW crowd, but it’s not simply because he promises to make all the little SJW losers cry. It’s because he promises to dismiss whatever power any ideal of justice may have to adjudicate or evaluate our life together. In normal elections, two parties with competing ideologies meet to debate which of their approaches would bring us closer to a just society. Trump, like his Pepe-icon gamer-gater fans, rejects the terms of that argument. Your idea is more just? Who cares? Justice is silly and stupid, and that’s not how we’re keeping score.

It’s not about justice anymore, it’s about “winning.” If social justice is a meaningless pipe dream, then it’s impossible to say what a utopia of “winning” would look like. But from what we’ve seen of the gamer-gaters and the anti-SJW mobs online, it won’t be pretty.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Some readers don’t like the idea of a sarcastic angel, so they try to see the angel’s statement as a kind of pep talk — something like, “You really are a mighty warrior, you just don’t know it yet.” But that’s not how Gideon responds. He says, basically, “Touché. I’m hiding like a coward but that’s because ‘the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.'” And then when the angel tells him that God has chosen him to “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian,” Gideon repeats that they’ve already both agreed that he’s the weakest man in a weak clan and the total opposite of a “mighty warrior.”

Also, Gideon’s utter non-mighty non-warrior aspect is a central theme in the story. That’s why God whittles his army down to a tiny band — because it’s divine might, not Gideon’s might, that saves the day. A sarcastic angel fits that theme better than any convoluted attempt to read “this might of yours” as unironic.

But isn’t it anachronistic to attribute irony to such an ancient text? Isn’t irony a modern invention and the exclusive property of us sophisticated modern people? Yeah. Right.

** I apologize for repeating their crude, hateful language here, but please note that I’ve refrained from describing their views as “deplorable” — so conservative white Christians reading this won’t have any reason to pretend to be offended.


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