January 28, 2015

Most Social Justice Advocates are Not Social Justice Warriors

Occupy Oakland Nov 12 2011 PM 40
By Mercurywoodrose (Own work)
The term social justice warrior has a specific meaning that is clearly distinct from "social justice advocate" or "social justice activist." Most social justice advocates are not social justice warriors. I tried to address this distinction previously, but I did not do a very good job of it. In fact, I did a rather poor job of it. Among other things, I made the mistake of sticking too closely to an imperfect definition and focusing too much on internal states (e.g., motive and intent). In this post, I'd like to take another stab at highlighting the primary differences between social justice advocacy and "social justice warriorism."

Why is this a relevant topic for an atheist blog? First, we regularly encounter it. Many atheists have been affected by social justice warriors at least since the emergence of Atheism+. More recently, we have seen it in #GamerGate, #ShirtStorm, #manspreading, and even in the aftermath of Ferguson. Second, the distinction continues to be widely misunderstood. I regularly see atheists and humanists complaining that they are being criticized for advocating for social justice. This is almost never why they are being criticized; they are being criticized for engaging in specific behaviors associated with social justice warriors. Third and most important, the behavior of social justice warriors undermines valuable social justice advocacy on a number of issues about which many atheists are concerned. Thus, much (though certainly not all) of the criticism of "social justice warriorism" is coming from people who care about social justice issues.

Setting aside the murky issues of intent and motive as much as possible and trying to focus more on observable behavior, what are the most important differences between someone who is advocating for social justice and a social justice warrior? This list is not exhaustive, but here are some good candidates:
  1. The social justice advocate is inclusive; the social justice warrior is exclusive.
  2. The social justice advocate shows us that he or she is willing and able to recognize that others who do not share his or her priorities are not necessarily bad people; the social justice warrior is unwilling or unable to do this.
  3. The social justice advocate strives to be reasonable and sometimes fails; the social justice warrior strives to be provocative and usually succeeds.
  4. The social justice advocate seeks opportunities to engage in dialogue with others; the social justice warrior shuts down dialogue.
Inclusivity vs. Exclusivity

The social justice advocate has a goal in mind that involves some sort of social change. He or she can point to a problem with the current state of affairs, propose solutions, and identify what progress would look like. Thus, the social justice advocate is working toward a particular goal with a series of positive outcomes in mind. In doing so, he or she recognizes that a broad coalition of allies will be crucial in making real progress on this goal. Not only does the social justice advocate recognize that many people be required to achieve meaningful change (i.e., strength in numbers), but the social justice advocate genuinely values diversity. He or she recognizes that there are many ways to approach a problem and that different people bring different perspectives in problem-solving, different talents that can be utilized in different ways, and so on. For the social justice advocate, bringing as many people as possible on board is a critical part of the process. And here's the key: the social justice advocate behaves in ways that foster inclusivity, reaching out to others.

Contrast this with the behavior of those who have earned the "social justice warrior" label. They too see problems and propose solutions. However, they tend to spend more time fighting with one another over who has the best solution than they do working to implement any sort of solution. They focus on purity and devise litmus tests to determine who can come on board. Who is authentic enough to join them? Who has the right kind of "lived experience" to have the right to speak on the issue? They seem to want a tiny but ideologically homogeneous group, rendering them extremely divisive and far less effective in accomplishing what they claim they want to accomplish. Given the choice, they seem to pick purity over numbers or diversity. For a group that often pays lip service to the idea of diversity, their behavior suggests little tolerance for diversity of opinion. In short, they behave in ways that keep their movement exclusive.

Different Priorities: Potential Allies vs. Enemies

The social justice advocate encounters people with different priorities. When this happens, he or she views these people as potential allies. Perhaps they are not ready to join work on the issue now, but they may eventually come around. Perhaps they will never come around on this particular issue, but they will do good work on other issues valued less highly but still acknowledged as valuable by the social justice advocate. In any case, the social justice advocate would see intentionally burning bridges with such people to undermine his or her goals. And so, the social justice advocate works to maintain the lines of open communication with individuals who have different priorities.

The social justice warrior, on the other hand, views anyone who does not share their priority as "part of the problem" and anyone who does not see eye-to-eye with them as an enemy. Those who disagree are bad people because they disagree, and there is no harm perceived in treating them like bad people. The social justice warrior does not stop and think that such people might change their minds. Bridges are gleefully burned. The social justice warrior does not recognize the value of someone with different priorities working on other issues, as he or she rejects the value of other issues. The social justice warrior transforms those with different priorities into enemies to be discredited, shamed, bullied, and demonized.

Reason vs. Outrage

In dealing with others, the social justice advocate strives to be reasonable. This in no way means that he or she is not passionate. Effective social justice advocates care deeply about the issues in which they are invested, and great passion is usually evident. But because the social justice advocate often bases his or her approach in the notion that he or she is a model for others, we generally see an effort to be reasonable, kind, open-minded, and to treat others as one would like to be treated. One of the first words that comes to mind when describing the most effective social justice advocates is genuine because they seem to radiate a sense of passionate commitment combined with a reasonable approach to human relations. The social justice advocate behaves in a reasonable manner that is congruent with his or her stated aims.

The social justice warrior has little interest in reason and may view being reasonable as a cop out that lets "them" win. The social justice warrior prefers to deal in outrage, deliberately provoking strong responses from others under the guise of "consciousness raising." But the social justice warrior also recognizes that provocation will often yield backlash from others, and backlash can fuel the victim narrative on which they often rely. By setting up scenarios in which they are subjected to relatively safe experiences of victimization (e.g., experiencing name-calling on Twitter after saying something intentionally designed to provoke strong negative reactions), they gain the moral high-ground and can then justify treating others poorly. The social justice warrior often behaves hypocritically, acting in ways that run counter to his or her stated aims (e.g., claiming to be a feminist while demeaning women who have different opinions).

Expanding vs. Eliminating Dialogue

This one could easily be subsumed under one or more of the previous items, but it strikes me as sufficiently important to consider on its own. The social justice advocate is always seeking opportunities to engage with others around issues he or she considers important. This fits well with the more inclusive and reasonable approach described above. After all, if one's goal is to bring more people on board, it makes sense that the manner in which interacts with others would suggest an interest in communication. And for the social justice advocate, this communication is rarely one-sided. The social justice advocate seeks to understand others and their viewpoints. This desire to understand comes from a place of recognizing the dignity and worth of others and is not limited to learning about others so one can persuade them more effectively.

And how does the social justice warrior communicate with others? Usually from an extremely authoritarian position. The social justice warrior's "lived experience" qualifies him or her as an expert on the subject at hand. He or she has the "truth" and is quick to demonize those who question it. Because of the victim narrative noted above, the social justice warrior feels justified in treating "the enemy" poorly, and this often translates into quickly shutting down conversation when dissenting views are encountered. Moreover, the social justice warrior has crafted a particular sort of jargon for the purpose of helping to establish the boundaries of their tribe. Their jargon (e.g., "mansplaining," "dudebro," "neckbeard") helps them to rapidly sort people into "us" and "them" categories so they can shut down communication with out-group members. Dissent is not welcome in safe spaces. The social justice warrior shuts down dialogue in which differences of opinion might be expressed, embracing the very sort of intolerance he or she claims to be working against.


If you are out there working to bring about positive change in the world by attracting diverse people to your cause while recognizing that those with different priorities are potential allies and not your enemies, striving to be reasonable in your dealings with others, and seeking to open and expand the channels of communication, you are probably a social justice advocate and not a social justice warrior. On the other hand, if you value exclusivity and ideological purity over numbers and diversity of opinion, are quick to label those who disagree with you as "part of the problem," peddle outrage, and seek to shut down communication when it involves ideas you do not like, you may well be a social justice warrior.

This post ended up being much longer than I intended, and I suspect I have barely scratched the surface here. I am fascinated with "social justice warriorism" and the many ways in which it differs from social justice advocacy. Even if I did not worry that it undermined work on important social justice issues (which I do), I'd probably still be interested in examining the mindset and behavior of those who engage in it. I think it is a shame that many social justice warriors fail to understand that the behaviors for which they are being criticized have little to do with their advocacy for social justice issues. I hope that this post has shed some light on some of the important differences between the two.
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