August 12, 2015

Social Justice Warrior: A Brief Definition

social justice warrior
The term social justice warrior is not easy to define in a concise way. Since it describes people who behave in certain characteristic ways (e.g., eagerly participating in online shaming, outrage, dogpiling, vigilantism) and is often confused with terms like social justice advocate or social justice activist that bear little overlap, lengthy definitions with lots of examples tend to be necessary to communicate the intended meaning and clear up the inevitable confusion.

But what if we wanted to come up with the briefest definition possible, one that captured the essence of what it means to be a social justice warrior without getting bogged down in all the details and behavioral examples. Such a brief definition might have utility, especially when responding to questions about what the term means. But what might such a definition look like?

This is merely a starting point for the purpose of generating discussion, but I think a brief definition might look something like this:
A social justice warrior is someone who actively condemns and seeks to harm those who express socio-political views contrary to his or her own while claiming to promote social justice.
In unpacking this definition, we might note:
  • For the social justice warrior, it is not enough to recognize that people are going to have different opinions on important socio-political issues (e.g., feminism, humanism, which political candidates one supports); those who disagree are immoral and deserving of punishment.
  • The social justice warrior pursues active condemnation (e.g., the assignment of inflammatory labels, name calling, personal insults) of those who disagree.
  • The social justice warrior aims to inflict harm on those who do not share his or her views, usually by attempting to damage the target's reputation, status, or livelihood.
  • The social justice warrior justifies his or her behavior on the grounds that it is perceived as advancing a valuable social justice agenda (e.g., eradicating social ills such as sexism or racism).
It is often asked how the social justice warrior manages to treat people poorly without experiencing the sort of moral emotions (e.g., guilt, shame) that might otherwise accompany such behavior. I think it is is mistake to assume that social justice warriors must have some sort of sadistic streak even though I acknowledge that it can look that way at times. The thing to remember is that in their minds, they are going good. Harming others is okay if it advances one's agenda (i.e., mob justice is viewed as an acceptable). The ends justify the means, and this is true even when the means involve treating others quite poorly.

Thanks to constant outrage, self-righteous indignation, and the absolute conviction that one is in the right and that dissenters are "part of the problem," the social justice warrior is able to transform persons who disagree or cause offense into agents of evil. Those who disagree are "part of the problem," meaning that they stand in the way of progress. This makes them bad people, and bad people deserve what they get. Thus, the social justice warrior is able to inflict harm on others while avoiding guilt. He or she may even manage to feel quite content with his or her maltreatment of others.

Does the brief definition above capture the core of what you mean by "social justice warrior" or is it too brief to do so? If it is too brief, what would you add?
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