March 22, 2015

Profiles in Social Justice: Meet Lori

By Malene Thyssen, Wikimedia Commons
In the first part of our Profiles in Social Justice series, we met Beatrice, a Catholic who devoted her professional life to social justice work with women and children escaping domestic violence and who has continued to make a meaningful difference after retiring. In the second part of the series, we met Will, a gay atheist with a rough background who overcame many obstacles to embrace a life dedicated to working with homeless men with HIV/AIDS. These two individuals had much in common despite some significant differences. In this post, we will meet Lori and discover a different take on social justice.

Lori is in her early 30s and, like both Beatrice and Will, identifies herself as a feminist, a social justice advocate, and a liberal. Like Will, she is an atheist and an anti-theist. Unlike Beatrice and Will, Lori does not have a graduate degree and has no interest in the mental health field. Her college degree is in business administration, and one would be hard-pressed to find anything about Lori's job that involves efforts to improve the lives of others. Her daily work life does not resemble any sort of social justice advocacy, and this is something about which Lori can become quite defensive at times.

Lori has had a fairly comfortable life so far. She has not had to struggle like Will, but is also not as affluent as Beatrice, mostly because she is single and too young to have saved much money. She is middle-class in the 2014 sense of the term (i.e., she's getting by but not where she'd like to be). Despite her relatively comfortable life, Lori is quick to tell you that she has been oppressed. Instead of providing cogent examples, she speaks of oppression in an abstract sense. She is oppressed because women are oppressed.

Lori claims to do volunteer work; however, her work is mostly limited to making a few online donations to worthwhile groups and promoting various causes on her blog and social media accounts. Unlike Beatrice or Will, it is difficult to detect any way in which Lori could be said to be active in her local community. She spends her time working, socializes with friends, and pursuing a number of leisure activities. None of this involves an effort to advance social change or help others in need.

For Lori, social justice activism seems to be more of a hobby than anything else, although it is a hobby about which she says she is quite passionate. Whereas both Beatrice and Will focused their social justice work on the poor, Lori has a very different emphasis. For Lori, social justice is inseparable from feminism. In fact, she is only interested in social justice as it applies to women. But even that is a bit too general. You see, Lori is really only interested in advocating for women who share her particular views on feminism. She is quick to demonize women who hold different views. Unlike Beatrice and Will, both of whom embody social justice advocacy, Lori is a social justice warrior.

Lori's social justice work is largely restricted to the Internet. It generally consists of writing snarky blog posts, leaving snarky comments on others' blog posts and YouTube videos, and calling people names on Twitter. Lori frequently uses words one would never hear from Beatrice or Will (e.g., "mansplaining," "MRA," "sister-punisher"). She has no formal education in feminism or social justice, and it often appears that her primary motivation is little more than stirring up outrage online.

Lori absolutely loves to tell people how they are wrong, to correct their speech, and to use some of the more appalling tactics of the social justice warrior. She equates disagreement with harassment and has embraced the worst aspects of our contemporary call-out culture. If you dare to express disagreement with practically anything Lori says, you quickly find yourself labeled the enemy. And naturally, the enemy must have his or her reputation assailed publicly.

Compared to Beatrice and Will, it is unclear that Lori's social justice efforts have made an appreciable difference in anyone's life. In fact, Lori's behavior has likely undermined the causes she claims to care about. She has alienated countless people, turning them off to the very idea of social justice. Instead of coming across as committed to doing good, she comes across as entitled and self-centered. There is little question that she believes she is helping but cannot seem to explain how she is doing so.


Has this entire series merely been a long-winded and drawn out excuse to bash social justice warriors? I hope not. I will be the first to admit that I find Lori's behavior reprehensible. I cannot place her in the same category as Beatrice and Will. She's toxic, and she's damaging the very things she claims to believe while providing no tangible good to anyone. But I write this not just to bash Lori; I write it because I worry that Lori's behavior may drive people away from the good stuff Beatrice, Will, and others like them are doing.

Social justice is a worthwhile goal, and I have nothing but admiration for people like Beatrice and Will. They are living examples of social justice advocacy, and their efforts are making this world a better place. They inspire me to do better, and I look to both of them as models. I hate to think that anyone would confuse them with someone like Lori. And yet, that is exactly what I see happening today in some corners of the Internet (i.e., too many social justice warriors seem to think that they are being criticized for social justice advocacy and not for treating others poorly).

If the behavior of social justice warriors was merely ineffective, I would ignore it. Attacking people on the Internet in the name of social justice does not make the world a better place. But it is far worse than that. The behavior of social justice warriors like Lori is undermining social justice causes by making people less likely to support them and fueling misconceptions about the nature of social justice. Can we afford to ignore that?

If Lori bears any resemblance to an actual person, this is unintended. Lori is not a real person like Beatrice and Will but an amalgam of a couple of real individuals, neither of whom are particularly active in the online atheist, skeptical, or secular communities.