Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Social Justice Warrior Is An Insult? Really?

I'm not going to comment one way or the other on the whole Quinnspiracy thing going on in the video game world right now because I'm not a video gamer and I don't have the time or the interest to try to sort out which frame is most accurate (though I do have strong suspicions based on what I've seen from both sides). If I want to explore representation and treatment of women in geekdom, I'll stick to the comics and gaming subcultures that I know. If I'm going to worry about journalistic integrity, I'm going to worry about the fact that They Daily Show is winning Peabody Awards, not that someone may have written a soft review of the latest version of Grand Theft Auto. I'm not saying these issues aren't important, just that they're not important enough to me personally to try to sort out the Springer episode that they've turned into in order to make informed comments about them.

What I am going to talk about is the use of the term "Social Justice Warrior" as an insult, because I'm pretty sure I've seen it used in other contexts (mainly by right-wing types), it seems to be becoming more mainstream (it showed up a comment on the Hex Facebook page recently), and, most importantly, because it's the most pathetic attempt at an insult that I've ever seen. As I understand it, "Social Justice Warrior" is used to describe people who argue for inclusiveness but who, at least in the mind of the person using the phrase, have ulterior motives for advocating a particular position (improving their reputation, getting laid, whatever). I'm not interested in the definition. It attacks a person's intent, which is hard to prove or disprove without a confession or very damning evidence, so whether the intended insult is accurate is a moot point. I'm interested in the phrase itself.

The reason "Social Justice Warrior" doesn't work as an insult is because it sounds bad-ass. "Warrior" is a word that rarely has negative connotations, so pairing it with the actual thing that the person (accurately or not) claims to want is basically saying "HA! HA! You fight for what you believe in!" And since not supporting "Social Justice" implicitly means supporting social INjustice, you're not going to find a lot of people who reject the overall concept (though some may qualify their support by providing a strict definition of the term). So when you call someone a Social Justice Warrior, you're basically trying to insult them by implying that they're willing to fight for something that most people support. See how that's dumb?

I suspect that the main reason that more people on "social justice" side aren't fully embracing and co-opting the term is that it just sounds too cool. Social Justice Warrior should be reserved for people who take much greater risks, like those who risk their lives and freedom by travelling to dangerous parts of the world to heal, feed, and educate people in need; or people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning who made enormous sacrifices for what they believed in. Speaking up publicly, donating to causes, attending protests, and other common forms of activism just don't seem dangerous enough to warrant the designation "Warrior," even with the increased levels of government spying, police brutality, and targeting of activists we've experienced in recent years.

Some people might find fault with my assessment of the label "Social Justice Warrior" because it's so similar to "White Knight," which has similar meaning and is commonly seen as an insult, at least by people who spend a lot of time on the internet. The reason White Knight works is that it's evocative of both an outdated, paternalistic worldview and a kind of naivete found in the fairy tales and romances that feature the White Knight character. Social Justice Warrior fails to evoke any similar connotations.

Since "Social Justice Warrior" is such a sad attempt at a slur, I'd like to offer three better alternatives that the Anti-Carlin who came up with the phrase could have used instead that just require changing a single word.
  • Social Justice Crusader: Sure, still sort of bad-ass, and "Crusader" is similar to "Warrior," but there's a subtle difference. The association with the Crusades gives this one a religious connotation that suggests zealotry and uncritical loyalty to a cause or leader.
  • Social Justice Extremist: Describing someone as an "Extremist" is always a good way to imply that what they're saying has no value. "Social Justice Extremist" evokes visions of the kind of fascistic inclusiveness and equality that guys like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have nightmares about.  
  • Social Media Warrior: This one undercuts the word "Warrior" by implying that the insultee's actions are limited to complaining on the internet, thereby lumping them in with slacktivists and hashtag activism. Sure, that my not be true, but since the whole point is to discount rather than debate the person's argument, who cares? 
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