19 Feb When did the term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ become an insult?
Naomi Ryan | February 19, 2019.
Since its advent in 2009, World Day of Social Justice (February 20) has been an opportunity to publicly acknowledge and promote movements that are dedicated to addressing societal issues such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Looking back on the past decade in activism, there is a lot to acknowledge. In the U.S., we have seen unprecedented numbers of demonstrators take to the streets, united under the banner of movements like Black Lives Matter, The Women’s March, and March for Our Lives, to name a few. In a 2016 UK survey, respondents reported becoming more politically and socially aware in the previous year, and also expressed an increased willingness to volunteer in their communities. Another study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that 90 per cent of MBAs from Europe and the U.S. are willing to take a decrease in pay if it means working for a company they consider to be socially and environmentally responsible.
These results indicate a cultural shift towards adopting socially progressive views. But if championing these issues has gained mainstream acceptance, then why is it that when you enter the words ‘social justice’ into the search bar on Youtube, the first phrases that come up are ‘social justice warrior’ and ‘social justice warriors vs. logic’?
If you read the news or even just scroll through headlines on Twitter, you have likely encountered this phrase. It is hard to pin down exactly what it means, but today, it is primarily used as a pejorative. There are countless conservative op-eds, blogs, online forums, and yes, Youtube videos, devoted to exposing ‘social justice warriors’ or ‘SJWs’ as hypocrites and intellectual frauds, intent on undermining rational discourse.
However, this was not always the case. Pre-2008, ‘social justice warriors’ were deemed champions of economic and social issues. The term can be traced back to the late 20th century when it was used in a neutral or positive context to describe activists in the realm of social justice. It’s use was relatively infrequent, and it was not until the 2014 Gamergate controversy that ‘social justice warrior’ began to infiltrate the cultural vernacular as an insult, thanks to reactionary messaging from a vocal minority within the gaming community. It is precisely this shift in meaning that is so fascinating — and confounding. One would assume ‘social justice’ to have positive connotations, but ‘social justice warrior’ has been co-opted by alt-right communities to the extent that it is categorized as ‘derogatory’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.
It is worth noting that ‘SJW’ is most frequently used to describe women. This is most likely because the negative traits associated with being an ‘SJW’ (i.e. hypersensitivity, irrationality, and emotionality) are also typically associated with women. This maligning of the feminine in conjunction with social activism is not only evident to anyone who does a cursory google search of the phrase, but is a phenomenon documented in an essay by Adrienne L Massanari and Shira Chess on the construction of the SJW trope. Massanari and Chess argue that dissenting voices within alt-right and anti feminist communities use ‘SJW’ to convey a kind of insider status, in other words, they use it to show they are in on the joke. ‘Warrior’ is used sarcastically to highlight perceived mental fragility. By essentially making fun of feminists and social justice advocates for their perceived over-investment in changing the status quo, they position themselves as intellectually superior and rational observers.
There is a movement within activist communities to reclaim ‘social justice warrior’ as a badge of honor, denoting a fierce and unwavering commitment to rectifying the inequities that still plague our society. The fact that these conflicting definitions can exist at the same time is a testament to the complexity of language, and a reminder to use it carefully and be aware of the context in which it exists.