“Social Justice Warriors” and the Push for Ethics

a43aec536d26d8488ebcd107e02ab57907dc2c1a8a1b3a184bfa923a0a04ccb9When discussing GamerGate, or even just discussing internet and gaming culture, the phrase “social justice warrior” comes up quite often. When pressed for a definition, most people will probably describe a “SJW” as someone who advocates for social justice online… but just too much, essentially the same idea behind the word ‘feminazi.’ It allows the person using the word to create a distinction between some imaginary “proper” way of advocating for social justice, and some kind of militant “warrior” type that they disagree with. But the issue is, there’s no group of people that call themselves “social justice warriors.” It’s simply a label thrown at someone who is perceived as too “extremist” or “radical” in order to discredit them. And yet, this term has integrated itself into the social vernacular of the internet, and is a part of supposed “objective” arguments of all kinds.

I think what we must recognize is this: the term “social justice warrior” IS a slur. It’s a term used to describe some imaginary conglomerate of people for the purpose of discrediting any notion of social progress that surpasses the conceptual boundaries of the person throwing out the term. No one calls themselves a “social justice warrior,” except perhaps in an attempt to reclaim the word from those who created it. I have only seen it used as a way to belittle those trying to talk about issues that affect them deeply. And yet, despite being a group that doesn’t exist, they are so often referred to as some kind of confederacy of “evil feminists” plotting to topple the world of internet and video games by asking for equality… but too much equality! People will talk about how ridiculous it is that the “social justice warriors” use trigger warnings, or how they infect the media, or spewing their hate of men on tumblr, as if there was some conference where they’d all meet up.

To clarify, this isn’t to say that “social justice warrior” is a slur on the level of something like the n-word, but it is similar to the way “thug” is often used to describe black people. It translates an issue into terms the user is more comfortable with, hiding the negativity within some identifier other than gender or race. In the same way one can try and discuss Ferguson or Baltimore by saying “it isn’t a race issue, but a ‘thug culture’ issue,” one can argue that “it’s the ‘social justice warriors’ that are the problem, normal feminists and women are just fine.”

But the reason I think it’s important to use a word as strong as slur is because of how extensively the term is used, often by people that I think wouldn’t want to if they thought about its full implications. The term “SJW” can be seen in death threat Tweets from self-declared GamerGaters, but it can also be found in “objective” discussions that have nothing to do with GamerGate, or campus op-ed articles and classroom discussions. This term is pervasive and has been largely unchallenged, and I think it’s extremely dangerous. Personally, I think much of what I’ve read that’s caused people to be labeled as “SJW’s” are things I actually agree with, but even if you don’t, critics of the “SJW” mentality have to realize that this isn’t anything new. Feminism has existed for quite some time, and is an entire field of academic study. The ideas people claim as radical on tumblr really aren’t, and many of those notions are already deeply engrained in literary and film criticism. This “third wave feminism” that’s supposed to be so much worse really is just the same as what came before.

This isn’t to say that feminism is immune from criticism, or that misandry (the term for people that do hate men) doesn’t exist. Non-intersectional feminism, that doesn’t think about race and class as different manifestations of oppression that all interact, should be heavily criticized. And yeah, lots of people online don’t think about intersectionality while advocating for feminism, and some people are misandrists who openly hate men. But when you pile these people in with all of social advocacy, you end up also discrediting the people with very valid and important points. The obvious counterargument to this is that, in the same way, the radical GamerGater’s sending death threats shouldn’t be compiled together with those fighting for “ethics.” But this misses a key point: feminism isn’t an online movement. It isn’t new. Most prominent feminist thinkers probably haven’t even heard of GamerGate the term “social justice warrior,” though so many would throw the label onto them just the same. These supposedly terrible and dangerous ideas exist in many areas of the media and world, but when they’re presented online, or in sub-cultures more connected to the web (such as video games and the larger nerd culture), they are met with extreme negativity.

And this is where we reach GamerGate’s supposed push for ethics. One aspect of our GamerGate discussion was that it (rightfully) rejected the notion that GamerGate was about ethics in gaming journalism, and said that its members that wanted to improve the ethics of gaming media should go somewhere else. But I think we failed to hone in on the larger issue: most of GamerGate’s definition of ‘ethics’ involves somehow purging gaming media of a perceived “social justice” invasion. This is obvious in the comments section of almost any review that discusses gender or race, such as Polygon’s review of Witcher 3. People make the claim that games will soon be judged on how diverse and inclusive they are, rather than just on gameplay and quality… as if this is a bad thing. How is our media becoming more diverse something bad? The counterargument is that everything that doesn’t fit the “SJW” narrative is censored… but this simply isn’t happening. Someone writing a review challenging the notion of a white male protagonist is entirely different than censoring all games with white male protagonists. A simple look at the lead’s in popular games in the last year should tell you that we are so far away from a reality where media is censored for not being progressive enough that I don’t think it’s a fear even worth considering.

People have opinions. You may not like them, but that doesn’t make them some kind of scary cult. I also think that our world, and media, is progressing. More people reviewing games and movies are doing so through a feminist lens of criticism. People are thinking about gender and race. And now, women and people of color have more ways to speak out when they have an issue with a certain kind of media (via tumblr or twitter or what have you). I don’t see these as bad things. This isn’t censorship. People won’t stop making games and movies about white men, worry not! But, yes, media is changing, and slowly becoming more diverse. But there is no “feminist conspiracy” orchestrating this. It’s just progress, as it’s always existed, and with the same backlash it’s been met with throughout history.

3 thoughts on ““Social Justice Warriors” and the Push for Ethics

  1. I first learned of the SJW tag from tumblr, and certainly in a way that was mocking the people who don’t like us. Yep, I said us because I identify as a social justice warrior in exactly the way you identified. There’s a certain power in a group reclaiming a word so that it can’t be used to hurt them. It’s almost easier to do this when the term used is one that also just makes sense as something positive anyway. You’ve laid out the absurdity of the anti-SJW perfectly. Thanks for this post, it’s going in the favorites.

  2. I enjoyed this post as an interesting analysis into the particular contextual use of the term “Social Justice Warrior” in Gamergate and related internet discussion of feminism. I think your points about peoples overreaction and intolerance towards supposed radical ideas are pretty accurate and well thought out.

  3. A different take on “SJW” Vs “GamerGate”.

    In 1960 men outnumbered women in higher education. “SJW” pushed though Title IX. It became law in 1972 and was fully implemented by ’79. By 1981, women outnumbered men in higher education (by a very narrow margin). Now it’s 2015, Women outnumber men by twice the margin that prompted Title IX. The solution to this gender inequality? MORE WOMEN!!!! and Women in STEM!!!! The “SJW” for “Equality” in higher education are clearly not interested in actual equality.

    Now, if you can show to me where the feminists advocating about sexism in video games are some how worlds apart from the feminists advocating “Women in STEM”, you will have made your point.

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