When stratified, the term “social justice warrior” is harmless.
Social (adj.): marked by or passed in pleasant companionship with friends or associates
Justice (noun): the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments
Warrior (noun): a brave or experienced soldier or fighter.
Each word considered on its own is fundamentally positive. So how exactly is it that these three words put together have turned into a tool of shame? Though the phrase “social justice warrior” raised to the surface of society as a generally positive term, it quickly deteriorated into something designated to those individuals who push a progressive agenda for self-serving purposes.
There are many who might argue that the term has become a weapon of the conservative party to shut down “liberal snowflakes” who might venture to open discussions about climate change and race politics. This is an easy sentiment to hold when one feels their activism has been silenced or belittled by the use of this term. However, despite the politics behind the term, I am of the belief that this nominal phrase creates a well-needed space for activists to critically examine the purpose of their discussions and actions.
The fact of the matter is “social justice warriors” exist and the population of these individuals has only continued to grow. We have all seen them. The white men who speak over women about topics relating to feminism. The white women who touch a black person without permission while also championing themselves as an “ally to the cause.” That one kid on campus rocking airpods, which have a plastic shell that will take a millennium to decompose, who yells at you for sipping your drink through a straw.
Yes. These people all exist, and to deny they exist is to deny a fundamental group within our society. But at what point does this group shift from being mildly aggravating to subtly problematic? The truth of the matter is social justice warriors are merely a product of deeper issues in our society that none of us are willing to address. Our obsession with social media has allowed us to praise hundreds of people daily for merely pointing out basic and everyday injustices. Karen just shared a Unicef Ad about famine in Ethiopia? 100 likes for her. Craig just retweeted a Bernie Sanders tweet about economic inequality? 1500 shares. You just reminded us about how straws hurt the turtles? Well, aren’t you just the modern-day Rosa Parks standing up in the face of true adversity.
I’m sure written out all these scenarios seem ridiculous, yet I can guarantee that you, just like everyone else, are at fault for perpetuating the narrative that doing the bare minimum is something to applaud. Yet this social trend is not just irritating and at times dumbfounding but it also takes attention away from the real problem at hand. Nine times out of 10 it is always the person addressing the problem that gets the time of day, not the problem itself. For most of us, coming to face with the severity of most problems such as police brutality, climate change, famine, and extreme poverty is just too much for us to bear. So instead, we conflate the person addressing these problems to the problem itself and we use them as a buffer. Instead of seeing the protests at the Dakota Pipeline, we see an image of actress Shaleen Woodley who was arrested at the Dakota Pipeline. Instead of seeing photos of environmental destruction, we see a picture of Leonardo Dicaprio warning us against the dangers of climate change.
In this sense, we are all social justice warriors. With every like, share, and retweet we are perpetuating the fact that we are too scared to face the problems that plague the world. We remind each other that it is okay to superficially praise one another for toe-deep activism so long as we don’t have to confront the problem. The same people attempting to give space to a pressing problem are the ones taking it up with the demands of acknowledgment.
I am aware that there are those who will say that any coverage is coverage. It is the classic utilitarian argument. If social justice warriors bring some awareness to a problem who cares about the means? To that, I would urge us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Are we not capable of standing up for the sake of what is right without a desperate need for attention? I challenge us all to consider our actions the next time we find ourselves in a social justice warrior dilemma. Because at the end of the day, while I applaud Karen and Craig for their selfless bravery, I am sure the problems they are addressing demand just a bit more of our attention.