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On the Ideological Underpinnings of Social Justice

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By AmericanDreaming   |   Watch
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Published: February 2, 2017

Several years ago, I came across an acronym online which I’d never seen before.  “SJW.”  I had no idea what it stood for, and no search engine could offer me any insight; it was too newly introduced into the lexicon.  In time, I learned that it stood for “Social Justice Warriors,” referring to outspoken activists on the political far-left involving feminism, social or racial justice, multiculturalism, political correctness, and against any perceived bigotry.  It is used primarily as a term of disparagement, in which capacity I have always found it somewhat awkward.  There are, after all, much worse things to be called than a “warrior,” irony or no.  I’ve never quite been satisfied with the term, even as I myself use it.

As the months and years progressed, these SJWs have made headlines, caused controversies, and stirred pots.  They gained followers, and they gained detractors.  They have ferociously waged what they feel are moral battles, yet in doing so have managed to imbue many ideas and concepts with so much toxic charge that they’ve become politically radioactive.  They have done a tremendous job in gaining visibility and notoriety, and they’ve accomplished the impressive feat of starting conversations about issues we might not otherwise have discussed, but they have also divided us, more so than we have been for many years.  As with many polarizing movements, there arose opposition movements, and as is so often the case when groups come about with the express intent of countering other groups, they almost invariably fall prey to some of the flaws of those they oppose, merely inverted.

The Social Justice Movement is ultimately built upon three ideological pillars.  The first is a desire to do good, grounded in a far-left, politically progressive outlook; to enact change, to move humanity forward, to make the world a better place.  This entails, from their perspective, fighting things like racism, sexism, bigotry, as well as injustices and inequalities, past and present.  This passion lies at the core of the movement and cannot be disregarded or overlooked.  These are not, for the most part, nefarious people knowingly doing bad under the guise of trying to help people.  There are undoubtedly some for whom that is true, but the rank-and-file social justice warrior is bringing with them a genuine concern for doing good.  As the saying goes, however, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

The second pillar is identity politics, a political theory which prioritizes the importance of people’s identity (race, gender, orientation, religion, etc) as opposed to their behavior or ideas.  People are categorized by their group-identities, and subsequently pigeonholed into ideological cookie cutters. If you’re black, you’re supposed to think this way about this issue. If you’re gay, you’re supposed to think that way about that issue, and so on.  Members of this group are recognized as oppressed, members of that group are oppressors, and these identities can validate or invalidate the actions or ideas of an individual, regardless of their merits or deficiencies.  Ideas are not separated from the people who hold them, rather they are viewed as inextricably linked.  Under this view, people or communities of two disparate group-identities can both express the same fundamental idea, yet each of these expressions are regarded as essentially two different ideas.  

Should an individual deviate from their prescribed modes of thought, social justice warriors have few qualms about loud and brazen questioning of one’s moral integrity. To break from the herd and have an independent thought is viewed almost as a betrayal of one’s own group.  Those guilty of this ideological treason can expect blistering condemnation, censorship, or shameless attempts at character assassination, ironically oftentimes tinged with bigotry or racism.  At its heart, identity politics homogenizes individuals — along with all the diversity among them — into collective groups, and prioritizes these groups over the individual in virtually every instance, regardless of the specifics of the situation.  There is value, when analyzing large things, to divide them into smaller, more manageable groups.  We humans are, for better or worse, labeling, categorizing creatures, it’s a part of who we are, how our minds work, and much of our progress has been aided by such methods.  Identity politics — especially as applied by SJWs — has taken this notion to its reductio ad absurdum, to the point of devaluing the individual, where superficial diversity is celebrated, but ideological diversity is demonized.  Identity politics is a gross oversimplification of the complexities and gradations to be found in society and its many subsets. I used to regard these kinds of binary worldviews as the sole domain of the far-right.  I was wrong.

The third plank of the Social Justice equation is relativism.  Relativism is the doctrine that truth and morality are entirely dependent on culture, society, or historical context; that there is ultimately no right or wrong, good or evil, true or false.  Relativism, as applied by the Social Justice Movement, commonly manifests itself as moral relativism, cultural relativism, and multiculturalism.  Those whose group identity is flagged with “oppressor,” are told that they have no basis or right to criticize or find fault with the value systems, practices, or cultural and social norms of those whose group identity is marked “oppressed.”  This results in mind-melting moral paradoxes such as SJWs railing against and trying to discredit the critics of female genital mutilation (FGM), rather than those who perpetrate it, or branding large swaths of society sexists and misogynists for debatable or non-existent infractions, while ignoring the truly misogynistic barbarism found in other cultures.  Some have even gone so far as to declare that doctrines like Islam are the “true feminism,” a notion that stretches Poe's Law to its absolute breaking point.

This isn’t to say that we should be absolutists; absolute certainty in the absence of absolute knowledge is foolish, however relativism, when taken to its logical ends, is intellectually and ethically insane.  To be a moral or cultural relativist, is, in essence, to pretend that we know nothing about human happiness, flourishing, or well-being.  We are all scientists, in a way, and humanity has been one long, strange experiment.  We have tried many things, and we can observe the results, weigh the evidence, evaluate the data, and come to rational conclusions.  There is so much more to learn about life and the cosmos, but we don’t need to pretend that we know nothing, out of a misguided sense of tolerance or a confused rejection of absolutism.  There is an element of disingenuousness to relativism as practiced by Social Justice Warriors as well, a charade of virtue-signaling empty tolerance.  I suspect that the kinds of people who engage in apologia for fundamentalist Islam, to continue the example, would no more want to live in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan than I would.  Once relativism is coupled with identity politics, however, the inherent flaws of each doctrine perfectly complement one another in effectively shackling one’s mind, producing a symbiotic harmony of moral confusion.

As a liberal who shares a passion for making the world a better place, I empathize with the starting point of the Social Justice Movement.  Where we part ways is with the intellectually lazy and dishonest ideological theories they use to inform and guide them.  Most ironic of all is that the end product of these modes of thought are often times retrograde, conservative, and quite illiberal.  Understanding the ideological underpinnings of the Social Justice Movement will serve as our Rosetta Stone for decoding and deconstructing their actions.

© 2017 - 2020 AmericanDreaming
I had been planning to write an essay entitled "On SJWs, Anti-SJWs, and the Death of Nuance" since late 2015.  Other pursuits and projects continually drew my attention in other directions, and this essay, uncompleted, fell by the wayside.  This is a slightly edited version of what I'd had at the last time of writing. I don't plan to complete it at this point, but I think this fragment is still worth publishing here.

The Racism of the LeftThe Racism of the Left: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
The need to criticize ideas is obvious; it weeds out the poor, refines the better, and sheds light on flaws and problems that may not otherwise have considered.  Generally, the competition or marketplace of ideas creates an intellectual environment for positive societal evolution and progress.
An area of human thought that requires specific critical attention are dogmas: sets of ideas posited without evidence and taught as unquestionably true.  The most common manifestation dogmas take are in the form of religions.  Dogmatism impedes free thought and inquiry, closing down avenues of knowledge and exploration the more sway they hold.  Dogmas are divisive, oftentimes backwards or even dangerous.  They tend, in their religious instantiations, to posit and glorify antiquated moral and philosophical systems, often built upon logical fallacies and underpinned by the comparative ignorance of their tim
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Comments75
anonymous's avatar
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Ziggy-Peters's avatar
The third pillar is practically nihilism.
Twiggierjet's avatar
On the subject of the term "SJW" being an insult, I think it had power as an insult back when it was mostly used sarcastically, as a way of implying that the person being labelled such did not actually care about social justice and was only pretending to in order to advance some other agenda not related to justice, or was sabotaging their own goal through being excessively militant. Once the term began to spread and be taken literally it lost almost all power as a term of disparagement IMO.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
One a term goes viral, you get simpletons who bandy it about recklessly, calling every other thing they don't like by that name, and you're right, it loses it's meaning and potency.
Duwee-DavisII's avatar
I always thought relativism was the noticeable pernicious flaw in Social Justice culture. Identity politics is problematic, but also, kind of obviously fucked-up to anyone with half a brain.

Relativism is the kind of shit that appeals to intellectuals even though it shouldn't. Taking into account other cultures' differing morality may well be necessary if we wish to start a dialogue with them, after all.

But this 'right for them, not for you' mentality is what's having them defend Sharia law implicitly. This is what allows them to ignore male rape victims and pretend they're not a thing. When I think of the stupidest things Social Justice Warriors say, it often stems from identity politics. When I think of the most dangerous things they say, it's almost always rooted in relativism.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
I too regard relativism as a dangerous and insane idea, and it is a shame that is appeals so often to the educated. In the Trump era, there's been a rise of relativism on the right, not moral or cultural relativism, but a relativism of knowledge, where truth is whatever is true for you. Trump and his supporters behave astonishingly similar to SJWs in many ways.

When the concept of truth is attacked and devalued, anyone can believe anything, and anyone can get away with anything.
Duwee-DavisII's avatar
Yeah. As some put it, we're in a post-truth era. It's a shame, because I think both SJWs and Trump Supporters honesty believe they're doing the right thing.

They just will resort to outright fabrication to achieve their goals.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Most bad movements are driven by an ends-justifies-the-means mentality.
Duwee-DavisII's avatar
It's like they say: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Indeed. People sometimes use that to infer that good intentions are meaningless. They aren't, but the means have to be as important as the ends. 
Duwee-DavisII's avatar
The thought isn't the thing that counts, but if you never have a selfless thought in your life, then you're probably going to be what the average person is: A contributor towards the stagnation of the general public.
DynastyOfSin's avatar
I have to say this is a well thought out post; which makes you think about the definition of titles AND how subjects are ultimately up for debate, NOT black or white as the public dictates. 
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. 8-)
BentoAUS's avatar
BentoAUSHobbyist Digital Artist
Here in Australia SJWs are everywhere. It becomes a problem when every other week there's an angry protest that changes absolutely nothing, and it's gotten out of control. I just want to worry about my own life and the people in it, I don't need this. I know it's wrong, but I have found it very hard not to be so affected by it lately.
That being said, of course, I acknowledge there are some protesters doing good, fighting for rights for people and animals. It's a shame then that the term protest has gotten such a bad rep, at least in my eyes.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
I wish more people thought as you do. Acknowledge and criticize the bad, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. :nod:
BentoAUS's avatar
BentoAUSHobbyist Digital Artist
It's not just SJW activism either. I've noticed Australia is protest mad, and it's not getting better. I don't mean to get patriotic at all, but I acknowledge that Australia is a good country to live in for several reasons. However, some people just can't be grateful for what they have, and have to keep bitching about how we have no jobs, education, ect. And I get the feeling what they say is not true, but hearing this constantly has long since become a problem. You can't go many places in Melbourne without these hearing from these people, and I'm sick of them. One has to wonder why they are such angry, whiny and miserable people, and most importantly why they feel the need to take it out on society. Their protests never accomplish anything, they'll never be happy in life... I guess all I can do is be above it and not let the things they say occupy too much of my mind, because at the moment my thoughts are being wasted too much on these people.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
Interesting. Most of what is bad - or annoying - in activism can be traced to partially or uneducated young people going through some sort of phase. Going back to my parents generation stuff like that happened, except there wasn't a 24 hour news cycle, smart phones, and the internet to give it so much publicity. What I'm ultimately getting at, and I think we agree on this, is that as toxic as SJWism is - and I've produced a volume of content on the subject bigger than many people's entire galleries - we should still maintain some perspective on the matter. This isn't a new phenomenon. Some of the issues are new, and technology and the shifting cultural zeitgeist have altered the tactics to a degree, but these are for the most part the same sorts of people who were protestors and political activists in the last handful of generations. The damage this crop is doing owes mainly to how widely publicized their actions are these days (see above). That is what makes the difference.
BentoAUS's avatar
BentoAUSHobbyist Digital Artist
Sorry for the delayed reply. I just had to be in the mood, so to speak.
While I'm certainly listening to what you say, and I have no experience to back up my theory, but it seems to me like the problem has still gotten much worse in today's modern society. I say this because I gather politics had a much better reputation in the past centuries (without meaning to get too political. I'm not expressing any of my own opinions on the matter) and the society of today has trolls, cyberbullies, ect. Would you agree it's worse now than it used to be?
I don't want to go around in circles with this discussion, but the fact that it's seemingly becoming more and more constant and ridiculous all the time is concerning me. Getting angry and bashing politicians isn't going to change anything. It's just going to make sensitive people like me distressed. Change and improvement comes from people willing to think positively to come up with real solutions. It really irritates me when they claim to be "helping" in their deluded minds, when really they're making it worse if anything, given the problem is real to begin with. And I can't help but feel that Australia is one of the single biggest offenders of this toxic activism, despite all the things we have to be thankful for (again, not getting patriotic). Too many people these days let politics dominate their lives, very likely to the point where they have no joy in their lives, just misery and hate. I would be fine with that if they could just keep it to themselves. There are people in Australia and the world helping issues such as poverty and climate change in a very positive way, and then "these" people are whining for seemingly selfish and petty reasons.
I do admit that a lot of the things I'm saying are just assuming without any real evidence, but at least I'm willing to acknowledge it. Are my assumptions correct?
AmericanDreaming's avatar
It's more polarized, because the profundity of television stations, media outlets and news publications, as well as the vastness of the internet allows people to cloister themselves in echo-chambers to a degree never before possible in a society of diverse opinions. People can organize their life so that most of what they see they will agree with. This is extremely harmful, and we are seeing the fruits of it now.

There are many toxic aspects to modern activism, I agree. As stated previously, this is not fundamentally something new, and I do think it would alleviate some of your frustration to keep in mind that these are mostly know-nothing kids. Many in the anti-SJW circles is run in bristle at that point of view. I talk to people on a daily basis who honestly and with a straight face regard social justice warriors as virtually the most serious threat to humanity, and any nuance on the subject sends them into paroxysms (you might almost say it triggers them). I do share your frustration, what I'm saying is try to keep some perspective and be a voice of reason. Don't let the muggles keep you down. 
DarkVikingMistress's avatar
DarkVikingMistressStudent Writer
I think the reason some people bristle at that is because they may not feel as if they're being taken seriously yet again. People who are against the modern toxic elements of the left are constantly dismissed as paranoid, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Nazis, nationalists etc and people rush to try and put words in their mouth to make it appear that way. I'm not saying it's justified of them to bristle at you or be hostile and they probably aren't helping with the way they appear to people who question, but if you appear to brush it off as not a real problem they're used to that and are frustrated by it.

Seeing social justice warriors as the worst thing in the world is a bit stupid but where do you find these people? Are they online, or in real life? If they're online, they could be venting in a place where they feel their opinions are more respected per se which may make them much much louder than they would in their daily lives. I agree they're more of a harm than a help in some areas. If they're in real life I'm guessing they're much older. Young SJWs can be quite vicious to one their age who doesn't conform (I've experienced it myself personally).

The person talking down there...honestly I live in Melbourne and I can attest to what she's saying. I like visiting the inner city areas for a day out but I'm positive I could never go beyond the suburbs. There are signs for Marxist and 76+ genders type rallies everywhere, and certain people will look down on you for not being 100% with the social justice thing. Hell, when my sister brings up politics I hardly even respond to her, because when I diverge a little bit from her super feminist opinions she makes it awkward. The country otherwise is fair in other aspects, but it's becoming a bit bad in that aspect. And it wasn't silly SJW kids who banned criticism of Islam the ACT it was adults in the political system who made that decision. Why cause it's apparently threating and Islamophobic to even simply criticise the Islamic religion and so it should be completely off limits apparently.

Um...I feel like a lot of our anti SJW conversations have gone really badly so please remember that I don't think all anti SJWs are good. I may or may not have reached my edit limit and hidden my first comment because I'm trying to be super polite cause I don't know how this is gonna be taken
PleaseImJustaGirl's avatar
  Well Spoken, and Happy Birthday.
BentoAUS's avatar
BentoAUSHobbyist Digital Artist
Nice to know someone can relate to me. My life would be so much easier without seeing people whine about how much they hate Trump for the millionth time. Are Australians really some of the worst when it comes to SJW-ism? It's bad enough that they crap on about their own country's politics, but now they're being the US into it? I worry this is getting worse all the time, and I can't justify how far they're taking it. I wish they would just keep it to themselves instead of littering the streets with their eyesore posters. Let the rest of us enjoy our lives. I don't want to debate with anybody about this, I'm just expressing how strongly I feel about it:
And I'm male, by the way.
AmericanDreaming's avatar
AmericanDreaming WriterFeatured
I agree with your second paragraph, and don't doubt the third. As to your first points, that may be, in some cases, but if so, then that is a problem which anti-SJWs have to address among themselves. As far as I'm concerned, if nuance and perspective "appear to brush it off as not a real problem," such people are no better than SJWs themselves. A lack of nuance is in part what got us into this whole mess. We need more, not less.

I don't know what to say about the last bit that I haven't already said many times. There's nothing wrong with us disagreeing, and no need to walk on eggshells. I don't walk on eggshells for you, I would request you not do the same for me, if that's okay.
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Ichosetheimpossible's avatar
The Internet and the Web is a relatively new invention. In history where social changes occurred it wasn't around, and so I think people today don't take discussions on the Web as seriously. I believe than in the future historians will look back at our time and learn about it my studying what was on the Web, such as these Social justice Warrior movements. 
There may be a better way of explaining all that, here's hoping people understand that. 
What I wanted to say most really was that I enjoyed reading your article here I found it interesting despite I didn't understand few of the concepts discussed. I'm curious as to if you have any academic background in this area of discussion as the one thing I would critic is a lack of references to other articles or just published text which could be used to support your ideas or provide further explanation on concepts discussed. 
AmericanDreaming's avatar
I think there is truth in that.  The way we react to such revolutionary technologies will certainly be a subject of attention for future historians. I also think that the existence of the internet is a prerequisite for movements like the SJWs to come into being. Without the ability to gather information, communicate, share ideas, and organize in the way that the internet uniquely allows for, most SJWs would grow out of this phase (figuratively, but also literally in some cases) in the time it'd take the movement to coalesce.

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have no academic background. I have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated subject, which is the extent of my formal credentials.  This is an opinion piece, not a research paper, and I'm not pretending to be a journalist.  I would be happy to clarify any point of confusion.
anonymous's avatar
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