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.