By Nicholas Goroff
Chapter one of a three part analysis of the SJW phenomenon.
Though in many circles the term “SJW” is commonplace, to many observing what seems to be an endless shouting match between often ill-defined sides in an ill-defined culture war centered on, depending upon who they’re hearing, anything from free speech to hate speech, the term can be a curious source of confusion. To those typically of a more liberal persuasion, the question of how “social justice” can be seen as a negative or malignant political cause can be baffling. However as with most things, once one peeks under the surface of what is presented, a much different picture comes to light.
On its face, the social justice movement of the modern age is one which purports to stand as the inheritor of the classic civil rights struggles of the 20th century. Claiming to stand against racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and any other form of intolerance, social justice progressivism views itself unerringly as the defender of the weak, the marginalized, the downtrodden and oppressed. Yet with all the vim and vigor with which these new activists approach what they see as the defining struggles of our age, much within both their practices and broader ideologies often serve more to undermine the principles of liberal democracy and civil society than to bolster them.
As it would likely cause genuine outrage to both parties involved to say so, the Social Justice Warrior (SJW) is in many respects more closely related to the fundamentalist evangelical political right than it is the activists and demonstrators of the 1960s and 70s they seek to emulate. Though the language is different, the base ideology of social justice purists and the neo-progressive intelligentsia is one rooted strongly in principles of virtue and vice, with a substantial focus on the policing of thought, speech, action and creation. These relatively new orthodoxies, when held in contrast to the virtues espoused by those who took part in the original civil rights and free speech movements of the last century suggest not only a divergence from those original causes, but in some cases an outright refutation of them.
In this piece, we shall explore both the theories and methodologies to the social justice phenomenon, as well give consideration to their potential affects and means by which to address and/or counter them. Though much of this will not be new information to many already observing the conflict between social justice progressives and more independent critical thinkers, it is important to remain mindful of the need to critically analyze such situations objectively by taking a step back from time to time. Likewise, it is the hope of your author that should one who is already aware of the matters covered here come across one who is not, that these materials will help better explain the nature of both the conflict and parties involved with greater clarity than mere observation specific conflagrations (ie; Gamergate, Black Lives Matter, Sad Puppies, etc) may be able to offer.
Part 1: The Ideology of Victimhood
Central to the majority of modern social justice theories and causes is the concept of oppression. Through the lens of social justice progressivism, society is at all times and at all levels divided into classes of oppressor and oppressed, with varying levels of “privilege” and “oppression” being bestowed to individuals typically based on demographics. Derided as being a form of “oppression Olympics” by detractors, social justice theorists both on a rank and file activist level as well as in higher academic positions almost universally construct hierarchies of privilege and oppression using demographic identity, into which they presumptively rank individuals according to things such as race, sex, gender and gender identification, sexual orientation and so on.
Within their thinking and advocacy, the idea is proclaimed that the greater the level of oppression and victimhood one can claim becomes, the more entitled to respect, reverence and deference one is. Ignoring logical or factual inaccuracies not only becomes permissible under this mentality, but in many cases obligatory as all factors involved in a thought or discussion are granted validity based firstly on the identity and perceived oppression of the thinker or speaker, rather than the thought or speech itself. It is also in this sense of oppression that one can claim they feel as part of their given demographic that ultimately defines what oppression actually amounts to altogether.
Seldom if ever factoring in more conventional sociological factors such as economic class, familial or cultural tradition or even cultural philosophical tradition –short of instance when a selective interpretation of such supports predetermined theoretical conclusions– the new school of ideologically driven social theory is one which focuses almost exclusively on concepts of marginalization and exploitation by one demographic over another. From this, an automatic sense of virtue and validation for those posed as the recipients of said marginalization is bestowed upon them, with those said to have greater privilege being in turn cast automatically as the villain in this continuing drama of privilege and victimhood.
Though from an objective point of view it can be said that western society indeed possesses a long history of hierarchical class division with strong currents of racism, sexism and identarian elitism fueling said fires throughout its history, deeper reflection on such and how it factors into existing structures of inequality actually factors into much of the rhetoric or beliefs held by those who claim to stand against it in this case. In addition to ignoring actual progress made in cases where such undermines the ethos of modern social justice, activists, academics and media personalities often attempt to reframe historical injustices as matters of ongoing oppression which never ended at all. Such can be observed easily in anything from “professional feminist” claims that women are second class citizens made in the midst of paid speaking engagements, to instances of talk show hosts stating that phrases such as “hard worker” ought to be reserved for plantation slaves.
As facile as such examples are, they are also very representative of much of what modern social justice crusading truly focuses on. Even in instances of legitimate outrage, such as in respect to racial and gender based disparities in the administration of criminal justice (with the latter being paid little to no real attention by said activists,) less focus is actually paid by SJWs to the mechanisms of such disparities, as is paid to the broader identity based political righteousness of the given campaigns. In this, the injustice in question takes a back seat to the considerations of identity and position within the proposed hierarchy of oppression.
However even within the efforts of social justice progressives to ostensibly tackle all forms of oppression and inequality, an inherent selective hypocrisy can be observed in their regard for issues posed. For example, though feminist campaigners claim to be working towards gender equality, the often radical rhetoric and action taken against innocuous matters such as how men sit on busses or trains take absolute precedence over deeper questions of inequality in respect to social services and parental rights between the sexes. Again with the factual parameters of issues under discussion being reframed and prioritized by way of a selective identity based approach, the interest paid to given questions focuses less on the objective reality of them and more to the subjective sense of the broader victimhood of preferred demographics.
Though framed by social justice progressives as matters of prioritization in respect to inequality and injustice, with many outright dismissing issues which fall outside of their ideological framework, the reality of these selective approaches to social injustice and inequality fall more at the feet of the underlying ideology which fuels them. Often regarded as stemming from “third wave” feminism, it is within the “intersectional” school of such that a sort of ideological hegemony over inequality and victimhood emerges. This bringing us to our next point.
Part 2: Intersectionality
One central theme to modern social justice warfare is that of ‘intersectionality.’ Rooted in the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, intersectionality is a theory which espouses that all forms of oppression and the struggles to overcome them are overlapping and interconnected. The term itself was coined initially in 1989 by Kimberle’ Williams Crenshaw, who first introduced it as a formal feminist social theory.
Centered initially on the experiences of black women in respect to the civil rights and feminist movements of the mid and latter 20th century, it was Crenshaw who formally brought to concept of overlapping forms of discrimination into critical race theory. Though the concepts contained within intersectional feminist theory existed as early as the late 1800’s during the suffrage movement, it’s defined adoption into social theory didn’t fully come until the 1980’s and 90’s. Since then the term “intersectional feminist” has largely come to define much of what the modern social justice warrior claims to stand for.
While theoretically not devoid of sociological truth, its invocation by a majority of modern feminists and social justice advocates contains substantially less valid meaning than its underlying theory presents. Within its usage in general modern activism, the demonstrated aims of intersectionality are geared less towards the exploration of overlapping sociological experiences and more towards an ambition to claim them all as being the province of third wave feminism. From racial conflict to animal rights, these intersectional social justice feminists are increasingly standing up and declaring that any and all perceived fights for equality and justice fall exclusively within their own realm of authority and activism.
However the modern interpretation of intersectionality and its invocation as a philosophy and political ethos is not without many inherent and often insurmountable contradictions. Firstly amongst these is the question of equality versus justice, which are all too often either presented as being one in the same, or as being separate considerations depending entirely on the subject under discussion. In this, whereas it could be argued that equality of opportunity is central to the advancing of interracial and gender justice, the typical argument offered by the intersectional feminist is that opportunity is irrelevant as structural and institutional oppression prevent women and minorities from being able to succeed in the first place.
Instead, as a counter argument the intersectional feminist and SJW will insist upon what is regarded as equality of outcome, wherein regardless of the merit of action or effort taken, reward and outcome are bestowed upon the individual on the basis of their race, gender, sexual preference or orientation. Such thinking has even inspired many a feminist and social justice warrior to question the very concept of meritocracy, wherein a person’s merit is wrought from ability as opposed to identity, as being inherently biased against them. Weighing this presumed entitlement to success and reward upon the level of proposed intersectional oppression the individual faces is the basis upon which many advocates of strident social justice call for gender and racial quotas in respect to everything from professional positions to the presentation of awards.
But contained within this very argument is a central logical inconsistency which plagues the philosophies of social justice and feminism to no end and one which goes perpetually unaddressed by their respective advocates. Within the question of merit versus representative mandate, the question of presumed value and ability between proposed demographics largely undermines the underlying notions of equality that are said to be central to the philosophy. By this, under honest consideration one is compelled to ask if by manner of insisting upon representative quotas and the pre-establishing of re-distributive advantage, those demanding such are not denigrating the inherent potential of the demographics and classes such activists wish to elevate.
Coming soon: Part Two – Hypocrisy and “No Bad Tactics”
Nicholas Goroff is a writer, journalist, actor and Youtube content creator. A former political operative and labor organizer, he holds a degree in Criminal Justice and previously studied Political Science at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. Presently he works as a beer and liquor critic at Everyjoe.com in addition to writing for The Rationalists.org and Occupy.com