Monday, October 20, 2014

Social justice has its problems, but social justice warriors are not it

A signaling dance

There are a lot of criticisms of social justice which are basically bullshit.  For example, "It's okay for video games to lack female representation because it's mostly men who play them".  Or the widespread belief in "reverse-racism" in the US.  It gets to a point where the criticisms aren't merely bullshit, but abhorrent as well.

On the other hand, any social movement needs some degree of internal criticism to keep itself heading in the right direction.  This is something I'm particularly interested in, because of my roots in the skeptical movement, where internal criticism is considered a virtue.  By disposition, I'm the sort of person who speaks up when he disagrees, and not when he agrees.

But because of all the bullshit critics of social justice, anyone who wants to attempt internal criticism has to do this elaborate signaling dance to prove that they're worth listening to.  In the past, I've called this the "vacuous critics" problem.  Merely saying "some of my best friends are gay/women/poc" is not enough because that's what everyone says.  Saying that you think that men and women should be treated equally is not enough because that's exactly what the anti-feminists say.  And there are a variety of other phrases, like "I'm not a racist, but..." that should be avoided because of their historical use.  In fact, everything social justice advocates say today to signal that they really are social justice advocates, that will eventually go out of date, because the vacuous critics will simply copy it.

I'm very conscious of the signaling dance, and I do it very deliberately.  For example, I know the title of this post "Social justice has its problems..." has negative signaling, because for all people know, the problems I have in mind are simply more vacuous critiques.  So I have to be specific.  Here are a few things I think are problems with modern internet social justice: the elaborate signaling dance, the social justice cryptolect, the demand for perfection, excessively criticizing people rather than ideas, oversimplifying the concept of "appropriation", and speaking up on behalf of small groups without sufficient knowledge of those groups.

So basically, I have a bunch of specific and narrow critiques.  But one phrase I will never use is "Social Justice Warrior" (or SJW for short). 

What is a social justice warrior?

"SJW" is a term that gained popularity on Tumblr, although you can see it now being adopted in other spaces.  If you've never seen it before, it's easy to think that it's a positive term, because fighting for social justice seems like a good thing to do.  But in fact the term is used pejoratively by critics.

I would never use "SJW" to criticize social justice, if only because it's a major signaling fail.  Talking about social justice warriors is like putting a big garish sign above your head that says "I think social justice is bad", and simultaneously shouting the same slogan into a megaphone so that even people who don't know how to read the signs can know you're an asshole.

And while I criticize the degree to which signaling is a part of social justice advocacy, I realize that it does play an important role.  By opposing SJWs, you effectively ally yourself with all the people who are anti-SJW.  I'm sure many anti-SJWs are in favor of social justice in general, and only opposed to particular advocates of social justice.  But those people are lending legitimacy to the rest of the anti-SJWs, which includes a lot of people who oppose social justice.

The problem goes a bit deeper than that.  There are many people who think they are in favor of social justice, but either don't understand it, or unintentionally work against it.  Saying "I'm in favor of social justice, but against SJWs," is a bit like saying "Some of my best friends are gay."  The problem is, lots of people say that, and talk is cheap.

It's useful to contrast "SJW" with another term that is used to criticize social justice advocates: TERFs.  TERFs are trans-exclusive radical feminists, self-described radical feminists who nominally support women, but who believe that trans women are simply men who are "appropriating" women's struggles.  "TERF" is a great term because it's clear exactly what we're criticizing about these social justice advocates: transphobia.  "SJW" is not clear about what it's criticizing, so it gets used by all sorts of unsavory people.  IMHO, it's increasingly used only by unsavory people.

What's wrong with a warrior?

Let's focus for a moment on the people who nominally support social justice, but oppose social justice warriors.  What does "warrior" add to social justice that makes it so terrible?

The first thing I notice about "social justice warrior" as opposed to just "social justice" is that it shifts the focus from an idea to a person.  The message I'm hearing is, the ideas are good, but these particular people are bad advocates.

And it's funny, because focusing on individuals rather than ideas is exactly one of things I would criticize social justice advocacy for.  There's a tendency to make people jump through hoops to prove themselves worth listening to.  And if they miss a hoop, they're just a white cisdude blinded by their own privilege, and have nothing worthwhile to contribute.  In other words, we know the rest of their ideas are bad, because we've already judged the individual behind them.  This is the sort of thing anti-SJWs complain about too.

So when people criticize social justice warriors, there's more than a whiff of hypocrisy.  I guess it's nice to know that criticizing individuals rather than ideas is a universal tendency rather than a social justice one.

The other connotation of "social justice warrior" is that of war.  The thrust of the critique is that SJWs wrongly treat social justice as a war.  In other words, SJWs are sort of like this guy:

But what does the war metaphor really mean? Does it mean that SJWs are too zealous, they just care too much?  Does it mean SJWs are underhanded or violent?

If it's saying SJWs just care too much, I just don't see that critique going anywhere.  It's just one of the banalities of modern life on the internet that other people are extremely interested in stuff that you are not interested in.  Why is this a problem?  If people care a lot about social justice, isn't that laudable, more than anything else?

I already feel like I'm reading too much into the term "SJW".  It's not clear what it means because it doesn't mean anything in particular.  It's just a generic pejorative.

Don't be another vacuous critic

As I said above, social justice advocacy today has a bunch of specific problems.  "Social Justice Warrior" is a term that succeeds in identifying exactly none of those problems.  If pro-social-justice anti-SJW people have any decent critiques, then they seriously need a better way to express them.  Maybe one that doesn't ally themselves with the anti-social-justice anti-SJW people.

But I suspect that most pro-social-justice anti-SJW people do not have very decent critiques, because if they understood what they were criticizing, they would not have adopted the term "SJW".  Anti-SJWs are just more vacuous critics, exactly the kind that necessitate the entire signaling dance that I so dislike in social justice advocacy.  They are part of the problem.