How did ‘Social Justice Warrior’ Become an Insult?
“Despite his overdeveloped social conscience, he was no tight-lipped, perpetually grim do-gooder who frowned on fun. To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham.”
This is how Jon Krakauer describes Chris McCandless, alias Alexander Supertramp, in his book Into the Wild. I had loved the film and devoured the book, but when I read this sentence I felt like I had stubbed my toe on it.
Why is there this persistent myth that those who do good things are boring, annoying or even morally questionable?
This paradox has a long history, and has been given a new lease-of-life via the internet, with the derogatory term “Social Justice Warrior.”
A term without negative connotation in the late 20th century became derogatory through internet culture — especially through the Gamergate controversy. Now, when you type “Why Social Justice Warriors…” on Google, the first two search suggestions are “Why social justice warriors are demented” and “Why social justice warriors are mean.” SJW has become a pejorative term for an individual who promotes socially progressive views, in particular, those linked to social liberalism, cultural inclusivity or feminism. The accusation that somebody is an SJW carries implications that they are pursuing personal validation rather than any deep-seated conviction.
In 2014, SJWs even got their very only parody role-playing video game. Developed by Nonadecimal Creative, Social Justice Warriors involves debating online against trolls making racist and sexist comments by choosing from different responses such as “dismember their claims with your logic,” “rebroadcast their message to be attacked by others”, or “go for the personal attack.”
Though Social Justice Warrior, used as an insult, is the latest manifestation, do-gooders have long been met with resentment, suspicion and hostility. Feelings which manifest as people inferring ulterior motives for altruistic actions, implying real or imagined hypocrisy or attacking do-gooders on unrelated dimensions.
Research shows that in every society, those who show above average levels of cooperation are often punished for it. Studies in fields from experimental economics and social psychology to anthropology revealed the phenomenon, known as “antisocial punishment” or “do-gooder derogation.” Often, studies use economic games with real money, where people can either co-operate or be selfish, and can pay to “punish” others for their actions. While most punishment in these studies is directed at uncooperative group members, approximately 20 per cent of all punishment is directed at the most co-operative group members. Rates of antisocial punishment vary but it has been found in every society where it has been investigated. Apparently, it is a standard of human societies to resent people who are working for the good of the group.
“Do-gooders are seen as deviant rule breakers. It’s as if they’re giving away Monopoly money so someone can stay in the game, irking other players no end,”
explains social psychologist Craig Parks, of Washington State University, who is the author of one such study.
“The fear is that this new standard will make everyone else look bad. It doesn’t matter that the overall welfare of the group is better served by someone’s unselfish behaviour. What is objectively good, we see as subjectively bad.”
The first explanation for why we put-down do-gooders is that their way of life is inherently a threat to our sense of self. We feel like we are in competition with them, and that compared to someone very good, we must be bad. Criticising them as SJWs just out for their own validation helps us avoid questioning ourselves and feeling inferior.
Meeting someone whose behaviour is laudable can also make people feel implicitly judged. One study of college students showed that non-vegetarians listing words they would use to describe vegetarians wrote negative terms in half of cases, such as annoying, arrogant or crazy. But those who viewed vegetarians the most negatively were those who were also likely to suspect that vegetarians viewed them badly, implying that a fear of moral judgement was behind a negative view of vegetarians.
Do-Gooders show us ways of behaving that we would like to be able to mimic, that we sense would be the right way of acting. This feels threatening because we sense, also, that this way of life would come at a cost.
Do-gooders are already human, of course, but as they ratchet up their selflessness, they begin, ever so slightly, to depart from the fold. They look like us and talk like us, but they abide by rules that we understand we could only adopt were we to abandon something that feels essential to ourselves.
— Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning
Our natural tendency to make digs at those who do good is convenient for those who don’t want society to change. The fact that SJW was a term made pejorative by sexist trolls, and still very often directed at women, is evidence of this.
Referring to SJWs, Allegra Ringo writes in Vice:
“The problem is, that’s not a real category of people. It’s simply a way to dismiss anyone who brings up social justice — and often those people are feminists. It’s awfully convenient to have a term at the ready to dismiss women who bring up sexism, as in, “You don’t really care. As an SJW, you’re just taking up this cause to make yourself look good!”
The problem with criticising Do-Gooders for doing good is, on the one hand, that it delegitimises those fighting for change, and on the other, that it prevents us from criticising what needs to be criticised. We should be criticising SJWs for their inconsistencies or the moments when they are blinded by their privileges, not for the fact that they do good things. Ignorant westerners travelling to Africa to Save the World should be called out for their sense of White privilege, arrogance or exotisation of other peoples problems, not for their intent to do good.
An example of this are the Bobos, as the French say, or Bourgeois Bohemian. It is basically a term for someone who is well off who claims to care about the environment, despite their own lifestyle. Someone who drinks yogi tea in individual paper packages carrying inspirational messages, who eats Quinoa imported from the other side of the world, and drives a 4x4 while listening to a podcast about saving the environment. There is a lot to criticise about Bobos, but all too often it is used as a generic term to criticise anyone who wants to take initiatives to be more environmentally friendly, rather than to criticise a hypocrisy of a well-meaning consumerist upper middle-class.
We need to reclaim the terms Social Justice Warrior and Do-Gooder, and relegitimise the fight for change.