Fair Questions: Why do people dislike “Social Justice Warriors” so much?

Today I went to a session with Keith Edwards, an educator who specializes in helping people act in ways that will prevent sexual violence, and also approaches it from within the wider framework of a social justice advocate.  I recommend reading some of the content on his website linked to above, as well as this peer-reviewed journal article.

Edwards has developed an interesting taxonomy of people who are developing into social justice advocates who are effective in their advocacy.  Unsurprisingly, he begins with the least effective and ends with the most effective.  Which is not to say that he is proposing that we develop in a linear fashion; he specifically points out that this development process is non-linear.  I prefer to use the term recursive, personally.  I’ve argued before that moral development is recursive rather than linear, based on the evidence of human behavior.  What this means for Edwards’ taxonomy is that we never reach the highest state of social justice advocacy and stay there every moment of the day.  We are always growing closer to the ideal by gradually correcting our behavior.

  1.  Aspiring Ally for Self-Interest
  2.  Aspiring Ally for Altruism
  3.  Ally for Social Justice

The first stage in the taxonomy is labeled as a matter of self-interest because the motivation for helping a member of a group often dealing with injustice (Edwards generally uses the term oppression) is still self-centered.  At this stage, we might speak up when someone makes a sexist joke at work because we feel a personal loyalty to a co-worker who was hurt by it.  This willingness to speak up is a good thing, though the motivation is hardly ideal, or at least incomplete.  Some of the less good things about a person operating at this stage are that they are generally unaware of the systemic nature of the sexism that goes on and prone to see the event as merely a matter of bad character on the part of the person who made the sexist joke.

The second stage in the taxonomy is labeled as a matter of altruism because it is explicitly other-centered.  At this stage, we might do a big fundraising campaign for a charity that does work for a particular group, whether that work is related to issues of sex, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, or something else.  This willingness to organize and do things for a group is a good thing, though Edwards points out that at this stage, the motivations are also less than ideal in many cases.  He notes that when we do these things, there is often a social cachet gained by doing so; the phrase “to win social justice points” was used to explain what happens when we do things for a group that garner social approval.

A couple of general things are important to note about both of these stages.  People who are operating (whether most of the time or only a small part of the time) at these stages are generally very well-intentioned.  People in the first stage who correct sexist behavior based on personal loyalties aren’t generally maliciously ignoring systemic issues; their worldview is simply one in which personal character is the only thing that determines the actions of others.  The evidence suggests that they are incorrect to rule out systemic factors, but it does not suggest that they are ill-disposed toward various groups.

This is also true of people in the second stage who value the social prestige that comes with being someone who does the social justice things valued by their peers and gets a lot of recognition for that.  These people are not nefarious; it is very easy for someone who values the approval of others or seeks to win friends to engage in any behavior that will accomplish that goal.  The evidence suggests that their behavior is less effective because of those motivations, but it does not suggest that they do not truly care about the groups for which they are explicitly advocating.

The second thing to note is that these stages are characterized by different unhealthy behaviors.  In the first stage, there is a tendency to tell a group experiencing injustice to deal with it by engaging in [insert coping mechanism here] behavior.  Edwards uses the stock example of telling a woman to avoid wearing short skirts or walking alone at night.  Worse, some of us might blame her choice of attire for causing a sexual assault.

In the second stage, Edwards talks about a frequent self-righteousness on the part of social justice advocates who call out those who participate in perpetuating injustice that stifles productive dialogue that can lead to growth on the part of those who aren’t currently social justice allies.  He mentioned that there’s a tendency to focus on how right we are and how wrong the other side is, and that this is particularly grievous when the person distances themself from their membership in the dominant group and sees themself as one of the “good ones”.

What I found interesting about this explanation of the second stage is that it fits like a glove as an explanation for everything that many people find annoying about what are called online in some circles “Social Justice Warriors”.  These are the sorts of behaviors one can see a great deal of on progressive sites and on Tumblr especially.  And even someone like me who is generally sympathetic to many social justice concepts and admires the social justice advocates’ commitment to helping the most vulnerable among us is just bemused and baffled by the self-righteous behavior and praise-seeking.

Not least when it comes in the form of attacking religious and conservative folks as enemies of social justice.  It occurs to me that this diminishing of social justice to having the right set of ideas or sharing the right set of antipathies to “the other side” is probably a product of social justice becoming popular.  When a movement is unpopular, only people who are invested enough to take real risks are willing to join that movement, and as a result, the movement tends to be composed of people who are serious enough about accomplishing their goals that they feel the need to engage in much more productive activities than simply casting aspersions on the other side from the safety of their blog in a corner of the internet in which they have many supportive peers.

When a movement is popular, on the other hand, the barrier to entry is low; it doesn’t require taking any serious risks to be an advocate in a popular movement.  And what’s more, they get a social benefit from being a part of the movement.  This is a problem which has plagued many movements (whether political or religious), and will probably continue to do so.  It makes me sympathetic to radical feminist groups who aren’t interested in having popular success, because I realize that popularity would actually be counterproductive to reaching their goals.

To bring it back around to the taxonomy, all the thoughts prompted by reading the taxonomy and participating in the session made me realize that Edwards had managed to elucidate a lot of what bothered me and others about social justice advocacy.  And even better, he did a reasonable job of laying out what a healthy social justice advocate should be as a set of operationalized behaviors and motivations.

Obviously, a healthy social justice advocate will not be motivated by praise-seeking or thoughts that they are one of the “good ones”.  And also, they will not be motivated to merely protect one individual from harm while lacking the motivation to do something about the systemic issues.  At the third stage, the motivation is to effect the liberation of all (including ourselves) because we know that when everyone is allowed to operate at their full potential, all of us benefit.

At this stage, the us versus them mentality is replaced by a growth mentality in which we seek ways in which we can grow in fostering social justice, both on personal and institutional levels.  This growth mentality is put into practice by systems of accountability for our own behaviors that may not be contributing to social justice, and Edwards emphasizes that these ought to be systems of accountability which do not put the responsibility for holding us accountable on the group experiencing the injustice.

One thing I really enjoyed about the session with Edwards is that he is less concerned about what we shouldn’t do and is more concerned about what we should do.  I enjoyed that because I’ve learned from my own experience as an educator that it’s generally more effective to promote good behavior than it is to punish bad behavior.  If we want to really work towards social justice, then Edwards’ approach is a worthwhile one to try.

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One Response to Fair Questions: Why do people dislike “Social Justice Warriors” so much?

  1. Pingback: The New Gods of the Gaps | Isorropia

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