The Sliding Scale of “SJW”

(I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time, and have only now managed to gather my thoughts on it in a satisfactory manner. It’s been years – probably ten or so – since I wrote an “academic” article so please forgive any errors in attribution or non-MLA quotation. I’m afraid I have quite forgotten the rules!)


If you travel within certain social media circles, you’ve likely seen the pejorative term “SJW” (Social Justice Warrior) thrown into the conversation, whether said discussion involves the current election, fandoms, books, or even something as apparently innocuous as Halloween costumes.

If you haven’t ever seen this term bandied about, you may wonder what it means. Even those who have seen it or used it themselves may not be aware that different communities utilize the phrase differently. There appears to be a sliding scale of definition, starting with the purely derogatory. Urban Dictionary’s user-submitted definition is “A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation [1].” This, I’d like to point out, is the least heated definition associated with the phrase on that particular website, and the one which most people on the internet seem to associate with the term. (For more examples, just do a google image search for SJW.)

On the other side of the scale are those who take the term for its original, literal meaning – an individual who works towards/fights for a goal of achieving social justice and equality, usually on behalf of minorities or as members of marginalized groups.

I find the use of it by people who don’t fully understand what other ideals they are associating themselves with to be very troubling.

The origin of the phrase goes back at least to 1991. “All of the examples I’ve seen until quite recently are lionizing the person,” Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at the Oxford University Press, is quoted as saying [2]. People holding ideals similar to those of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were hailed as Social Justice Warriors – those who fought bravely, often times against harsh opposition, in order to achieve equality for the downtrodden or oppressed.

There is some debate as to when the term first began to gain traction as pejorative. While the Internet culture historians of point to a blog entitled “SJWar” with entries dating back to 2009, the blog’s author, SF&F writer Will Shetterly, has indicated that the title is a more recent development. [2].  One fact that most can agree upon is that “SJW” began to gain prominence as an insult with the rise of Gamergate, a toxic internet controversy which began around 2011 and escalated to the point of threats of violence.

With this in mind, the phrase’s current problematic use becomes more apparent. A term which was once espoused as positive has been taken by a fringe group and turned into an insult. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the evolution of “SJW” closely mirrors that of “feminist,” another word fraught with political and social implications. However, there is far less of an outcry against the use of “SJW” as there is against “feminism” when used as pejorative labels, and I believe there are two main reasons why.

First of all, one must consider that SJW means different things to different communities. In the fantasy/scifi community where most of this began (take a look at the massive backlash against people of color, women and other minorities gaining representation at the Hugo awards), SJW is a polarizing term. There are people who decry the pejorative and use the term at its original meaning, and then there are those who use it to belittle (and sometimes outright harass) those working to attain or champion equal representation. One of the biggest proponents of the anti-SJW movement is the writer Vox Day, the online pseudonym of Theodore Beale. To quote him directly, “Because the SJW agenda of diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness, and equality flies in the face of both science and observable reality, SJWs relentlessly work to prevent normal people from thinking or speaking in any manner that will violate their ever-mutating Narrative” [3]. This man and his followers’ ideas of social “justice” are revoking a woman’s right to vote [4] and calling a woman of color “an educated, but ignorant half-savage” [5].

On the Tumblr/fandom/4chan side of things, SJW is most often used to describe people who take inclusion and representation too far or believe themselves entitled to preferential treatment (as opposed to equality) because of their differences. Often they are described as not actually doing anything to attempt to fight the issues they raise. A good example of this is people who champion things like cultural appropriation when it may not be warranted or even welcomed by the affected culture. Take, for instance, this article about Japan’s declining kimono industry and how cries of cultural appropriation have hurt the affected parties rather than helping them. (Please note that I do not believe that all cases of appropriation are overblown – particularly in which “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group [6].)

The fact that people on the 4chan/fandom/Tumblr side of this are using this phrase to describe a different set of people than Vox Day’s is what upsets me. For Day and his ilk, an SJW is anyone who fights for social justice and reform, whereas the usually more progressive legions of fans on Tumblr and other social networking sites appear to be using it to refer only to those who take these issues to their extremes or rant about things without actually attempting to fix them, as in the above examples. (Who decides what is “extreme” is a huge question, big enough for a post all on its own.)

Straddling both sides of the issue as I am means that I see “SJW” tossed about to insult someone who is attempting reform or to draw attention to inequality (if perhaps too enthusiastically) just as often as I see people using it to describe themselves as true warriors for equality. In the former case, I cannot help but associate the accuser with the Vox Days of the world, who believe that social justice is the domain of the Straight White Man and no one else.

This is what I personally find disturbing – a fringe group who believe that social equality is not worth fighting for have won on this particular battlefront. They’ve laid claim to a term and corrupted its meaning (much like the Nazis did with the swastika), and many of the people who are using it seem to be blissfully unaware of this fact.

In light of all this, I believe that we are left with two questions.

  1. Is there another term we can use for those who take things too far or bring up issues without attempting to rectify them? In feminism, we often see people decried as “feminazis,” which – while also troubling – is at least a different term than feminist, describing a more militant and uncompromising view. Steven Barnes has suggested that the term “Social Justice Zealot” be used in cases such as this, and I wholly agree that this is a much more fitting term [7]. A warrior fights for that which they believe, whereas a zealot is a fanatic. This latter seems to fit far better than 4chan and Tumblr’s current usage of “SJW.”
  2. Should we allow this etymological perversion to continue to evolve the phrase away from its literal meaning, or should we as socially minded individuals take a stand and reclaim it as a positive title? Many in the fantasy/scifi community are doing the latter, wearing t-shirts or pins to conventions that claim “SJW and proud” or similar slogans. But has the fringe’s appropriation of the term gone too far for it to be saved?

The 4chan/Tumblr side almost universally holds to the definition stated in the beginning of this post. This group is both larger and, generally, younger than the other. Are we in the older generation clinging to a degrading definition and refusing to allow evolution of language to take its course? Perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider searching for a new term for proponents of social equality, one not tarnished by Vox Day and Gamergate.

In the meantime, it is important in our daily dealings with others (both online and in person) to carefully examine not only what we mean by certain words and phrases, but also what others mean by them and their historical precedents. An understanding of the different ways in which different communities utilize this polarizing phrase will hopefully help to bridge some gaps and foster understanding. It is also important that we examine our own place of privilege before taking a stand on such a delicate issue viewed so strongly by so many. A heterosexual, abled white man who identifies as male will have a different experience with social justice than would a transgender lesbian, a woman of color, or a man who is blind. It is my hope that before someone shouts “SJW,” they will take a moment to think about what the term has meant historically and means to others now.