“SJW,” The Bigot Bleep™
Created by leftists to mock insincerity; co-opted by ultraconservative bigots as a catch-all slur stand-in.
I had never been called an SJW before 2014. I’d known the term, for sure, but people didn’t deem it appropriate to use it in reference to me. I was raised in a conservative household and was considered a rebel for being a centrist in my late-teens-to-mid 20s and veered hard-left after 2011, when I experienced some ridiculous events I’ve referenced in other essays of mine that opened my eyes to the nature of hatred.
Even so, it took around 3 years of (very clumsy) full-leftist stuff (sure, I voted for Obama but that doesn’t make you automatically leftist— at least not as much as I wanted to congratulate myself over in 2008) coming from my mouth before anyone called me that. It was my opposition to GamerGate in 2014 that finally warranted that insult, apparently. Reactionaries like to claim to use “social justice warrior” to describe liberals, progressives, feminists, and supporters of “political correctness.” It’s fitting that one of the primary “SJW” targets of the reactionary hate group I mentioned knows the term significantly better than many of them do:
“SJW is a term that was originally used from within socially conscious communities to describe the people who would use shallow at best knowledge of social issues to try to curry favor and popularity within aforementioned socially conscious communities, like a parrot reciting talking points instead of doing the harder work of listening, learning, and making space for other people. The crux of the insult lies in the accusation of insincerity” -Zoe Quinn
When it started getting lobbed my way, I did not assume this to be the definition. My understood definition of the term was the one generally still accepted today: a pejorative for someone who is progressive in some way and does not keep it to themselves.
It didn’t really make me too upset to be called that; I understood pretty well that it was an insult I would eventually encounter as I said the things I said. Since then, as I have been exposed to reactionary thinking more than I ever have in my life, I no longer believe it to mean “a shitty thing to call a progressive person.” In fact, I’d like to assert that in these reactionary circles — which “mainstream” conservatives are gradually having more and more in common with — “SJW” has taken on a far more insidious, incendiary function.
Reactionaries believe the media is controlled by liberals, that art is controlled by liberals, and that liberal bias is present in nearly all facets of everyday life. Reactionaries are, by and large, bigots as well. It’s inherent in thinking the past is better than the present — you know how the past is undeniably more white? Yeah. Some may not be consciously bigoted, but I believe it’s extremely far-fetched to say a reactionary has no internalized bigotry whatsoever. Why? A lot of out-and-out leftists have internalized misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia and the like — why wouldn’t people who are actually politically opposed to social and economic progress?
Reactionary thinking is not “deficient” thinking, though many of them are ill-informed and foolish. Quite a few of them are actually very smart people — just with absolutely terrible morals. They plot out strategies, collaborate on ideas, and generally do things that people who want something to happen do.
They know that they can’t throw slurs around and be taken seriously — and they desperately need to be taken seriously.
They also know it’s very easy to get other reactionaries (or really just other people) to adopt terminology when it fits their worldview — and the accepted definition most certainly does. It gleefully (and succinctly) dismisses all progressives as overzealous and desperate, so it’s not a tough sell. That’s not what SJW means, though.
Network television is bound by rules regarding the language that can be used during “safe” hours. When a person or character uses language outside the realm of what is deemed “acceptable,” the word is bleeped. A tone is played to obscure and make palatable the actual usage of the word for people who could be adversely affected by it, but generally savvy viewers are aware of what was said (or mostly so).
The term “SJW” is that bleep, but for bigotry. It’s a way for bigots to express something deemed unacceptable but obscured and made palatable for an audience that contains people the word might adversely affect — essentially, it’s reactionary bigots committing their own ultimate sin: political correctness. It also creates plausible deniability that they are saying stuff that’s rooted in bigotry — it’s all based in concern for their values, you see!
Try this. In the following tweets, replace SJW with a context-appropriate (though in-no-other-way appropriate) bigoted slur:
Using these tweets as context, I think it’s pretty hard to say “use of the term SJW isn’t tied to bigotry.” These are easy examples that don’t require additional context and they took me about 3 minutes to dig up using Twitter’s Android app — which really stinks for searching, might I add. I found an endless supply of tweets where “SJW” functions as a Bigot Bleep, though. You can, too, by simply searching “SJW” on Twitter and switching to “live” view rather than “top” view.
I want to firmly assert that there are still plenty of people using it primarily as a pejorative for “progressive.” I don’t mean to say “if you say SJW, you are definitely just censoring a slur you don’t want people to hear.”
The people using it that way are not the people steering the conversation, though. They don’t write the books/blogs, they don’t administrate the message boards, they don’t make plans with other top names from the various heads of what amounts to Bigot Hydra, they don’t monetize hatred (or even know how to), and they don’t get fan mail. The closer you get to the middle of the manosphere, the whitosphere, and the cisosphere (likely an impressively intersecting Venn diagram), the more you will see SJW as a catch-all stand-in for slurs.
It works for white/straight/cis people as well. Ever hear a racist call a non-racist a “ni****-lover?” Ever hear a homophobe call a straight person a “fa****?”
Think about it… why would you even have a catch-all pejorative for advocates of social justice and even just progressives in general? What other reason is there?
This is actually a pretty well-tread path for a great deal of language that originated on the left. Terms like “colonialism” and “cultural appropriation” are co-opted by reactionary gamers, of all people. They take these terms and act as though the folks that use them are the oppressors or attempt to engage with left-leaning people to convince them that they are also left-leaning so they can show dissent later — I’d like to add that they are found out almost immediately every single time because they believe in their own strawman version of leftists and that’s what they emulate. It’s pretty hilariously bad… or at least would be if they didn’t also spend so much time abusing others online, as well.
The success they have co-opting terminology is almost exclusively found when they re-purpose it rather than try to act as if “their opponents engage in it, too.” The phrase “social justice warrior” (and its abbreviation) no longer means what it meant when they were created. They are so rarely used unironically by folks on the left that it isn’t worth discussing. This change is due to the bigot tastemakers — the leadership in an extremely loosely compiled organization I’m convinced could easily be linked to most reactionary terrorism if put to paper.
These are the people that are still slowly changing this term’s actual working function to fit their purposes — maybe intentionally, maybe not. These are the folks that will use it as a means to propagate racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and the like. They will rely on people using the popularized definition of the phrase to spread their hateful, bigoted agenda. They’ll hide behind pseudonyms on tabloid-esque hate blogs and even write for popular conservative publications, where they further normalize their hatred with a larger, more legitimate(ish?) platform.
People like this will continue to normalize the soft definition of “SJW,” all the while employing the hard definition to covertly reinforce their bigoted views among their bigoted fans — and say the horrible things they get satisfaction of saying in plain sight. Bigotry has this nasty habit of misrepresenting itself — and the primary reason is to spread, recruit, and still go unnoticed.
Many using the term are entirely aware their argument becomes poison when they use slurs, but “SJWs” are fighting bigotry. Is there social injustice that is not driven by some kind of bigotry? If a pejorative exists for anti-bigots, it stands to reason that the people that would use it are bigots. And if it was a mainstream-accepted term, it would (automatically) get usage where non-accepted terminology gets used.
“SJW” itself is not a slur. If someone were to be suggesting that, they’re reaching pretty far. But “SJW” is also not an innocent term, free of association with bigots. True, many saying have not once considered it to be a literal stand-in for a slur when they say it — simply using the reactionary definition. Though, many others are unconsciously using it as a way to mask (to themselves) what kind of things they would say if a more harmless-sounding term did not exist. Still others, I believe, are consciously swapping out heinous language with it.
This is not to discourage people from owning the term — I still happily call myself an “SJW” ironically and own it myself (the purpose is literally “so I care about social justice… the problem here is what?). Owning what people either want to own themselves or that they think will hurt you is the absolute best way to suck the power out of it. At least, in my opinion. This does not change how reactionaries use it, though, and I think it’s important to understand what exactly the worst among them are doing and how the less harmful ones, the ones not using it that way, legitimize it.
Next time you see “SJW” used, consider if it’s a stand-in for a slur. That’s all.