On the Internet, Toxic Irony Abounds

SJW Behaviors That Hurt Social Justice

Deconstructing the Good Nuance from the Assault on Nuance

Sara Lynn Michener
Human Development Project
14 min readFeb 27, 2017

While the term Social Justice has been around since the 1840s, Warrior wasn’t added to mean a specific kind of actively progressive person until the 1990s, when it enjoyed a short-lived decade or so as a term solely of praise. Somewhere in Obama’s first term, during the early stages of this particular strain of racially-charged social justice backlash, it became pejorative on the Right and overwhelmingly associated with online behavior rather than the activism of the non-digital world. Now its meaning wholly relies on intent and interpretation rather than anything more specific, and therefore useful. The language surrounding how we describe SJW activity tends to be layered in-joke semantic luxuries that were fine during the Progressive Camelot years of Obama, when we had the upper hand. Now that human progress in the form of basic civilization is hanging on by its fingernails, some restraint is appropriate not remotely as any kind of concession, but indeed as a needed bulwark for the resistance.

Thus, some leftists have begun distancing themselves from the more ridiculous interpretations (not beliefs) of online SJW thought. It’s a sticky subject, and rightly so, because most SJWs are out there doing the lord’s work and the acronym is a badge of pride among many progressives, no matter how hard the Right tries to make it an insult. Conservatives are terrible at coming up with insults. Nevertheless, She Persisted was Mitch McConnell’s doughy flesh possessed momentarily by Athena; a massive gift to the Left. Bleeding Heart Liberal and Social Justice Warrior just mean you have been accused of caring. Oof. Harsh, bro. Those who sling it as somehow a bad thing don’t seem to notice how proudly those badges are worn.

But with everything, there is a spectrum. Social justice is not exempt, and we can improve fighting the good fight if we admit that those on the front lines can get a little overzealous, especially since they tend to mean well. Understand, I am not here to critique any of the movements of social justice. I can’t think of a single one that isn’t valid and important.

But after an election that brought us an Anti-Intellectual Orange Emotive Toddler partially in response to PC Culture backlash, it’s not going to help anyone to pretend that some criticism of that culture isn’t fairly warranted, just because the majority of that backlash is clearly a mix of white systemic ignorance, xenophobia, and hatred. There are indeed embarrassing aspects of SJW or PC Culture; those who care about the right things, but in the wrong way and to a fever pitch bordering on ridicule. They also tend to be overwhelmingly young, female, and white; yet with bated breath, overuse terms like White Feminism, expressed to distance themselves from other women who look and behave exactly like them without the slightest hint of irony. (Fellow white ladies, use its positive antonym, “Intersectionalism” instead, I beg you).

I was pretty careful in writing this because of the fear it would be usurped by anti-SJW groups. And I think this, too, is part of what makes it paralyzing for leftists to critique the behaviors that separate good SJW thought from the more fringe interpretations. When it happens, the response from most leftists has been to simply look away, or discuss it privately among themselves as a phenomenon they are ashamed of, but don’t want to touch. When the distancing is public, it tends to rely on a kind of humor that goes a tad too far itself in order to make its point. Bill Maher made the scathing case recently that democrats have gone from being the party that protects people, to the party that protects feelings. I strongly agreed with about 60% of his rant, but his rebuke is “So, fuck you” (literally) instead of “This is why that can be counterproductive” which conversely is my aim here.

At this moment on the internet there are three uses of the term SJW, and with new terms coming out of Tumblr every day, there is no excuse for that kind of vaguery:

  1. The derogatory variety as seen by conservative beholders: always used as a blanket insult whether or not the SJW in question happens to be correct, and is being polite and nuanced about it.
  2. Leftists who care about social justice issues: especially learning more about them, spreading that knowledge, and promoting excellent voices of marginalized groups directly. These SJWs aim on the whole to be nuanced, fair, and capable of critical thought about those issues; incidentally the standard by which we should attempt to behave.
  3. CSJWs, for Counterproductive Social Justice Warriors: The kind of behaviors that provoke (and often deserve) its derogatory intent among leftists. I will use CSJW for the remainder of this essay, to distinguish. Because especially as we all go forth on the internet in this dark time in American history — a time when conservatives have attempted to slay words, language, and truth as having no real meaning, it becomes increasingly important that liberals counter all that with the aggressive use of direct, specific language.

Below is my attempt to list the behaviors that come clinging like barnacles to otherwise valid social justice issues. Progressives should identify these patterns to both better avoid them, and more specifically and constructively censure those who have gone too far.

  1. Disproportionate Punishment
    Someone has made a legitimate mistake, and there are calls by CSJWs to essentially have them drawn and quartered, thereby eclipsing the original offense and opening it up further for ridicule. Example: it is true that the British astrophysicist who wore a shirt covered in B-Grade Vargas Girls to an event of international significance (that would have had impressionable science-loving little girls in its audience) made a poor wardrobe selection that day that also spoke volumes of the negative experiences of women in science and tech. But verbal abuse or calls to have him fired, rather than specifically explaining the harm caused, were counter productive and fuel for the opposition. This rule also applies when the person who erred apologizes, but the apology is deemed insufficient (often not because it was deemed insincere, but because more than a sincere apology is what is being demanded) and calls for the proverbial pound of flesh continue until the vultures move onto another body.
  2. Outright Puritanism
    Steve Martin was utterly within his rights as an actual human being with actual feelings to reflect shortly after Carrie Fisher’s death that when he was a young man, he had a crush on Princess Leia like everyone else did in 1977. He even clarified that as he grew older and wiser, he noticed her for better, purer reasons. This is the deeply human honesty of an aging man reflecting on his youth with fondness that Fisher herself would have taken as a warm gesture. We are not going to make any progress in treating women as real human beings if we deny their very humanity with the same stroke, nor if we fail to accept that men are real human beings too. It is simply inaccurate to conflate such fond remembrances with judging a woman solely on her appearance. The only thing that shouldn’t have happened here is Martin shouldn’t have deleted his sweet tweet.
  3. Pretending Issues that Live in Gray, Philosophical Areas are Commonly Accepted Binary Truths
    The thing about topics that live in the realm of nuance and philosophy is that such topics have no clear answers. Polite disagreement should be able to flourish in such a realm. CSJWs do not understand how to engage abstract arguments — there is always a right answer and a wrong answer, which leaves no room for polite disagreement and completely eliminates broad ranging conversation about ideas.
  4. Confusing Preaching to The Choir vs Outreach
    I try to remember as often as I can that any online discourse regarding a social justice issue can have one of two aims: If you’re merely concerned with venting to the echo chamber, you’re free to ridicule the other side and draw strength from a community of like minds. And let me be clear: sometimes expressing outrage and drawing support from such a community is wonderful and gives you strength for the fight. I do it all the time, but I do it knowingly. It is not the same thing as outreach and one rarely lives in the same place as the other. When a group (or individual) truly seeks to explain something to a listening audience who are not yet the in-group but are sympathetic, curious, and ripe for conversion; there is no excuse for using the same hostile and demeaning snark that you use in the in-group. So, if you’re about to post about an issue, ask yourself: am I sharing this for the people who already know? Or for the people who don’t? And proceed accordingly, especially in the comments section. Here’s a hint: preaching to the in-group is easy. Outreach is very, very hard work that keeps you honest about why the issue matters. Some people spend so much time in highly specialized filter bubbles, that they can’t even tell what a good argument for or against something looks like anymore because they have grown used to speaking in the language of agreement amplification.
  5. Confusing the Elevation of Marginalized Voices (a good thing) with Never, Ever Disagreeing With Those Voices Regardless of the Topic (pretty damn patronizing)
    Leftists are great at understanding the simple concept of listening to the voices of those people who are most directly affected by X. This means that women are most qualified to discuss abortion, black people know their own experiences best, and so forth. It does not, however, extend to mean that the opinion of a young cis black woman, if the topic is How to Best Support Trans People, is worth much more than any other cis person who cares about trans lives. The black person in question knows this and is cool with having a discussion. The CSJW who follows after her shouting “How dare you silence a woman of color!” is the problem, and ironically feels a lot like a form of tokenism to me, a concept CSJWs ought to be capable of understanding, by their own admission.
  6. Rejecting Imperfect Members of the Resistance
    Amy Schumer, Taylor Swift, and Lena Dunham are imperfect members of the resistance. I am an imperfect member of the resistance. So are you. Human beings tend to have faults. Famous people’s faults, whether they are even real or not, get nevertheless amplified all over the world. It’s fine to call out a celeb if they have genuinely said or done something problematic. But if you then never forgive them, bring it up every time they are invited to speak at a rally, and routinely say they have no place in the resistance because of things they have long since apologized for, then you will have a very small and ineffective resistance. I personally only accept flawed people in my resistance, including CSJWs who sound like they’re sitting at a high school cafeteria announcing YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US, when they do this.
  7. An inability to know when to prioritize impending doom over microaggressions
    Months before the primaries, a gay man defriended me on Facebook. He was a Sanders supporter. I was a Sanders supporter desperately trying to convince fellow Sanders supporters that Clinton was an exceptional, skilled, progressive, and highly qualified Plan B in the likelihood that she got the nomination. For some reason he was fixated on Clinton’s late support of gay marriage, which he called “unforgivable” never mind that her support had been right on schedule compared to her peers in Democratic leadership, and especially never mind that her opponent would certainly do everything possible to destroy gay rights up to the possibility of returning to the dark days of persecution and criminalization. Yet like everything else, this was isolated as a uniquely Clintonian problem, at the expense of the impending doom looming everywhere around us. Last I heard from him, he had told me that a Trump presidency would be preferable to Clinton, I wholeheartedly disagreed, and we parted ways.
  8. Not being able to adequately explain the why behind your thesis
    This one is practiced so often by college educated CSJWs it makes me wonder how tough their professors were on them. If your argument relies on a label rather than proving it is a correct usage of said term, your argument will only ever make sense among those who already agree with you. Rhetoric is a slogan. A real argument is both more and less work depending on how you look at it, but if you’re accusing someone of something like Ableism and you can’t explain why or back up your argument, you’ve already lost. Speaking of which:
  9. The Usurption of Academic Terms to Apply to Everything Ever
    CSJWs have a love affair with terms that originated in academia decades ago. The internet is great for making those terms mainstream — they are solid ideas that deserve the exposure — but terrible at discerning when usage is appropriate. Folks on the Right probably think these terms were invented on the Internet because they never took Sociology and have only encountered them online. This is all the more reason not to take off running with terms applied so indiscriminately, the ideas themselves begin to lose meaning. As an ironic way of testing whether or not you should use a term, ask yourself: Can you describe what is wrong here without relying on the use of the term? If you can, you get to use the term. If you can’t, try to communicate what you believe the problem is without assigning those labels, and especially without using a nuanced academic term as a flat ad hominem attack. If you have difficulty, maybe the term doesn’t apply here, or maybe you never fully understood the term in the first place.
  10. Confusing Specificity of Topic for the Exclusion of Marginalized Groups
    Shortly after and leading up to the event, there were thinkpieces that circulated among SJWs and CSJWs surrounding the mixed criticism of the Women’s March on Washington — an event so massive and so hurriedly (by necessity) planned that some ideological chaos was to be expected. The thesis was that some trans people felt excluded from the march because there was so much emphasis on genitalia (pussy hat, use of the words describing female genitalia to be empowering, etc). Nowhere in many of these pieces did its authors even mention the literal elephant in the gynecology office; Trump’s open and frequent use of misogynistic language (“grab by the pussy”, etc) and the GOP’s relentless, decades-long policing of literal vaginas, the shame, stigma, and creepy control issues associated with female genitalia by patriarchal religious groups, and that Women’s Health, including affordable cervical cancer screenings, contraception access, and abortion legality, are perpetually at risk. The presence of genitalia at the march was a clear response to all of these specific and huge issues. Do cis women need to do more to be welcoming to trans women? Abso-fuckin-lutely, but not at the expense of silencing other equally valid issues. If you felt excluded by the emphasis on genitalia at the march, spend more time reading about those issues until you are as angry at the poor treatment of people with vaginas as you are of people without them. If not for cis women, do it for those trans men who have vaginas and will suffer under these policies too. We are here to support and amplify each other’s lived experiences. Awareness of intersectionality goes multiple ways. Do I understand that marginalized groups are the ones asked more often to compromise? Yes. And it SUCKS. Cis women, too, are often asked to compromise by Dems, as “women’s issues” are often first on the chopping block in the name of progress-by-compromise. But this makes it all the more important that we support each other with the goal of reciprocity. I attended the Women’s March and for the record, I dressed as an Edwardian suffragette, but I am not a cervical cancer survivor, or someone who reclaims power taken from them, by embracing the words that have been used against them. I empathize with those who do. Different strokes for different (but united) folks.
  11. Taking “Impact vs Intent” Literally
    This is another example of a term that has lost its meaning because it is being used in the wrong contexts, and is often pitted against art. Book burning and art censorship being discussed among CSJWs reminds us that political tendencies live in a circle, not a straight line, and indeed, the further Left you get, the closer you are to the Far Right. I spoke to a leftist woman once about one of my favorite books, Lolita. She said she wasn’t sure if the book should be allowed to be around, or as highly praised as it is by the literati, because of the risk that some pedophiles could read the book as porn. Now, if you’ve read and understand Lolita, you know that Nabokov is wholly on the side of its victims in the sympathy department and rejects its antagonists; “Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral facade — demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out.” But being an artist, he doesn’t feel compelled to shout disclaimers at us every chapter (thank goodness) because his job is to make us think. “Impact vs Intent” is a great concept that reminds us that our intentions sometimes don’t cancel out our having hurt someone, but the concept is not meant to be taken literally, and the negative intent must be agreed upon by more than a few who are upset. If you’ve ever been in a Lit class and listened to a fellow classmate have a terrible interpretation of a book, you can surely appreciate not ordering the world around that guy, the proverbial least common denominator. But perhaps more importantly: who gets to decide whose impact weighs most heavily? At what point are people to take responsibility for their own dark and cynical interpretations? Sometimes, how a person chooses to interpret something speaks more negatively of them, than of whatever inspired it. Note: This is very different from an individual who understandably avoids something specific because they personally find it triggering.
  12. Intolerance for Agreeing to Disagree
    It astounds me how often people are unable to let minor differences regarding the solutions go, when they agree with so much else concerning the problems. I end friendships with otherwise-liked people when they cannot disagree peacefully, seem to be baiting or enjoying drama, or otherwise insist on rudely dominating the other person’s time. We all have only so much time to spend on social media and remain healthy. I personally aim for 2 hours a day, total. My strategy (which I do not always manage to stick by) is if it’s someone else’s page, I say my peace in 1–3 comments, and then I GTFO. If tempted (because someone is wrong on the internet!), I turn off notifications on that that discussion and let others carry on the argument without me. I expect the same of my friends. I often wish Facebook had a tool for turning off comments on a post once things have reached that place of no return or if someone has completely and uninterestingly derailed the intent of the original conversation. A dislike button would also allow users to express disagreement without starting an argument, or a function to allow users to set a cap on how many comments the same user is allowed to leave on a single post; so use ‘em well. Such tools would prevent unnecessary defriendings and recognize the need for I like this person, I don’t want to defriend them, but they need a time out. Until Facebook actively tackles these issues, I recommend the implementation of “my wall, my rules” and I recommend reaching out to someone privately if you want to call them out on something. This way, they can schedule a time to chat with you about it. But however you do it, making a solid argument to begin with, is a sign of respect that is usually returned. There is nothing wrong with having a filter bubble, so long as you don’t get your news from it. My filter bubble is such that I don’t even know anyone who voted for Trump and I like it that way just fine. But I don’t get my news from my bubble, and I actively keep people I disagree with within that bubble of comparative sanity as friends, and appreciate that they stay friends with me.

Post Edit PSA: About 10% of this piece was inspired by events in my own life, and the only examples I was personally involved with were noted as such. The rest is stuff I’ve witnessed/observed over the past decade of being online and actively concerned with social justice issues.



Sara Lynn Michener
Human Development Project

Writer. Maker. Feminist. Spitfire. Trans-Supporting Ravenclaw. Trekkie. Social Justice Apologist.