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Is it appropriate to call someone a ‘Social Justice Warrior’?

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The connotations for the term Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) has seen a huge change in the last two decades. Allegedly, the term was first used in 1991 for Canadian Unionist – Michel Chartrand to positively describe his role as a Union Activist. However, in the last decade, the word has garnered a sizable negative connotation.

As per the Collins Dictionary, Social Justice Warrior is a ‘usually derogatory’ noun referring to a person who campaigns zealously and vociferously for causes associated with social justice.

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It all started in 2014 with Zoë Tiberius Quinn, a female video game developer. She had launched an interactive indie game 𑁋 Depression Quest. Soon after, her ex-boyfriend published a blog post that accused Zoë of cheating with several men to get positive coverage for her game.

The gaming community reacted by starting a discourse that raised issues over unethical journalism. Major media-houses like Buzzfeed, Destructoid and Kotaku responded by pushing forth a narrative that targeted this demographic as ‘tribalistic’ and ’emotionally charged.’

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On the other hand, women involved in the gaming industry started voicing their own personal experiences and talked about the adverse consequences they faced because of their critiques. Anita Sarkeesian, a gaming vlogger tweeted that she had to contact the authorities for some serious threats made against her and her family. The situation was so extreme that she opted to leave her own house and instead stayed with her friends one night. Another woman, Mattie Brice who was a media critic in games announced her departure because of the harassment she received.

The situation got more complex as the gaming community felt that it was being singled out. There was a large-scale consensus that the media was generalizing ‘gamers’ in an unhealthy and unwarranted way. The community showed their displeasure by denouncing ‘self-proclaimed social activists’ as SJWs. The GamerGate scandal played a huge part in popularizing the negative usage of the term. However, it may not have originated there. Some believe that it came from Tumblr and started becoming a popular slur around 2011.

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Nonetheless, the term ‘Social Justice Warriors’ has now largely turned into a jab at people who virtue-signal, adapt a few buzz-words to engage in a political conversation while trying to put everybody around them down. Is using the term really justifiable?

 If we look at the GamerGate scandal, it is impossible to split the situation into strict dichotomies. It was a nuanced situation with a lot of people giving valuable criticism. The accusation of labelling an entire community of gamers as toxic was inappropriate, while the mistreatment and harassment of people who informed the public about their own experiences were also abhorrent. Justifying SJWs from that incidence alone is, hence, not a universally appropriate thing.

However, if someone opts to verbalize the term then the responsibility to use it carefully is inescapable. Labelling a faux progressive person as an SJW can be appropriate, but using it to deflect meaningful conversations about real social issues is far from acceptable. 

Isn’t it fascinating how language changes its meaning over time? Do you feel comfortable with using the evolved meaning of this expression?

Other articles: Decoding the Cuss Words, Street Art and Dissent

Image Credits: KurtMetz (featured image)

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