Most people hadn’t heard of a “social justice warrior” until about a year ago, when it emerged as the preferred term among the Gamergate movement for the people they believed to be their greatest enemies. Now, the word has crossed over enough into mainstream use that in August, “Social Justice Warrior” was included in the latest batch of words added to Oxford Dictionaries. The online dictionary from Oxford University Press defined the phrase as an informal, derogatory noun referring to “a person who expresses or promotes socially progressive views.”
For those following the controversy and its diaspora, that particular addition to the dictionary was interesting. It is very, very difficult to find a reliable accounting of what the phrase actually means, and to whom it refers precisely, and why.
And that’s almost certainly because the word came into the mainstream during Gamergate, an online backlash against progressive influence in gaming which cannot be described neutrally in one sentence. Its supporters say the whole thing was really about ethics in gaming journalism, but the movement gained widespread attention for a subset of Gamergate’s supporters, who conducted several troubling harassment campaigns against women in gaming and journalists.
If the gaming community is taken as a complete, multi-celled organism, then this debate becomes an argument over who gets to control its immune system. To call someone a “social justice warrior” in this context is to label that person as an invading force, a target for the white blood cells. They are unwelcome outsiders, seen as threats to the health of the entire body.
Many gamergaters have taken to explicitly using the language of cancer to discuss their issues with progressive gamers. But looked at another way, by the women and progressives being called a “social justice warrior,” the oncology becomes an autoimmune disorder: the immune system is attacking a healthy portion of its own body. It is, at its heart, an argument over what a gamer is, and who gets to say so.
Here’s how “social justice warrior” became a part of that debate.
When it was a compliment
More than 20 years ago, the term was generally used as a neutral or even complimentary describer. Here’s a clip from a 1991 write-up of a Montreal jazz festival, from the Montreal Gazette:
[Quebec guitarist Rene] Lussier will present the world premiere of his ambitious Quebecois mood piece Le Tresor de la Langue, which juxtaposes the spoken word — including sound bites from Charles de Gaulle and Quebec nationalist and social-justice warrior Michel Chartrand — with new- music noodlings.
“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, said in an interview last month. Because “Social Justice Warrior” is currently only in Oxford Dictionaries — and not in the Oxford English Dictionary itself — lexicographers there haven’t done a full search for its earliest citation. But a cursory search for the phrase turns up several positive uses, spanning from the early ’90s through the early ’00s.
Baptist minister, the Rev. James Obey Sr.’s, 1992 obituary in the Houston Chronicle was titled, “Social justice warrior dies.” In 2007, “Social Justice Warrior” Monsignor David Cappo was honored with an award. And lawyer-turned filmmaker Ana Kokkinos told a newspaper reporter in 2009 that “what attracted me to law at that age was the idea of being a social justice warrior.”
There are a few negative uses that pop up, like a 2007 anti-multiculturalism editorial in the Baltimore Sun that characterized some workshops for teachers as a place where “presenters instruct teachers to go back to their schools and become social justice warriors.” But the balance is overall positive.
“Social Justice Warrior’s” older siblings
So how did Social Justice Warrior become an insult? Since Social Justice Warrior is still pretty new to lexicographers, Martin didn’t have a definitive answer.
Online, it’s hard to do the archaeology because there seems to be some confusion over the when the specific term emerged — as opposed to when different online communities began to discuss issues of racial and gender representation. KnowYourMeme says that the anti-social justice warrior blogspot site “SJWar” has entries as early as 2009, or around the time of a major debate within the sci-fi writers Livejournal community over racial representation in the genre.
But when the Intersect asked “SJWar’s” owner Will Shetterly, a science fiction and fantasy writer who published a book in 2014 detailing his many objections to and encounters with social justice warriors over the years, he said the title for his blog came much later than 2009. He guessed that it might have come from an old macro, “Social Justice Sally,” that has its own Tumblr dating back to early 2012.
There’s a similar term on TV Tropes, for “Soap Box Sadie.” Although TV Tropes goes way back, it’s not clear exactly when that entry was created.
Shetterly also said that he might have first found a definition for the phrase on Urban Dictionary.
2011: The likely turning point
Although Martin isn’t entirely sure when “Social Justice Warrior” switched from a primarily positive term to an overwhelmingly negative one, the year 2011 seemed to be a turning point. That’s the year, Martin said, the insult first appeared on Twitter. And it’s when UrbanDictionary user poopem composed an entry for it. “It looks like it was the year that social justice warrior flipped,” Martin said.
Here’s that Urbandictionary entry:
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. A social justice warrior, or SJW, does not necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of. They typically repeat points from whoever is the most popular blogger or commenter of the moment, hoping that they will “get SJ points” and become popular in return. They are very sure to adopt stances that are “correct” in their social circle.
You’ll notice that, for the entry’s author, “Social justice warrior” had a specific meaning, and was apparently well-known enough to warrant its own abbreviation, SJW.
How it’s used today
Although how the phrase precisely flipped is still a mystery, it’s now everywhere. And, like with everything having to do with Gamergate, there are fundamental disagreements over what, exactly, makes a “social justice warrior.”
In his e-mail to the Intersect, Shetterly specified that he sees a difference between social justice workers and “the internet’s angry identitarians.” Others have objected to the suggestion — including in the new dictionary definition — that the term is anti-progressive. That’s obvious from its Urban Dictionary definition — poopem describes a SJW as a hypocrite at heart.
While some may use the term in this way, others have targeted a wide range of individuals and communities holding progressive viewpoints as “social justice warriors.”
Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian is the most high-profile target of this online rage: Gamergaters have done everything from trying to get a Kickstarter supporting her work shut down as a “con,” to creating a (now-removed) flash game where players could punch her in the face. Sarkeesian became a target for her video blogs, which examined the representation of women in gaming.
Although Martin notes that “social justice warrior” has, in the past year or so, taken on an association with gender-related progressive values, that’s not an exclusive association. The term also appears in the context of online debates about race.
The consistency, then, is in a debate about the nature of progressive politics that easily pre-dates the use of “social justice warrior” as a negative term deployed within it.
“The negative use of social justice warrior is not unlike the negative use of political correctness, in that both are denigrating something which, on its surface, is fairly unobjectionable,” said Martin. “But the perceived orthodoxy [of progressive politics] has prompted a backlash among people who feel their speech is being policed.”