“Social justice warrior” — or just “SJW” for short — has become a pejorative term describing millennial activists. Coined as oversensitive and overdramatic, opponents claim that SJWs “whine incessantly” and use “victimhood as the source of their power.”
Even among “liberals” SJWs are often met with an eye-roll to their so-called “rants” because they question the status quo and use too many words like “microaggression,” “hegemony,” and “appropriation.”
Social justice warriors annoy people because they call them out for perpetuating prejudices. They call people out for saying things like “thats so gay” or “that’s retarded.” They don’t let subtle sexism and racism go unnoticed.
I wear this label with pride because to me it means standing up for what is right.
When I wrote a column in my university newspaper about the privileges that Christians and straight people have in the United States it was met with much backlash.
There were the people that shouted at me when I walked across campus. And then there were those that sent me hate mail via all forms of social media.
But that was expected.
What I found most interesting was the repeated critique of my “tone” in the articles — even among those who supported my argument. “I sounded too angry” and “alienated people who didn’t agree with me.”
I sounded too much like a social justice warrior — and they made it clear that was a bad thing.
How dare I alienate the oppressor? How dare I make the oppressor feel like an outcast, unfairly treated, angry, and uncomfortable — like I feel every day living in a racist, homophobic, sexist and overall prejudiced society.
At the time of writing the articles, I was reading some of Audre Lorde’s work for a literature class.
One of the most influential writers of all time, Audre Lorde, was also a self proclaimed radical feminist, lesbian, and civil rights activist that said social justice warrior-esque things like “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
After reading some of her most famous pieces, the first comment in the class discussion was from a male student who complained about her “tone” in the piece. “I couldn’t get past the constant yelling ‘fuck all men’” he told us.
That day I realized that tone is not just powerful — tone is a tool of power.
Not once in the Audre Lorde piece we were discussing, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” did she say “fuck all men.” She rarely even mentioned men. But it didn’t matter what she actually wrote, what mattered was what he heard in her social justice warrior “tone.”
The tone is only deemed acceptable when people like that student don’t feel isolated — when the oppressor doesn’t feel uncomfortable.
These good people that mean well cannot possibly imagine the way they perpetuate systems of oppression with their privilege.
And when the social justice warrior shows them how they do — they don’t listen because our tone is wrong.
But it is never the right tone when the oppressed speak out. When black people are protesting against blatant racism it is called “rioting.” When feminists are fighting for equality among the sexes “they are anti-men.” When queer people march for pride they are “rubbing it in everyone’s faces.”
Being a social justice warrior means taking on a role in this unjust society in which you don’t ask for equality but instead, you demand it — and others see that as the “wrong tone.”
People who think they are doing nothing wrong are going to be upset that we are telling them to change. People are not going to think these problems of inequality are significant because they have the privilege of it not affecting them. They will write us off as radical, overdramatic, and insignificant hypocrites.
But social justice warriors must not change their “tone” to appease the oppressor. Oppressors must change, not the oppressed. Being an activist for justice — or a “social justice warrior” if they want to call us that — is about standing up to oppressors.
Oppressors should not be able to define the right way to fight for equality. But yet they have.
They have defined a “right tone” and a “wrong tone.” The “wrong” tone is our tone. The wrong tone is the social justice warrior’s tone. The wrong tone is the tone of Audre Lorde.
The “wrong” tone is the one that will dismantle the master’s house — and that is the tone we must keep using.