When I first joined Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and various other sites a few years ago, I was pleased to find an extensive world of social justice themed discussion groups. I found my feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-injustice-in-general stomping grounds. I joined a laundry list of them, eager to get stuck in and do some activism.
However, over the years, I have noticed that the online scene credited with the term ‘social justice’ seem to be more about gratuitous negativity and selfish post-pissing than actual social justice. It has degenerated to the point that it is about everything but concrete social justice work. It’s a slurry pit, full of so much spiteful and primitive behaviour that it reminds me of the scene in The X-Files where a large, radioactive, wormlike humanoid attacks sewerage workers, biting one in the back with his scolex, a mutated X-shaped mouth.
I’m sure people don’t mean to devolve into this, but I very often notice that what people intend to be ‘social justice’ discourse tends to go wrong in very specific ways.
1. Extreme fixation with ‘privilege-checking’.
There is an extreme fixation with ‘privilege-checking’, which while sometimes a necessary and useful mental exercise, has been elevated so high that is has become pointless and disruptive. Thoughtful discussions that might yield useful information routinely derail into privilege-checking sessions where users weigh up to the nearest microgram who has which privilege. There is the constant rabies froth over ‘privilege denial’, as if disagreeing that you have privilege were a crime akin to murdering a child or vivisecting a puppy. Users turn privilege-checking and evangelization almost into a career. Many seem to make it their mission to go after other people and get them to realize their ‘privilege’, agree that they have it, and refer to themselves as privileged. I’ve seen many a post claiming that the commenter does not feel ‘safe’ unless people acknowledge their ‘oppression’ and refer to themselves as privileged. Really? Me thinks that if you feel this traumatized at the idea that someone, somewhere, is not calling themselves ‘privileged’, the problem is with yourself, not them.
There is also the fact that privilege-checking has been turned into a trend, almost into a hobby or a sport in its own right. People come up with ever-increasing privileges and oppressions, spiraling down into ever tinier minutiae in their efforts to think up something to be oppressed by: Green eyed privilege, blue eyed privilege, tall privilege, short privilege. Everyone wants to run around claiming to be oppressed and telling others to check their privilege, even people who are relatively well off and cannot reasonably be said to be oppressed. People let their new little fashion trend run away with them to the point that you often see well-off people telling those who have it much harder than themselves to ‘check their privilege’. Never mind that the single mother you just lashed out at works three jobs and is now struggling to find five minutes for a little sleep, what really matters is that she checks her green eyed privilege, her femininity privilege, her tall privilege, her big dog privilege, her matching socks privilege. There is often no upper limit to this, no threshold where people drop the obsession with privilege-checking and come back to reality, even when someone’s health or life is in danger. A Tumblr user by the handle of ‘Thinprivilegebullshit’ wrote about her experiences as a very thin woman, including accounts of how she could not get treatment for life-threatening health problems because doctors assumed she had anorexia nervosa and could simply eat at any time. People’s reaction to this was not shock, but angry posts telling her to check her privilege.
2. Stock phrases and dogma over logic and reason.
I frequently noticed a huge reliance on stock phrases and dogma instead of facts, evidence or logic. Disagree with a ‘social justice warrior’ and you’ll frequently get not facts or evidence, but repeating of pre-packaged phrases, repeating of vaguely academic sounding words, outrage, accusations of being an oppressor, and outright childish jeering. It never seems to occur to these people that if you want someone to change their mind and agree with you, you do actually need to make a convincing case to them that you are right. You’ll also be lucky if your points get addressed; their other favorite activity is ignoring points they don’t agree with.
3. Narcissism and the ‘Pissing Contest Model’.
‘Social justice’ scenes are a haven for narcissism. You can’t post about any one issue without other people throwing fits the magnitude of Vesuvius because it isn’t about them. They do not seem to see the irony in claiming to be oppressed because somewhere on the whole Internet, a post is not about them. They will then even go as far as to claim that other people are the self centered ones for posting about their own lives and their own issues. I once saw an extreme example of this in which a ‘fat activist’ called another women ‘self centered’ because she hurt her feelings by having weightloss surgery for a serious health problem.
Take issue with any of this, and you’ll get a number of tactics thrown at you. A common tactic when this behaviour is pointed out is to claim that oppression is ‘not a competition’ while still expecting you to ‘check your privilege’ and agree that others have it harder than you, often people who in reality have easier lives, not harder ones, than the people they are preaching at. In other words, it’s not a competition, but it’s a competition. X = Y, but X does not equal Y. Another is to start going on about ‘being in it together’ or in feminist groups or blogs ‘sisterhood’. If you call out bad behaviour, you’re accused of breaking ‘sisterhood’ and told to shut up for the sake of the alliance. Note: This only applies to the people standing up to the social justice warriors, never to the SJWs themselves. It’s okay to twist a knife in your sister’s gut, but if she dares bleed on you she is ‘making it into a competition’, ‘putting ego above sisterhood’ and failing to ‘check her privilege’.
The other line of defense is an extensive array of double standards. Bad things are ‘oppression’ when they happen to SJWs, but ‘privilege’ when they happen to someone the SJW doesn’t agree with. Bad things are ‘structural’ when they happen to SJWs or the groups they currently consider the oppressed flavor of the month, but ‘individual’ when they happen to those they don’t agree with. Someone calling a fat person a rude name is ‘structural oppression’, but a thin young woman almost being allowed to die by multiple doctors is a minor incident that only happened once and doesn’t count as oppression.
4. Victimhood as the ‘talking stone’.
Oppression is now a positively piled-up hierarchy where the most oppressed person has the most authority. This has its roots in genuine attempts to avoid silencing those who already have enough difficulties in life. That nuance however seems to have been lost, and now it is more the case that the person who is seen as the most oppressed gets to automatically trump everyone else. Despite the catch phrases about ‘it’s not a competition’ and ‘it’s not the Oppression Olympics’, victimhood has become something to grab at and fight over as if it were a good thing. Victimhood is currency. Once upon a time being strong was a good thing and being a victim or oppressed was something to avoid. Now victimhood is that one piece of bone marrow left that everyone wants and only the biggest, strongest hunter with the thickest neck muscles and the nastiest teeth gets to eat.
No, instead of a constructive movement doing anything concretely useful, we have a sewer full of scolex-mouthed, radiation-addled humanoids fighting not to effect change, but to get to the very bottom of the sewerage duct to drown so they can claim to be the most oppressed. They could claw their way out, mind you, but it’s not air they’re after, it’s victimhood. I am alpha, I win, because my lungs are clogged with more feces than yours.
5. Entitlement elevated above reason.
There is a huge emphasis on entitlement rather than discourse, logic or reason. Discussions are structured not on dialogue, the making of points or the mutual understanding of one another, but on a model where the most oppressed people are entitled to things and other people must one-sidedly accommodate them. There’s a phrase that gets used a lot: ‘It’s not my job to educate you’, which I will expand on below. This too has its roots in reasonable attempts to accommodate marginalized people, but has lost its nuance and now simply means ‘I can shit on the floor and you have to clean it up’. Behaviours and dynamics under this model include:
The “It’s not my job to educate you” maneuver described above. This one works like this: The person who has ‘oppressed’ status can say what they like, often using extensive in-group jargon. If anyone doesn’t understand, asks them for clarification or for further information, the oppressed person explodes and tells them ‘it’s not my job to educate you’ and that the asker should go away and spend indefinite amounts of time trawling Google until they find out what the poster was talking about. This presumes that people have nothing better to do with their time than surf the net learning about oppressed people’s problems.
A variant of this: ‘Lurk more’. The ‘oppressed’ person uses extensive in-group jargon and slang not used elsewhere in everyday conversation. If anyone asks what these terms mean, the oppressed-status person explodes and tells them to ‘lurk more’, meaning that they should spend time reading blogs, articles and message boards until they have learned and memorized what all these inside slang words mean. Again, there’s the assumption that other people a) have nothing better to do than learn about you, and b) that they owe you this effort.
The big one. ‘Here’s a reading list!’ Yes, people actually do this. They spit sodium hydroxide, then when anyone makes points to them in return, they not only tell them to check their privilege, they actually present them with reading lists of materials they expect people to somehow obtain and spend time reading. Yes, these people really seem to think that others a) have enormous amounts of free time to spare – no jobs, no activities, no friends, husbands, wives or children to spend time with, no dogs to walk, no household chores to do – in which to learn about them and their problems and b) that others owe it to them to take chunks out of their lives in which to read about them. This again is a twisted mutation of genuine tactics for helping oppressed people. It’s true that having some material ready to share with people can be a better and less stressful response than getting into the same debates over and over again, but expecting people to take hours and hours out of their lives to learn about you, to pay for books no less, is the mentality of a hookworm. I can respect it rather more when hookworms do it. The hookworm has no reasoning skills, and does not know that blood and visceral tissue are not theirs to take. Humans should know better than to adopt such entitled behaviour.
6. Shallowness; refusal to use contextual thinking. Older feminists are verbally shot at for saying this, but it’s true: modern social justice thinking increasingly tends to reduce issues down to isolated points and fail to realize that there are complexities, interweaves and wider dynamics. There is in particular a strong tendency to make everything about identity and personal choice, and to fail to remember that neither of these exist in a social vacuum. Another thing this tends to mutate into is then that identity and personal choice are considered sacrosanct, and that raising any points that might threaten these, even gently, even politely, is met not with thinking and consideration but with outrage. It’s the classical ‘You mustn’t say that!’ fallacy; points are automatically invalid not because they’re wrong, but because they go against dogma.
7. Wittering instead of doing. Now I must be fair here and point out that not all social justice circles are like this. I cannot help noticing, however, that many social justice groups and pages seem to be less about getting anything useful done and more about endlessly analyzing who has what privilege and who needs to be badgered into calling themselves privileged and checking their privilege. There was a saying used for anti-war protests: ‘Food Not Bombs’. Now it would be more like ‘Privilege-Checking, Not Food.’
I had enough of all this. I do not identify as either a feminist or any kind of social justice activist anymore, because I do not wish to be associated with this pack of degenerate, radiation-addled monstrosities. I know when to use my teeth, too, but I have no interest in fighting my way to the bottom of a sewer so I can drown more righteously than everyone else.
JM Dunkelheit is a student and multimedia artist from Cork, Ireland who enjoys playing the guitar, singing, growling, writing poetry, playing the keyboard, listening to death metal, and reading science fiction. She has studied law, creative writing, psychology, and philosophy. She also makes Futurist music.