Wednesday 2 December 2015 by Bradley M. Kuhn
I have something to say that I'm sure everyone is going to consider controversial. I've been meaning to say it for some time, and I realize that it's going to get some annoyance from all sides of this debate. Conservancy may lose Supporters over this, even though this is my personal blog and my personal opinion, and views expressed here aren't necessarily Conservancy's views. I've actually been meaning to write this publicly for a year. I just have to say it now, because there's yet another event on this issue caused yet another a war of words in our community.
If you follow the types of Free Software politics and issues that I do (which you probably do if you read my blog) you have heard the phrase — which has become globally common in general politics — “Social Justice Warrior”, often abbreviated SJW. As anyone who reads my blog probably already knows, SJW is used as a derogatory catch-all phrase referring to anyone who speaks up to on any cause, but particularly on racial or gender inequality. While the derogatory part seems superficially to refer to tactics rather than strategic positions, nevertheless many critics who use the phrase conflate (either purposely or not) some specific, poorly-chosen tactic (perhaps from long ago) of the few with the strategic goals of an entire movement.
Anyway, my argument in this post, which is why I expect it to annoy everyone equally, is not about some specific issue in any cause, but on a meta-issue. The meta-issue is the term “SJW” itself. The first time I heard the phrase (which, given my age, feels recent, even though it was probably four years ago), I actually thought it was something good; I first thought that SJW was a compliment. In fact, I've more-or-less spent my entire adult life wanting to be a social justice warrior, although I typically called it being a “social justice activist”.
First of all, I believe deeply in social justice causes. I care about equality, fairness, and justice for everyone. I believe software freedom is a social justice cause, and I personally have proudly called software freedom a social justice cause for more than a decade.
Second, I also believe in the zealous pursuit of causes that matter. I've believed fully and completely in non-violence since the mid-1980s, but I nevertheless believe there is a constant war of words in the politics surrounding any cause or issue, including software freedom. I am, therefore — for lack of a better word — a warrior, in those politics.
So, when I look at the three words on their face: Social. Justice. Warrior. Well, denotively, it describes my lifelong work exactly.
Connotatively, a warped and twisted manipulation of words has occurred. Those, who want to discredit the validity of various social justice causes, have bestowed a negative connotation on the phrase to create a social environment that makes anyone who wants to speak out about a cause automatically wrong and easily branded.
I've suggested to various colleagues privately over the last two years that we should coopt the phrase back to mean something good. Most have said that's a waste of time and beside the point. I still wonder whether they're right.
By communicating an idea that
these social justice people are fighting
against me and oppressing me, the messenger accusing a so-called SJW
has a politically powerful, well-coopted message, carefully constructed for
concision and confirmation bias. While I don't believe all that cooptive
and manipulative power is wielded solely in the one three-word phrase, I do
believe that the rhetorical trick that allows “SJW” to have a
negative connotation is the same rhetorical power that has for centuries
allowed the incumbent power structures to keep their control of those many
social institutions that are governed chiefly by rhetoric.
And this is precisely why I just had to finally post something about this. I won a cultural power jackpot, merely by being born a middle-class Caucasian boy in the USA. Having faced some adversity in my life despite that luck, and then seeing how easy I had it compared to the adversity that others have faced, I become furious at how the existing power structures can brand people with — let's call it what is — a sophisticated form of name-calling that coopts a phrase like “social justice”, which until that time had a history of describing some of the greatest, most selfless, and most important acts of human history.
Yes, I know there are bigger issues at stake than just the words people use. But words matter. No matter how many people use the phrase negatively, I continue to strive to be a social justice warrior. I believe that's a good thing, in the tradition of all those who have fought for a cause they believed was right, even when it wasn't popular.
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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.
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