‘Social Justice Warriors’ (SJWs) was originally a neutral (or even positive) term for social activists. Over the years, it has morphed into a pejorative and disparaging term, forming the blueprint for many internet memes. The term’s usage peaked during the Gamergate incident back in 2014, which generated an online hate-storm that pit SJWs and anti-SJWs against each other.
Critics have continuously been going to town on SJWs mercilessly. Trawling through Reddit and Hardwarezone forum, I came across comments about the hypocrisy of SJWs, that they are all bark and no bite.
Clearly, labelling someone an SJW in this day and age is seen as an insult, and the term no longer refers to vocal advocates for social justice. However, generalising and condemning perceived SJWs can be problematic.
By dismissing and vehemently shutting others down when disagreements surface, valid and important arguments could be lost. Call them what you want, but hey, at least this group cares about what’s happening in this mess of a world.
The fear of being labelled and relegated to empty vessels can displace genuine concerns for social issues. Today, the line between being a social activist and an SJW is blurred. This post on Quora sums up the debate nicely. In essence, both are advocates but a social activist is said to grasp the nuances and gists of social issues on a deeper level. Activists are also recognised to be able to visualise concrete steps needed to further their social agenda.
So you still wanna be an SJW/social activist? Then it’s time to reclaim the term and rise above the stereotypes, and here are some tips on how you can be an effective social activist online.
1. Back yourself up
No seriously, what is your source of information? In this age of convenience, information is repackaged and published anywhere and everywhere. For instance, many accounts on social media (including meme accounts) consistently present bite-sized information of relevant news. Although these are usually informative, these outlets often cherry-pick information from other reporting agencies to make content more digestible. If the weaponry is lined with only one-track narratives that are taken out of context, it reduces the accuracy and credibility of the reporter.
Before you unleash your fury on whatever has pushed your buttons, do your research. This does not mean subscribing to one news outlet and taking it as gospel. Be broad in your reading and understand various perspectives well and thoroughly before you publish that Instagram story. This gives you the ammunition needed to defend your stance if ever questioned.
And yes, filter through the fake news galore. In this era of misinformation, brave through the fog and be selective about the content you consume. Lest you might end up POFMA’d, just like the 34 times it has been executed in Singapore since the inception of the law in 2019.
2. Skirting around the dangers of the mob mentality
As much as I am an advocate for freedom and choice, an overtly-aggressive approach can deter others from speaking up. It defeats the entire purpose of promoting constructive discussions. This duality of (somewhat) free speech must be managed properly. Buying into the mob mentality, jumping onto the bandwagon of “popular” views, and following trends could end up silencing others.
This phenomenon traces back to the 1950s when the Asch conformity experiment revealed the pervasive nature of social pressure. During the experiment, nearly 75% of participants were pressured into giving incorrect answers at least one time by their group members, going against their own judgement.
It is an infectious tornado, rapid and uncontrollable. Cue the cancel culture that has taken the world by storm. Think of the Night Owl Cinematics saga, which drew us in like moths to a flame. Netizens were the judge and the jury, and their attacks were relentless. With the rage of netizens being so intense, people who beg to differ could be cornered into submission. They would not want to be lynched for voicing an unpopular opinion, would they?
Be brave and clear when presenting your opinion. Unpopular opinions are not automatically wrong just because fewer people share the same sentiments. On the other hand, it is perfectly fine to agree with the majority as well. However, you have to know why you feel that way, and what you think can be done to change the situation. Cancel culture should have intention and purpose. Otherwise, it would simply be synonymous with bullying.
3. Putting your money where your mouth is
“Social activism” can be incredibly masturbatory. It is worthwhile to consider practical steps to further your social mission. It does not have to be immediate or life-changing; Rome was not built in a day. However, there should be a clear trajectory moving towards positive changes in the society you wish to have.
Greta Thunberg is a case in point. She championed her beliefs and trudged on in her capacity as a climate campaigner despite the naysayers. She is equipped with her facts, she has visions of a better tomorrow, and she is not afraid to make a beeline for them. As her movement gains traction, it is no surprise that her critics are pressed. But who cares that people are calling her an SJW as an insult? She’s making waves.
She has founded Fridays For Future (FFF) which has inspired youths to step up and take responsibility for their environment. This domino effect has reached the shores of Asia as well, sparking the formation of similar movements. These organisations have rallied their resources to speak out against issues such as the financing of fossil fuel projects, and the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations.
When Greta won the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity in 2020, she also made plans to donate the one-million euro prize money to charitable organisations fighting against climate change.
4. Choosing your battles
In Singapore, the battle against censorship and restrictions is an ongoing one. Ease the frustration by turning to the proper channels to air your views. Increase open communication and promote purposeful discussions in our society.
The Singapore government has various outlets for individuals to share their views and concerns. Platforms include Our Singapore Conversation, Emerging Stronger Conversations, and Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development. At different junctures, there have been relevant channels available. Feedback was consolidated through on-ground and online surveys. More information was also obtained through dialogues, emails, and Facebook messages.
However, they are seasonal — so alternatively, it could be worthwhile to think about creating your own ripples. This is not a call to “fight the bureaucracy” but rather to navigate the system and pursue social justice in a civilised manner. Take a look at change.org, where many voices gather to advocate for social transformation. Being civil and pushing for change are not two mutually exclusive concepts. As we push boundaries, we also have to be sensitive to time and place as well.
It is, however, noteworthy to evaluate the effectiveness of these online platforms. There have been successful campaigns so far. For instance, the 2020 petition calling for the review of “zoning” or safety management measures in the National University of Singapore compelled the school administration to address the feedback garnered.
With that being said, there have been unsuccessful attempts at policy and legislative changes too. Although there is strength in numbers and unity, there are still limitations to these petitions. Petitions have to suit the socio-political conditions and possess strong, feasible grounds in order for them to have a shot at fruition.
Internet friends, take note
I am by no means an expert in this field. However, these are just my two cents on how we could potentially make the vast web a healthier place that is fertile for purposeful discussions. The above tips could help to reduce noise online so that we can sieve out what truly matters to us. Craft your reputation as a credible and logical social activist instead of exhibiting classic ‘SJW behaviour’ which would just prove the haters right.
Just a gentle reminder for all warriors out there to adopt a more positive and empowering tone in the struggle for social justice. As our society hankers after progression, the least we could do is to respect the views of those around us. After all, “one person’s diligent activist is another person’s raving lunatic”.