The Death of the Social Justice Warrior

Who killed the angry tumblr kid?

Image courtesy freestockphotos

Many of those that began their early days of political discourse on the web will have encountered use of this term at some point or another. Some, since its explosion of use in 2011, proudly attribute it to themselves, while others use it in a manner that is almost akin to a slur as an umbrella term for anyone whose views and standpoints lean to the left. As the "tumblr generation" (those who became active on the website and others of its kind around the time where the term became commonly used) came of age, and the global political climate shifted ever more to the point of noticeable widespread threat to human rights, the identity-politics-driven communities on these forums formed what could only be described as a subculture. Despite priding itself specifically on values of diversity and acceptance, the "Social Justice Warrior" movement still adhered to forms and models that would identify a cultural group as such, right down to aesthetics, language, behaviour, and groupthink.

While a great many users of these spaces still participate in the social behaviour that would bring them under the term of "Social Justice Warrior," as some people may still attribute themselves with the moniker of "punk," cultural theorist Dick Hebdidge identified a life cycle of subcultures that centers around the interaction between the subculture itself and the outside world. This makes sense; after all, since the growth of youth culture in the mid-twentieth century, it has been defined by its defiance to its parent cultures. Hebdidge’s model explains perfectly why the hippies never covered the globe in peace and love, why punk failed to smash the system, and, when applied, why the "Social Justice Warrior" movement became stale and ineffectual; the answer lies simply in the point where a counter-culture becomes capable of being exploited for profit.

As a whole, the internet community of those on the political center and right rallied massively against the movement for its no-nonsense reaction to xenophobia, the media and corporations began to tap into this new market of sellable activism. Fair Trade and "10% to charities" wasn’t enough anymore; large name companies began scrambling to showcase their social consciousness, majoritively through performative advertising that only touched the surface of complex and important social issues by watering them down to wholesome, feel-good aesthetics and signifiers. Companies like FCKH8 emerged, a for-profit organization that has since been rejected widely by the social justice community for commercializing activism. Although many conservative and elder schools of thought and voices lambasted this movement for "political correctness gone mad," a phrase that has been used to describe different levels of reaction to oppression for the last few decades, the mainstream eventually embraced it. And if the very people that you’re likely railing against start jumping on the bandwagon for their own gain… well, it certainly puts a damper on the subversive nature of your social movement.

Hebdidge called this process incorporation, which he argues takes place on two fronts. The first instance is that of appropriation of style- appropriation here meaning the taking of mostly visual cues (such as the "leather and pins" style of the punk era) and removing it from its original context in order to make it profitable. Although due to the diversity of membership in the "Social Justice Warrior" subculture there isn’t much in the way of identifiable stylistic patterns, the pervasive styles of language, comedy, and other modes of communication were (cringely) appropriated in advertisements seeking to get "down with the kids" via aesthetic imagery and "meme" humour found in these internet communities. Another manner in which a subculture may be incorporated into the mainstream and effectively diluted as a threat to the social norm is ideological incorporation. While cynics might suggest that perhaps corporations might not care as much about marginalized groups as they do making profit, the "deviant behaviour" observed in the subculture—in this case, advocating for the rights of oppressed people, particularly women, people of colour, and LGBT+ people—was suddenly wholeheartedly embraced and flaunted, even by companies that may well have previously taken actions or advertised subliminal ideologies that stood in direct contrast with this. Activism has become the new sex; much to the chagrin of SJW’s who consider themselves on the anti-capitalist side of the spectrum; it’s selling, and selling well.

Is it all doom and gloom for a future of social consciousness free from consumerist culture? Perhaps not.

One only needs to take a quick look at the fast-growing list of leftist groups and communities forming around theory, academia, and discourse to assert that a mass of its members are evolving into fully-fledged socialists, looking outward from insular internet bastions and beginning to take their activism into the "real world." Many have accepted and taken forth the very valid criticisms that "Social Justice Warrior" culture collected for itself, such as the unwillingness to step away from identity politics paired with a tendency for vicious dogpiling and popularity pyramids based on how many oppressed subgroups one’s identity falls into.

As the rest of the world seems to devolve into Armageddon, there may be hope laying in the anger and pride of the dreaded millennials. With this maturing in social responsibility and the manner in which these young people communicate with one another, despite the internet being rife with negativity and bullying as it always has been, through action such as crowdfunding, demonstration, and the building of communities the "millennials" are proving themselves industrious if nothing else. What is arguably the most politically active generation that the world has seen may just have a chance of building something that is impossible to package and sell with smiling whitewashed faces: true, unbridled resistance and unity. 

Jason Everitt
Jason Everitt

Sociopolitics, cultural theory, poetry and prose. Fresh produce from the depths of Cornwall. Find me under j4ywrites at tumblr, wordpress and patreon.

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The Death of the Social Justice Warrior