Social Justice Warriors, Unite!

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“Why is ‘Social Justice’ a toxic phrase in common conversation?”
My roommate recently showed me something online, but what he said got me thinking. He told me “social justice warriors probably hate this.”
What does that phrase even mean, “social justice warriors?” I decided to look up what it meant on Urban Dictionary — admittedly not the best source for information, but this is what I found: “A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow and not well-thought-out way.” These people do not “necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of.” They do it to be popular.
So how do these people make social justice look bad? After all, protesters all over the world use the Internet to organize and rally support. Social media was a huge force in the Arab Spring protests that eventually toppled regimes. Using these networks at home has created huge firestorms around net neutrality, which recently forced the FCC to adopt net neutral protocols. Using mass media has always been in the toolbox for enacting social reforms. Social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. are regarded as heroes. Universities from Miami University to Merrimack College to my own, Hamline University, offer majors in Social Justice, training the next generation of reformers.
Yet the words “social justice” have become dirty words in common discourse. It brings to mind people from Greenpeace harassing you to save the whales or something. These campaigns raise awareness of the issue but do not address the root causes of the problem. The argument then asks “What’s the point if nothing real is being done?”
Then there are people who see social justice as rabble-rousing, people who see protesters in the streets or online and wonder why these people cannot appreciate the life we already live. They then, ironically, mount their own social media-based campaigns against the other efforts.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that we already appreciate the life we live. It is hard to argue this point when people in the streets are already taking advantage of their First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly. We just see how it could be improved. Is it really wrong to use the Internet to promote a cleaner earth? Or is it wrong to start an online petition for the release of a wrongly convicted person?
The biggest challenge is in turning awareness into real action, and it starts with a demand. The Occupy movement brought income inequality into the mainstream political discourse, but then sat around. Change doesn’t just happen with awareness. Transformative change doesn’t occur when people simply know about an issue. People do not just start marching on Washington because they saw something online. There needs to be organization, a willingness to take risks, get arrested for civil disobedience. There must be a real plan for what happens next. Its good to have a slogan like “We are the 99%” but you need to have a plan to make your movement last. Peaceful civil disobedience is a good way to make that happen.
The three major monotheistic religions all have beliefs in social justice, from tikkun olam in Judaism to zakat in Islam to Christian sects like Methodism and orders like the Jesuits. And this is only scratching the surface. Across religions there is a belief in the world and society being more just and peaceful. This is not a radical belief. Not only that, it has worked. Faith leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1980s, people like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, not politicians but an electrician and a playwright, helped peacefully dismantle the Iron Curtin by transitioning Poland and Czechoslovakia to democracies through strikes and other nonviolent methods. Czechoslovakia’s transition was even called the Velvet Revolution for how smooth and non-violent it was. More recently, nonviolent protests have either toppled or threatened oppressive regimes in the Middle East, with successful revolutions taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen.
The biggest uniting factor in all of these, despite technological, racial, and cultural differences, was that the movements I just listed demanded specific changes and stuck it out. With the Internet, anyone can sign a petition with a few keystrokes, but what do those petitions really do? It is when mobilization transitions from cyberspace to meatspace, the “real world”, that real change happens. It signifies that the cause is important when people actually show up outside places of power and protest. This was the underlying idea of the Occupy movement, but the movement thought that just showing up was enough. You need to show up, fight the system in courts, elect leaders sympathetic to your causes, and continue agitating for change for it to happen. An online petition is a good start, but it only gets people talking, not necessarily marching.
Yes, there are radical, violent, and overzealous actors for change, and unfortunately they do hold some sway in some circles. But they are a very small minority. I believe that until there is true social justice, there will always be people who want to see change and will protest for that.
Am I social justice warrior by that definition? Sure I am. I think that you are, too.

Reid Madden is a Senior Columnist at The Oracle, the student newspaper of Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota.