What Does SJW Mean?

Who are the Social Justice Warriors and what do they want?

SJW is an acronym for social justice warrior. While there is no consensus on the definition of the term, it is strongly associated with online activism among individuals and groups focused on social justice and equality. People referred to as "SJWs"—whether derogatorily or not—tend to promote racial justice, feminism, LGBTQ rights, animal rights, climate awareness, educational opportunities, and wealth equality.

The topic of social justice warriors is an inflammatory one that invokes strong opinions on both sides. Take an objective look at SJWs and anti-SJWs to understand both sides of this issue.

Older woman shouting into megaphone
Social justice warriors are online. Do you know who they are?. Cultura RM Exclusive/Seb Oliver/Getty Images

What Does SJW Mean?

Social justice warrior or SJW is a term or label used for groups or individuals who use the internet and social media to advocate for equal distribution of human rights with regards to social privilege, personal opportunity, and distribution of wealth. Here are some examples:

  • Social privilege: Social privilege refers to a societal condition in which one group or class has an inherent advantage over another. Such privileges stem from social ills like racism, poverty, sexism, and gender disparity, among others.
  • Personal opportunity: Personal opportunity refers to issues of equal access, such as access to education, safe housing, safe drinking water, high-quality food, public transportation, health care, and employment.
  • Distribution of wealth: Distribution of wealth refers to the relative equality or inequality of wealth and income within a society. Personal wealth includes more than just money, but also assets such as homes, real estate, vehicles, businesses, stocks and bonds, and inheritances. By some estimates, in the United States, the top 10 percent of individuals hold an average of 75 percent of the total wealth, with the remaining 25 percent of total wealth distributed across the bottom 90 percent of the population.

The term social justice was used as far back as the 1840s. The term social justice warrior dates to the 1990s, when it referred to real-world activists in a mostly positive way. As the internet grew and access to technology increased throughout the early 2000s, so did the SJW movement, as SJWs used their keyboards and online forums to get their messages out. While some people are enthusiastic and proud to call themselves SJWs, many people first encounter this label used in a negative way, often through the reactions of other social media users.

What Is an SJW?

There are three primary views or SJW meanings you may encounter. From most positive to most negative, they are:

  • A person who is genuinely passionate about social justice issues. This meaning of SJW refers to an individual focused on learning, critical thinking, and sharing learned information with others. This SJW is concerned with being fair and balanced and promoting the voices of people from disadvantaged groups.
  • A person who uses causes of concern to SJWs to create argument and debate for personal attention, rather than furthering the cause or being an agent of change for the larger movement they're arguing on behalf of.
  • A person who takes social justice issues to an extremist viewpoint of overblown political correctness, often without a clear base of knowledge on the issue but instead relying on personal opinion.

While some people proudly identify as SJWs and seek to recover the original positive association of the term, others find the term offensive or confusing. As with most labels, the term is not very helpful with respect to the truth, and serves more to diminish or reduce one's identity than faithfully represent it.

The Anti-SJW Movement

The first notable use of SJW as a negative term was in 2009 by writer Will Shetterly. He was describing the difference between social justice warriors as a kind of keyboard activist in contrast to a social justice worker, who he viewed as a real-world activist seeking change through action. From 2009 to 2010 and going forward, the term SJW has been increasingly used as an insult or negative term for people who speak out online about social equality. Anti-SJWs, also known as Skeptics, view the SJW movement as political correctness taken to extreme measures. They view SJWs as a brigade of "thought police" who seek to control the thoughts and expressions of anyone who is not a member of a particular disadvantaged group. Many also view SJWs as people who place the interests of various disadvantaged groups above the rest of society, seeking to oppress other groups as a means of promoting the cause of disadvantaged groups.

SJWs and Hackers

At times, SJWs and hacker culture have intersected on issues of social justice in the form of hacktivism. Well-known hacktivist groups include Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and LulzSec. However, the vast majority of SJWs are not part of the hacker culture. The hacker culture generally rejects both SJWs and Anti-SJWs equally because most hackers embrace the core principle of meritocracy (a value system based on individual merits such as skill, knowledge, and ability), which excludes judgments based on labels like gender, race, and economic status.

The internet and social media have increasingly become a primary way people interact with others all over the world. Information and opinions are shared and spread milliseconds after posting. As awareness of various social justice issues spreads to greater numbers of technology users, more people share their thoughts about these issues and find themselves labeled an SJW without really understanding what the term means or how it is being used. Objectively understanding both views can help you navigate this inflammatory topic.