What SJW Means in Internet Lingo

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

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SJW is an acronym for social justice warrior, but there isn't a consensus on an SJW definition. However, the term is strongly connected with online activism by individuals and groups from equality-focused movements to address issues within modern society such as racism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, animal rights, climate change, educational opportunity, wealth distribution, and health care rights (to name a few).

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.

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 general human rights across all members of society with regard to social privilege, personal opportunities, and distribution of wealth. That sounds vague, but here are some examples:

  • Social privilege: Social privilege issues are issues where one group in a society has an advantage over another in multiple areas of daily life. Groups within society can have less social privilege due to poverty, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Personal opportunities: Personal opportunity issues are often issues of equal access. For example, personal opportunities may include equal access to high-quality education (both K-12 and college education), safe housing options, safe drinking water, high-quality food, accessible transportation, quality health care, and good-paying jobs.
  • Distribution of wealth: Distribution of wealth issues center around a small group within a society having a disproportionate level of personal wealth. Personal wealth includes more than money or income but also assets such as homes, other 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 it promotes the voices of people in 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. It is this meaning of SJW most often used as an insult by anti-SJWs.

As with any group, SJWs consist of positive and negative individuals and extremists. 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.

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 true 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.