Reed: Reclaiming the term ‘social justice warrior’ during Trump regime

Chase Reed, Columnist

The debate over the presence of safe spaces on college campuses reared its head at the beginning of the school year, inviting political pundits to openly criticize universities that provide marginalized students with a community where they feel welcome and supported. The terms “social justice warrior” and “snowflake” re-entered the status quo in full force. Such phrases are often used by commentators to decry activist movements by delegitimizing individuals who fight to maintain civil liberties across the country — from LGBTQ discrimination to the overuse of force by police — and, more recently, to protest President Trump’s executive action blocking immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

When we disregard the stigma attached to the term, the phrase “social justice warrior” connotes strength, conviction and a belief in universal liberty. Yet over the past few years, the term has been twisted and distorted to describe angry liberals keen to force their “politically correct” values down the throats of anyone who dares disagree with them.

It’s this definition that has entered the mainstream lexicon, allowing critics to reduce important acts of civil disobedience such as the Women’s March on Washington by describing its participants as whiny SJWs.

Today, the term is not only used by far-right critics, but also by political moderates and center-left liberals who wish to disassociate from what they deem the “radical” left. The media has effectively transformed the once-celebrated phrase by shifting the focus away from the important social issues that SJWs endorse to an overblown caricature of the individuals who fight for them, dramatically sterilizing efforts to combat societal inequities.

I was disheartened to see that the only substantive discussion of SJWs within the past several years at The Daily took this inaccurate depiction and ran with it. In 2015, guest columnist Sam Houskeeper defined SJWs as “a loose collection of self-proclaimed progressive students whose dedication to equality is admirable…(but whose) methods of eliminating prejudice have created a culture where any kind of dissenters are shamed and cowed into silence.” Houskeeper displayed an alarming lack of awareness regarding the desires and motivations of students who are drawn to activism. He fell into the trap of generalizing their intentions by adhering closely to a corrupted interpretation of the phrase.

SJWs do not intend to “cow” others into silence nor down out the other side, but they do aim to promote dialogue and direct action that works toward rectifying social inequalities. For example, when widespread protests broke out in airports this past week, students across the country flocked to terminals to rebel against the possible deportation of friends or family. Why shouldn’t these individuals call themselves warriors? In a culture of fear and uncertainty, where the values of inclusivity and diversity have been thrown into disarray, it’s necessary to fight back. For those of us resisting Trump, it’s time to reinterpret what it means to be a “social justice warrior,” to own up to the term and reclaim it instead of shying away. Only then can we tackle the next four years without letting three little words drag us down.

Chase Reed is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.