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Phrases like ‘social justice warrior’ harm discussion and expression of ideas

By Andrew Kemle, Nov. 29 2017 —

Lately, online discussions surrounding social justice issues have featured pejorative or derogatory phrases like “social justice warrior,” “regressive leftist” or even the alt-right’s favorite word, “cuck.” Even right-wing news outlets like Breitbart and The Rebel frequently devolve into using these words in their headlines.

These labels are meaningless. “Regressive leftists” was at one point a criticism from leftists to their peers over allegations of moral relativism. But it has been deployed in so many inaccurate contexts that any meaning has been completely lost. Other phrases, like “social justice warrior,” have never meant anything. Whenever someone contends that something is racist or sexist, these words are used as counter-arguments and the conversation grinds to a halt.

In his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton describes phrases like these as thought-terminating clichés. It’s easy to see how “SJW” or “cuck” fall into this category. The effect these phrases have on conversations involving social issues is detrimental. Instead of listening to the complaints or critiques someone makes, a simple and easily repeated phrase is trotted out as though it actually refutes the point being made. In reality, it doesn’t accomplish anything.

This is particularly dangerous because conversations involving social justice ultimately have to do with the intrinsic worth of human beings. Dismissing concerns of this nature can have dangerous consequences. These phrases become overused to the point where all progressive stances get painted with the “SJW” brush — a macro-level dismissal of societal concerns.

There is a hint of hypocrisy in those that use these phrases, as they just so happen to be the loudest of the ostensibly pro-free-speech voices. The left has been accused of using terms like “racist” or “sexist” to shut down debate but the political right is doing the same thing on a more extensive level. Thought-terminating clichés are even more of a threat to free speech than the voices they routinely criticize.

The political right would be wise to listen to their own complaints about attacks on free speech and stop resorting to vacuous language such as “social justice warrior.” If you truly think someone calling something racist or sexist is wrong, then you can do better than merely dismissing them without critiquing their ideas. Who knows — you just might learn something too.

Articles published in the Gauntlet‘s opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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