I recently overheard a conversation that troubled me deeply. My out-and-proud lesbian friend was speaking confidently about gay rights when she suddenly exclaimed, “Oh no, I sound like a social justice warrior.”

A phrase that should never have been an insult in the first place has come to possess the power to shut down conversations. SJW is usually used to refer to an excessively “politically-correct” left-wing individual who is offended by everything and everyone. They are predominantly privileged people who possess little knowledge of what injustice actually is, and actively seek out discrimination in their own lives.

Just as my friend silenced herself for fear of being associated with the term, SJW is being used to dismiss arguments of opposing viewpoints and terminate discussions. There is a case to be made for criticizing the way the SJW label is used in a derogatory manner, and for reclaiming it as a positive tool.

Extremists in social justice work do indeed exist and deserve criticism. Yet, launching ad hominem attacks on all activists instead of  addressing their arguments directly reflects laziness on the part of those who wield the SJW label as a weapon. This is ironic, as it reflects one of the main gripes against SJWs: resorting to petty attacks where one lacks good arguments.

Earlier this year, activists were labeled SJWs — even in The Varsity’s own opinion pages — when they criticized Dr. Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use non-binary pronouns. It is certainly possible that some responses to Peterson were extreme, yet one cannot reasonably dismiss the entirety of people offended by his arguments as extremists . Controversial situations like Peterson’s provide the perfect chance for debates about political correctness, but this opportunity is destroyed when people resort to derogatory terms.

The SJW term becomes more problematic as it expands past criticizing the hypocritical, the ignorant, and the overly sensitive to encompass all individuals fighting for human rights. What’s more, using SJW as an insult blurs the distinction between good and bad social justice advocacy. The negativity surrounding SJWs distorts the idea of social justice itself, and culminates in discouraging support for these causes and participation in initiatives that drive them forward.

For instance, the negative connotations surrounding SJW are similar to those that have long plagued the feminist label. Some have shied away from the term under the misguided perception that it represents female superiority, and prefer terms like equalist or egalitarian. Hypocrisy and negativity from extreme outliers within the feminist movement tarnished the word for many. Consequently, the movement itself consequently suffered; it became more difficult for feminists to champion gender equality under this negative view of their work.

Fortunately, the feminist label is now being reclaimed, and it is time for SJW to follow the same path. Although lacking the extensive history that the term feminist carries, SJW originated as a compliment to describe fierce proponents of worthy social justice causes. The term could be more productively utilized if reclaimed.

For example, the recent Women’s Marches — demonstrations that received positive attention and were free of anti-SJW criticism — could have been a large-scale and beneficial platform for the term to be reclaimed. Imagine if, among signs reading “Proud feminist” and “Women’s rights are human rights,” there were some saying, “We are Social Justice Warriors — we will fight back.”

Historically, insults have been used to discredit fighters for human rights, including the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. This is not to equivocate the gravity of their work with small-scale instances of organizing, but the causes being championed — freedom from discrimination and hatred — are the same. And, regarding those who are emblematic of the SJW label’s greatest shortcomings, calling them out with criticism, and not with name-calling, would be a more productive way to move forward.

Now, in a time of political turmoil and division, we find ourselves with the perfect opportunity to reclaim a phrase of strength and perseverance. It is time for us to be loud and proud Social Justice Warriors in the truest sense of the term.

Katrina Van Genderen is a first-year student at Victoria College studying Social Sciences.

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