Labels can be an efficient way of describing a more complicated concept. However, labels with unclear definitions can cause more trouble than they are worth. Two labels which are commonly used among the secular, atheist, and humanist communities are “social justice warrior” and “new atheist.” I admit that I’ve used these labels previously, but now I’ve grown to despise both.
Social Justice Warrior: Praise turned Pejorative
Social Justice Warrior (SJW) seems like it would be a compliment. Taken literally, it means someone who is fighting for social justice. Yet, SJW has evolved to refer to people engaging in belligerent behavior that are in the social justice community or talking about social justice. Those who use the term seem to conflate a person’s behavior with their activism. The intention to call out belligerence may be legitimate, but SJW is not an accurate description for calling out such behavior. Worse yet, SJW is also used when someone is simply making an accurate point about social justice that makes people bigoted uncomfortable (much like the term “feminazi”).
Instead of calling people you disagree with SJWs, why not simply call out their bad behavior? We could say something like: “When discussing activism, this person did X and I didn’t care for it.” Is doing so really that much harder than using the vague “social justice warrior” term? Why is the “social justice” part of the term even necessary when the “warrior” part seems to be aimed at describing someone’s overzealous and intolerant behavior? The term SJW is confusing at best and at worst it makes those who use it seem like they are against social justice.
New Atheists: What’s So New?
“New atheists” is also annoying, but at least more people agree on the definition of this term. Generally, a new atheist is an atheist who is against religion and follows some of the “teachings” of public atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I admit I used this term a few times while critiquing movement atheism, but it’s essentially pointless because it’s also so vague. It also perpetuates the incorrect idea that atheists have leaders and lumps all open atheists into one group. I am an open atheist, but I often disagree with Dawkins, Harris, and many other “new atheists.”
My advice for people who use the “new atheist” label is similar to those who use SJW. Instead of using these terms, why not specifically call out the behavior that we find deplorable? Usually the new atheists that I find most annoying are those who blindly follow authority figures like Dawkins or Harris, or who are so anti-theist that they start ignoring science which conflicts with their anti-theist framework. For example, saying religion is a mental disorder runs counter to what the research says. So instead of calling someone a “new atheist,” I would simply call out their biases. Likewise, instead of calling someone a SJW, I could tell them what is bothering me about their behavior.
Both New Atheist and SJW are often meant to be insults, but they are so ambiguous and flawed that they essentially mean nothing. Importantly, I am not trying to censor anyone or even demanding people to change their language. What I would like people to do is be more careful with their language and define arbitrary, vague, and possibly harmful terms if you must use them. If you want to call someone a new atheist or a SJW for convenience, then also explain the reasoning for doing so. This will both avoid confrontation and confusion. Personally, I think both terms are pretty useless, but as long as people define what they mean, we can attempt to have a more reasonable and civil discussion.