Why the Terms Social Justice Warrior & New Atheist are Useless

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.

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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.

Matthew Facciani (University of South Carolina)

FaccianiheadshotMatthew graduated from Westminster College where he earned a B.A. in psychology with honors. After college, Facciani went on to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at The University of South Carolina. While in studying neuroscience, Facciani realized that he was more interested in studying human behavior from a broader perspective and switched into the sociology PhD program at the University of South Carolina. Outside of his academic work, Facciani gives talks and writes articles about science for general audiences and is also an activist for gender equality and sexual violence prevention.  Learn more about Facciani’s work and follow him on Twitter @MatthewFacciani.

3 responses to “Why the Terms Social Justice Warrior & New Atheist are Useless

  1. I think the main problem with Social Justice Warriors is that they’re rank amateurs, they have no authority, no credentials, no due processes followed, no systems in place for applying consistency of logic or for error-checking disputed accusations. It’s like some unofficial vigilante group with no official accreditation. SJW is a useful shorthand for an amateur campaigner who makes a lot of noise (generally as part of a mob) yet is too lazy, selfish or ignorant to turn their keyboard warrioring into an actual professional career, with acceptable standards of compliance etc. Being an SJW really is the coward’s way out. It’s saying “I can’t be arsed to do all the administrative, bureaucratic hard work behind-the-scenes to make the world a better place, yet I still want all the glory from shouting a few facile slogans or repeating trendy soundbites.”

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  2. “If you want to call someone a new atheist or a SJW for convenience, then also explain the reasoning for doing so.”

    The reason people get labeled as SJWs is because they are nothing more than people that will overreact to any incident that may have offended them, yet they use circular logic and deflection to cater to their “progressive” agenda. The term “social justice” itself is an oxymoron, as it strives for justice, but obviously only for those who are perceived as “disenfranchised”, thus they feel entitled to constantly bring down anyone they perceive as “oppressive” in their views. And they call this justice? Get out of here!

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