In August 2014, as the Gamergate controversy was unfolding, Vice pointed out the way that the term ‘social justice warrior’ was becoming an insult, writing, “…That’s not a real category of people. It’s simply a way to dismiss anyone who brings up social justice—and often those people are feminists.”
At this point, of course, it’s more than just feminists who are being targeted; it’s anyone who speaks out about race, LGBTQIAP+ issues, animal rights or anything else considered dangerously “progressive.”
Millennials have become the butt of every joke, accused of oversensitive whining on the Internet and an obsession with political correctness. So how do we get people to take our movements seriously when they’re trying to bring us down? Here’s a few ways people try to tear down movements — and how to watch out for them.
Judging an entire movement by the actions of individual people or isolated incidents. You may have accumulated a massive amount of information, anecdotes, statistics and documented patterns, but watch someone bring up an exception to the rule (see TERFs and ‘White Feminism’) and your entire argument is in danger of being shattered. The philosophical term for it is the fallacy of composition, making a generalization about a whole from a judgement of a part of it. A few exceptions shouldn’t derail a well constructed argument, of course, but it can happen when the other side doesn’t bother doing their own research and also, of course, when they aggressively want to believe it.
You may say that according to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, as opposed to 1 in 33 American men, but someone will bring up Rolling Stone’s poorly researched UVA campus rape article and suddenly all your statistics are biased and all women lie about rape. Many people claim to have support for their argument that all feminists hate men; a website called A Voice For Men points out the #killallmen Twitter hashtag as if every single feminist was involved.
The important thing to do is to follow movements and not individual people, always retaining the essence of the movement’s definition. Understand that movements tend to fragment, sometimes into ideologies that can be violent, hypocritical or inaccurate. You do not have to necessarily agree with everyone in the same movement as you and we shouldn’t be judged as a whole like that.
Another attack against feminism is the idea that you can say “not all feminists” but “not all men” or “not all white people” isn’t allowed, yet this false equivalency fails to acknowledge that more white people and cishet men have done damaging things, than feminists ever have.
Suggesting that having an “agenda” is a negative thing.
Consider two Free Dictionary definitions of the word agenda: 2.a. A program of things to be done or considered. b. A usually unstated underlying motive. Any movement, positive or negative, needs an agenda in order to be cohesive. But the word’s latter, more insinuous definition is used overwhelmingly when mocking social justice movements, casting members as selfish and corrupt. “Minorities are flushing white people out of America, feminists want to eliminate men, etc.”
As the blog More Women in Skepticism writes, “This is unfair in two ways: 1) So what if they are pushing an agenda? They have ideas and plans for change. That’s what it’s called. 2) The accusation shows an ignorance about what a feminist agenda is. It’s a good word to phrase to use, though, linked as it is with extremism and emotionalism, and can efficiently deflect the conversation from what the women are actually talking about. Which is not a feminist agenda.”
The purpose of any movement is, really, to move. You move by pushing. When a group of people believe strongly in something and believe it will improve the world, they will speak out or demonstrate to raise awareness and persuade people. This makes perfect sense, and, as long as it remains nonviolent, is perfectly fine. Really, when people argue against social justice “agendas,” it’s because they want to cast a bad light on the movement. They don’t want us to have an agenda at all; they want us to fail.
The entire history of peace studies and social justice can attest that pushiness is what leads to success. In a more recent example, Sea World agreed to stop breeding captive killer whales, “in a major concession to critics and animal welfare groups,” whose efforts included the 2013 documentary Blackfish. This may not have come to pass had activists kept their mouths shut.
Making weak, ignorant jokes and insults.
Another popular philosophical fallacy, ad hominem disparages arguments by making shallow, irrelevant remarks about the people themselves instead of their points. Most of the time, the person committing this fallacy has no understanding of the movement whatsoever, apart from disliking it, and they tend to be the worst of the worst: racists, misogynists, and generally aggressive people.
Unfortunately, this tactic works far too well; even if they understand it’s incorrect and offensive, it appeals to people’s sense of humor. A prime example is presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who, despite being widely loathed among millennials, has gained a disturbing popularity through aiming crude insults at everyone from Jeb Bush to disabled journalist Serge Kovaleski, and making shocking statements about women and various minorities.
Ad hominem is also perpetuated through jokes about “bra-burning,” “hairy” feminists and “vegans that won’t shut up.” When people choose this cheap humor over actual research, movements are perceived through nasty stereotypes and misunderstandings, rather than listening to their valid points. Jokes, luckily, can go both ways. Movements may find success with advocating their ideas though humorous-but more tasteful-propaganda of their own.
Calling for “respect of opinions”
You are entitled to freedom of speech, and any good movement will not attempt to take that away from you. But everyone else also has this right to their beliefs, and having an opinion doesn’t mean people have to agree with or respect it. When uncomfortable topics – many concerning social justice – come up in casual conversation, many people will try to avoid escalating conflict by “agreeing to disagree,” a passive aggressive technique which pretends peace has been reached but really accomplishes nothing at all.
As inter-religious advocate Crystal St. Marie Lewis writes in her blog, “….there are times when justice requires us to stop “agreeing to disagree.” Inaction and complacency can in themselves become forms of violence…The phrase “agree-to-disagree” implies that both positions (for and against) have merit– but in the case of civil rights, I don’t believe that’s possible. I simply do not believe that a person’s right to oppress is as valid as the rights of those experiencing the oppression. And I think we become complicit in oppression when we buy into the myth of the oppressor’s rights.”
You can agree to disagree about whether oranges or tangerines are yummier, but you can’t just shut your eyes to situations that affect people’s lives. Can you agree to disagree with a Nazi? A TERF? Someone who wants to take away your right to an abortion or even your right to live? No one needs to respect anyone who would ruin someone else’s life if they had the power, and the scary thing is that many people do have that power.
Men tend to only support unassertive, apologetic feminists; and whether it’s from a desire to avoid feelings of guilt or a more aggressive goal of keeping things the way they are, refusal to discuss every asset of important issues is a huge obstacle to progress. The only thing we can do is to keep talking about it.
Telling you, “there’s no point, because nothing is ever going to change”
For this one, I’ll leave you with a quote from famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, who advocated interconnectedness and awareness in society: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”