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Social justice warriors or voyeur vigilantes?

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Social justice warriors or voyeur vigilantes?

Stephen H. Provost

Don’t call me a social justice warrior.

I like Warriors – as long as they’re named Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, and they’re draining 3s in the name of Golden State. But real war (off the basketball court) is hell, as the saying goes, and it’s a warrior’s job to win. Period. Which usually involves making someone else’s life hell.

Count me out.

I’m not interested in making anyone’s life hell. But we, as a society, seem increasingly inclined to do so – and that worries me. Thanks to the internet, shaming has become a spectator sport, with self-proclaimed social justice warriors on the lookout for people to condemn.

In a way, they remind me of those highway patrol officers who hide behind billboards, waiting to take off after the next driver who’s going a few miles over the speed limit.

Except they’re worse.

Those roadside cops may be sneaky, but they have an official mandate to stop people from speeding. If you’re exceeding the posted speed limit, they’re perfectly within their rights to pull you over. In fact, they’re doing their job.

Social justice warriors don’t wear badges, haven’t gone through any training and lack any official mandate to do what they do. They are, in a sense, vigilantes, patrolling the social scene and trying to shame people into “doing the right thing” – according to their definition.

A key distinction

“Hold on,” you may object. “Don’t they speak out forcefully against racist and sexist behavior, discrimination against the LGBT community and others. Isn’t that ‘the right thing’?”

Of course it is. But speaking out is one thing, shaming is quite another.

Shaming has been used as a means of social control throughout history, often in ways that today’s social justice warriors would find offensive. People have been shamed for refusing to believe in “the one true faith” – whatever their culture determines that faith to be. They’ve been shamed for the color of their skin, for menstruating, for their sexual orientation. Even today, many people who call themselves social justice warriors decry such actions as “slut shaming” and “body shaming.”

As they should.

But if you’re so quick to condemn others for shaming – a form of bullying – should you really be so eager to use the same tactic? Do the ends truly justify (pun intended, again) the means?

Social justice or social torture?

Before answering that, perhaps we should address what those ends will actually be. People who are shamed wind up being condemned, ostracized and often dehumanized. Branded with scarlet letters, they become convenient scapegoats for public rage and symbols for “everything that’s wrong with the world.” They can lose their reputations, their jobs and worse.

Does it change their minds? It’s doubtful. Shaming is ineffective for the same reason torture is: If someone is hurt badly enough, s/he will say anything to make the pain stop. Recanting when you’re tied to a stake is meaningless; contracts signed at the point of a gun are null and void – for good reason.

Others may be bullied into remaining silent – or going into hiding – because of the example that’s set by public shaming. But is that really a good thing? If we tell them to shut up, we’ve cut off any avenue for dialogue that just might change their minds about a whole range of issues. Perhaps, heaven forbid, the people we were tempted to shame might even teach us a thing or two.

Too often, social justice warriors remind me of Patriot Act proponents: willing to curtail freedoms (in this case, freedom of expression) for the sake of, supposedly, preserving them.

That’s not to say we should start looking the other way when someone uses the “N” word, condemns someone for his/her sexual orientation or harasses another person, sexually or otherwise. What we should do, I believe, is condemn the behavior without shaming the person. None of this is, nor should it be, personal. If we make it so, we expose our own ulterior motives.

War and peace

Are we really trying to make the world a better place, or are we just voyeur vigilantes, actively seeking out people to mock and shame because we enjoy seeing a good train wreck? Or, worse, because we want to prop up our own fragile egos by claiming some sense of superiority? If it’s the latter, we’re merely sinking to the level of those we shame – or lower.

Language matters. There’s an important difference between a social justice warrior and a peaceful protester.

Saying you’re a warrior makes it sound like you’re ready to kick some ass, and to hell with anyone who stands in your way. Saying you’re a diplomat makes you sound like a wimp or, at the very least, someone who’s willing to “compromise your principles” – because compromise has become a dirty word in the modern lexicon.

And that’s too bad, because a willingness to compromise fosters trust, and trust is necessary for dialogue. That’s what I want.

So, call me a diplomat. A proponent of peace. An advocate for equality. A believer in kindness. I’ll take any of those as a high compliment. But please don’t call me a social justice warrior. I have no interest in starting a war; I want to pave the way for peace.