You mentioned in a post on Imzy that you joined Reddit’s TumblrInAction subreddits to vent about “Social Justice Warriors” (SJW). What defines a SJW in your opinion? Do you think, given how often the term is used in contemporary internet culture, the SJW is a new phenomenon linked to online culture in some way?
To be quite honest, I don’t really like the term anymore. The fact that it’s been so overused by those who are using the anti-SJW movement as part of a broader agenda to restrict the rights of women and minorities has made the term near-meaningless in online conversation. However, when I was involved in the TumblrInAction subreddits (mostly /r/TiADiscussion), I created a thread in which I shared my definition and asked other users for theirs. The definition I used was:
Anyone who is quick to label those who disagree with them as an oppressor or one who aids/abets the oppressor, who thinks about the world and all of its people in shades of privilege, who elevates historically discriminated groups to the top of their social hierarchy, who sees demographic identities as the core of every person’s being, who gets offended for any perceived slight on a demographic group they care about, who lack respect for the freedom of speech and the rule of law, and who are willing to use bullying tactics such as silencing, harassment, and shaming to get their way.
This is the definition I used to categorize someone as a SJW. I had a separate concept called “SJW-ism” (I later learned that the social justice term for it was “kyriarchy”), and noted that some who believed in SJW-ism may not necessarily be a SJW (to me, being a SJW was based on behavior, while SJW-ism was a belief system).
What I used to consider SJW-ism is not something that came as a result of Tumblr or online interaction, but rather the result of decades-old academic theory becoming mainstream.
To me, the core tenet of SJW-ism was that our society is at its root racist, sexist, homo/transphobic, that it permeates everything we do, that our society is a hierarchy of privileged and underprivileged groups, and almost everyone who is white, male, cis, etc. is guilty of oppression in some way – even merely for existing and thus benefiting from privilege. While this view isn’t wrong per se, I found that collective guilt mentality to be overly reductive – it categorizes people based on attributes that they cannot control and then ranks people’s struggles based on the amount of “privilege” that they have (in anti-SJW circles it’s called “Oppression Olympics”). It ignores the fact that there is a lot more variation in terms of adversity faced in life within demographic groups than between demographic groups, and that by alienating people by insinuating that their struggles are less significant than those of others, you turn people away from whatever good arguments you have, which in the case of social justice are many.
While some anti-SJWs will disagree, I don’t think what is popularly known as the SJW phenomenon is a creation of online culture. Online culture certainly perpetuates and radicalizes it, but its origins lie in academia and some of the more radical parts of activist circles in the last few decades. The concept of white privilege, for example, was popularized by Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, written in 1989. The idea of intersectionality was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s, and the concept of kyriarchy was introduced by Elisabeth Fiorenza in 1992. These were no internet warriors – they were all prominent academics, theorists, and activists. So what I used to consider SJW-ism is not something that came as a result of Tumblr or online interaction, but rather the result of decades-old academic theory becoming mainstream. As I am currently a university student, I see plenty of social justice activists and extremists in real life, and it is interactions with real-life people that I know that led me to join TiA.
No viewpoint is immune from echo chambers; I have observed them in both left-wing and right-wing communities…
You mentioned in your comments the term “echo chambers”. What do you define an echo chamber as?
An echo chamber is any space, whether real-life or online, in which people have at least a single common viewpoint that the space or community centers around. Examples include communities dedicated to supporting a specific political candidate/party, an ideology, a certain view of the world, or opposition to those particular viewpoints. Though it is harmless to find people with whom you share common interests, these spaces become extremely toxic if there is an outgroup that the community sees as the enemy – usually another community centered around opposition to the view that the community holds.
No viewpoint is immune from echo chambers; I have observed them in both left-wing and right-wing communities, as well as both communities that express support for radical social justice activism (such as /r/ShitRedditSays, /r/Gamerghazi, and their affiliates) and communities which oppose radical social justice activism (such as /r/KotakuInAction, /r/TumblrInAction, /r/SRSSucks, and their affiliates).
These interactions happen in both real life and online, though those people are generally much nastier online.
Have you ever interacted with the SJWs themselves, or entered into discussions with others where opinions differed?
Interacting with very militant social justice activists was what led me to join TiA in the first place. I’m a university student; at the risk of exaggeration, a day doesn’t go by without someone I know posting on Facebook about various social justice topics, usually from the kyriarchy perspective. I also often hear about similar issues talked about in real life conversations. I still interact with those people regularly, though we don’t always discuss social justice topics. These interactions happen in both real life and online, though those people are generally much nastier online.
I’ve long been the odd one out when it comes to political and social justice discussions – I’m relatively moderate but left-leaning on most issues, so I’ve gotten hate from both the left and the right. In terms of the quality of the discussions themselves, the experiences vary; sometimes there would be a very amicable discussion and sometimes I would get extreme vitriol thrown at me. What I’ve noticed is that the amount of anger is directly correlated with how extreme their views are relative to general society – the more distant from the center, the more angry they seem to be. I focused on left-wing vitriol and hate because I mostly associate with left-wing people due to my youth and my own views, and because the left portrays itself as the more kind and empathetic side – it feels incredibly ironic that I’ve received hate from those who consider themselves to be very empathetic, just because I didn’t conform to their view of the world completely. It’s not as if I’m anywhere close to being their mortal enemy, but they felt the need to keep me in line.
I would say though that I’m someone who learns from negative experiences, and arguing with social justice activists is no different. They have changed my mind on a few things, most notably the existence and extent of discrimination based on skin color and gender, but only when they provided concrete proof of that discrimination based on social science studies. I typically wasn’t swayed by anecdotes and “lived experience” tales – no one’s experience, not mine, not anyone else’s, is completely representative of what happens at the macro scale.
In terms of whether I think these interactions would have changed if the discussions happened offline, I could answer that based on my own experience, there might be somewhat less vitriol, but the discussion/argument would still be heated and tense. The activists that I’ve been around are generally not afraid to be nasty in real life as well, though the insults will be less overt and more implied.
I’m just as or maybe even better behaved (because I have time to think about my responses) online than I am in person.
When you interact with others in spaces like reddit, are you generally anonymous or are you happy to put your name, or a photo of your face, or any other personal identifiers to your profile?
Besides Reddit, which I no longer use, I have a Facebook and an Imzy account. I was anonymous on Reddit, but am completely open on Facebook about my name, my face, and personal information other than my address because only friends that I approve of have permission to view my information.
As for my anonymity on Reddit, this was a decision based on social convention – as everyone else was anonymous, I was as well. The same was true for Facebook; because most people use their real names, so did I. On Imzy, I tend to be a bit more open. I have a username as most others do, but I am more willing to share personal details, because I have greater trust in the good nature of Imzy users and thus am more willing to share details about my life without fear of judgment or harassment.
I don’t have any concerns per se about interacting publicly as my real self; I’m just as or maybe even better behaved (because I have time to think about my responses) online than I am in person, but I’d rather not give people who don’t know me personal information about myself unless they are willing to do the same. I use my real name when other people in the platform do, and am anonymous when other people in the platform are.
I know people, even important people such as schools and employers, will judge me based on my behavior on social media just as they would my real-life behavior.
Do you think there is a difference between how you act online to how you act offline? Would your friends and family in the physical world recognize who you are online?
In terms of civility? Not really. I don’t really insult others unless they insult me first; even then I don’t always retaliate, especially if my opponent is well-respected, popular, or very social justice-oriented, because they could use me as an example of why people who oppose them are bullies whose viewpoints are not worthy of consideration. My behavior is consistent for the most part in this respect on- and offline. I care about my image in both instances, because I know people, even important people such as schools and employers, will judge me based on my behavior on social media just as they would my real-life behavior.
I make my best effort to be civil online also because I care about the image of the viewpoint that I am representing. When I argue against social justice activists and am making “anti-SJW” points, I am well aware that the reputation of anti-SJWs is (justifiably) very poor, mostly because of the harassment of prominent feminists as part of Gamergate and more recently, connections between prominent anti-SJWs like Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right, and candidacy of Donald Trump. I therefore do my best strongly distance myself from this in tone and content, both because I feel morally compelled to treat others with respect but also because I know that not doing so reflects badly on not only myself, but everyone who has disagreements with social justice activists – it will be much easier to stereotype people who have any disagreement with a social justice-oriented viewpoint as bullies, harassers, racists, and misogynists if any of them live up to the stereotype.
In terms of coherence? I’d say I’m more coherent online, because I have time to think about my responses. I’m far from the most smooth talker in the world, and writing it out gives the opportunity to say exactly what I want to say.
That being said, my friends would recognize who I am online – they know that I’m an extremely knowledgeable, helpful person who provides a lot of good advice, can talk about myself with a great degree of introspection, and knows how to make and argue a point. I demonstrate that both online and in real life.
In real life you have to deal with people who are not in your group, on the Internet you get to decide who you associate with.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether or not in your experience online communities have increased/changed how quickly or extremely this mob mentality evolves.
It has definitely expedited group polarization, because whereas in real life you have to deal with people who are not in your group, on the Internet you get to decide who you associate with. So, if you decide that the only people you want to interact with are in the group, then you will more quickly adopt the attitudes and the extreme behavior of that group.
When applied to politics, this tribalism manifests itself in many ways. Examples include only getting news from certain websites which are ideologically inclined (HuffPo/Salon on the left, Breitbart/Fox News/Daily Caller on the right), talking to those only with your kind of ideology, and seeing the opposing group, all the people in it, and all of their real or imagined lifestyle choices (e.g. left-wingers are pot-smoking degenerate hippie crybabies, and right-wingers are stupid, gun-obsessed, violence-prone bullies), as not only misguided or mistaken, but outright wrong and evil.
While there is an asymmetry in terms of how far the polarization has gone – the political right has been much more polarized than the left in the US – it has been happening on both sides, and moderate people are becoming either radicalized or alienated from political discourse because they don’t fit in with either tribe.
You mentioned the loneliness of not joining a group. What drives you to connect with others online? Is it that need for a sense of belonging or something else? Or does belonging come over time?
I am driven by a desire to find people who share my interests. I do develop a sense of belonging over time, but invariably things go wrong when I feel like I’m becoming radicalized, or that I’m no longer feeling welcome because I didn’t adopt increasingly extreme beliefs.
I’m not so much seeking opposition as much as I’m seeking diversity in viewpoints. Of course, that means that I will have opposition, but I am fine with that because that is part of diversity.
Have you ever actively sought out opinions different from your own online? If you did, how’d it go?
Not in terms of interactions – I don’t go out of my way to interact with those I disagree with. I have plenty of experience in doing so, but that is mostly because I’m often in spaces where a diversity of opinions is expected to be present, or when I decide to not follow the herd in the echo chamber that I was in. My Imzy community, Social Justice Debates, is the closest I’ve gotten to that – but I’m not so much seeking opposition as much as I’m seeking diversity in viewpoints. Of course, that means that I will have opposition, but I am fine with that because that is part of diversity. Essentially, I am not particularly adverse to opinions different from my own, but I don’t go out of my way to seek them out either.
That being said, I actively seek out and read the writings of people who have different opinions from mine and lurk in spaces whose dominant viewpoint I oppose (for example, I often lurk on Fempire-related subreddits and communities, and read articles from social justice-oriented blogs and websites), mostly because I want to understand my opposition better and hear about what they think in their own words rather than from second-hand accounts. I have learned much from what they say to each other and from what they say about their own views, and I have come to understand them better, both as adversaries and as what kinds of people they are – I have come to view them in a more sympathetic light in most cases.
I think breaking down echo chambers is something that is ultimately up to every participant in a community; we have to be introspective and realize that a community in which one viewpoint is dominant, even if you agree with that viewpoint, is a community that could easily turn toxic and extreme given enough time and an outgroup to hate.
Do you think that websites/social media platforms like Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr etc. are actively trying to create echo chambers or do you think it is just an accidental by-product of their product? Do you think they should take more action to breakdown echo chambers, given various debates in the West today about race/gender/religion etc. or is it up to us to take action?
I think they’re not so much actively trying to create echo chambers as much as turning a blind eye to them. I don’t think they’ve given much thought to what would happen, though I don’t think there actually is a way on an institutional level to prevent echo chambers from developing without severely infringing on freedom of association. I think breaking down echo chambers is something that is ultimately up to every participant in a community; we have to be introspective and realize that a community in which one viewpoint is dominant, even if you agree with that viewpoint, is a community that could easily turn toxic and extreme given enough time and an outgroup to hate. We also should seek out spaces in which there is no dominant viewpoint, or create them ourselves if there aren’t any such spaces, and recruit members from a wide range of perspectives, even if they fundamentally clash or disagree with ours.
Of course, that won’t be easy, especially when there are people out there who are fundamentally opposed to your very existence or your self-expression as a member of a particular demographic group. That means that certain limits will have to be set on what constitutes as acceptable viewpoints in more open spaces where there is a diversity of views – there is absolutely no excuse for shaming or denying parts of someone’s identity. However, I don’t think it’s productive to incessantly bash someone for disagreeing with you – as long as the other person is willing to talk to you without attacking you or parts of your identity personally, I think that most misconceptions, disagreements, etc. can be peacefully resolved.
How do you think we should prevent echo chambers from occurring?
Ultimately, the responsibility for preventing echo chambers from occurring lies with everyone who participates in communities, online or otherwise. This means taking a stand and defending yourself when someone disagrees with you, instead of retreating to some place where everyone agrees with you. This means dealing with discomfort and having your views challenged, even on issues that you care deeply about. This means being tolerant of opposing viewpoints – something that many, on all sides of the political spectrum, struggle with, as their views are constantly reinforced and validated by their peers due to natural self-segregation based on common interests and worldview. This means regularly reading material that you disagree with, so you can hear in their own words the reasoning behind others’ viewpoints.
Preventing echo chambers is all about coming together and making an effort to let people who disagree, even on fundamental things, know that they are welcome to talk to each other as long as they treat everyone with dignity and respect.
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Share your experiences with us – we’re always looking for more people to talk to about who they are online. There is no story too big or too small!