For the past few school years, college students across the United States have redefined activism without changing the meaning of contemporary liberalism. At these institutions, there’s talk about “allyship,” a contemporary solution to identity politics that reaches for unity in difference. It says that white female students will never know the experience of a Latina, as the world responds differently to each of them. Rather than striving to understand, though, white students can become allies by deferring to the experience of POCs, learning from them, and offering support. No one practices allyship more vehemently than white social justice warriors (SJWs).
Social justice warriors—a term for individuals who repeatedly engage in arguments about social justice—often correct the other person’s language to gain leverage in an argument, finding issue in their non-P.C. rhetoric rather than the substance of their words. The term for this sort of attack is called personalism, and it occurs when someone makes assumptions about a person’s character based on their speech. Personalism comes into play in conversations when adults assume younger women are unintelligent if they have “vocal fry,” but it also occurs when a SJW assumes a person holds a conservative belief on an issue simply because they improperly referred to a person or a political concept.
Navigating political conversations therefore requires knowledge of the most politically correct terms to use in a given situation. When the debate occurred over the impact of saying either “All Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter,” some liberals called All Lives Matter supporters racist, citing how the phrase deemphasizes concern about systemic racism in America. Though SJWs were right to criticize the whitewashing of “All Lives Matter,” those that used this term at the inception of the movement were by no means racist themselves—they just didn’t know better.
It’s important to bring others up to speed on politically correct rhetoric, especially if someone’s inadvertently using an offensive term, but this process of correcting isn’t often that simple or well-meaning. There are social politics involved, and people are quick to condemn each other for not caring enough or not being “woke” enough. The policing of SJWs has created a dynamic where students, especially white students, use their knowledge of SJW rhetoric to prove themselves as better allies than their white friends or acquaintances. They do this by hypercorrecting people’s speech. On liberal campuses where being politically correct is in vogue, this sort of policing also means gaining social capital—an odd outcome for a movement whose end goal is inclusivity and sensitivity, especially on liberal campuses where for the most part students share similar political values.
To make things more complicated, politically correct terms are often updated. In such a rapidly changing system of language, much of people’s know-how regarding these terms comes from being on a college campus, where students are constantly in dialogue about activism and exchanging ideas, teaching each other, and talking about the nuanced differences between words and the corresponding impact they carry. In this way SJW rhetoric becomes best used by those who can afford to attend these elite, liberal institutions: in other words, politically correct terms become integrated into “ivory tower” language—and with distaste for the ivory tower growing ever more prevalent among moderates and conservatives, this makes it difficult for the SJW movement to become a populist trend.
Striving to be P.C. then becomes an echo chamber wherein moderates lose entrance, as they lack the education necessary to be seen as able to partake in this movement. Though there’s a large constituency of people who could be allies or share similar ideals to SJWs, they are turned off by the tone-policing and the exclusionary rhetoric. It’s a difficult bubble to break into, especially if you don’t attend a small liberal arts college. There’s not a lot of room for learning, which means there’s no room for a middle ground. Put simply: people are either a SJW, or they’re not. It’s a similar model to the polarized state of the U.S. at the moment, and one which I think plays a not-insignificant role in the country’s politics.
Especially considering the broken nature of American politics today, it’s important to reconcile with others despite our disparate forms of language. We have to embrace discussion and listening, and we must learn to respond to what people say rather than assuming their intentions. There is a fear of inaccuracy of meaning, or a permission of bigoted ideas, if liberal language is even a little bit modified. But words work because they get away from us. It is great that the left has developed these complex and considerate ways of communicating, but we cannot expect ourselves or others to adhere to them 100% of the time. People with good intentions who use language that lies outside liberal rhetoric are still redeemable; the left cannot survive if it continues to use exclusion as a tactic for weeding out potential allies. College students must start realizing how their privileged position in society has given them a deeper consideration of words than most people are ever exposed to.
Instead of looking for allies in people’s language, we should start listening to the ideology driving their words. Most importantly, we must understand that the understanding of language propagated on our college campuses (namely, that words have a concrete impact on people and political movements) is a rather complex notion, and not every potential ally will immediately understand this idea.
After the years we’ve had to observe the reductive role SJWs sometimes play in political discussions, it might be time to reflect on why the hardest thing to learn is how to check ourselves.