Monthly Archives: March 2016

3 Words That Are Killing Social Justice Circles

At a workshop I gave recently, I decided to do something pretty radical : ban three widely overused buzzwords.

While buzzwords in general are a weakness of SJW-types like me, most of them can be salvaged and still have something to give us.


Me giving the aforementionned workshop at Univertisity of Victoria 🙂

Intersectionnality, for instance, may be vastly overused to the point of losing its meaning, and it tends to be ritualized in the practice of listing ever longer numbers of oppression, but returning to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and to its use in black feminism always brings some fresh air into that word. This way, it is relatively easy to give it back its original meaning, rooted in the way that combinations of oppression and the unique conditions they create need to be recognized.

However, the three words I banned cannot be salvaged. Not only are they overused, not only have their virtues been diluted, but they have dangerous implications in the way they frame different issues.

Even though people using them come from good places, these words are hurting and are erasing huge swathes of experiences under a unified, buzzwordy glaze.

I propose we make an effort to remove them from our vocabulary, and enrich ourselves by exploring new ways to express the same ideas.

1. “Identify”

Now, I know that the idea of self-identification is super important. Giving people the right to frame their own experiences is powerful : after all, no one has a better expertise on you than, well… you.

However, not everyone is recognized this authority on their own experience. Saying someone “self-identifies as” establishes that there are different levels of truth for people to fit, a burden that usually falls mostly on the most marginalized.

Autistic people with an official diagnosis (especially one gotten during childhood) get to “be” autistic, where those who self-diagnosed are only “identifying” as autistic.

Cis people get to “be” men and women, where trans people only “identify as” male, female or non binary.

The most flagrant example of this is the new tendency to label women-only spaces inclusive of trans women as “Open to all women or people who identify as women”. What? Aren’t trans women women?

The lower truth value given to self-identification alone is even more obvious when you look at other uses of this word : for instance, when US newspeople talk about “self-identified” Republicans or Democrats in polls, they are telling us to take the data with a grain of salt, because they might not be real, i.e. registered, members of either party.

For people whose experiences and identities are not validated by outside power structures (for instance the norms relating to gender assignment, or medical power, etc.), saying they “self-identify” makes it explicit that we only have their word to take for it, and that we don’t think they meet the truth criteria for just “being” who they say they are.

2. “Empower”

The idea of giving more power to people is obviously great. However, the word “empower” has become so overused that it’s often hard to know what describing something as “empowering” actually means, besides “I like it”.

Most importantly, the focus on “empowerment” frames some frequently dismissed women’s issues in a very unsatisfactory manner.

Sex workers have to prove that the work they do is “empowering” them before feminists advocate for sex workers’ rights.

Muslims women must defend wearing their hijab as an “empowering” practice if they don’t want to be dismissed as submissive.

A girl wearing makeup must say that makeup “empowers”, lest she *gasp* reinforce gender stereotypes.

In all these instances, we ask women to prove that what they do is feminist enough to be valid, instead of accepting their experiences as they come and focusing on the rights and services they need.

The roots of this are clearly misogynistic, as more often than not, it is femininity that needs to be framed as “empowering”, while masculinity is considered okay by default. (Visibly masculinity is always empowering, is that right?)

Using individual empowerment to answer these charges is a very liberal way to discuss issues. By focusing on individuals, “empowerment” is ill-suited as a basis for collective action and for challenging structural factors at the root of marginalization.

Also, prioritizing “empowerment” forces people to frame whatever experiences they may have in proper feminist language, a translation that is not necessarily obvious for people who don’t spend less time in feminist circles. Proper wording sho
uld never be a prerequisite for having your rights defended.

The point is, all of these “empowering” things are valid. The only charge necessary to answer the bad radical feminism behind the exclusion of sex workers, hijab-wearing women, etc., is that it is misogynistic. Empowerment politics hides that misogyny.

3. Problematic

Whereas the last two were ambiguous, with a mix of good and bad features, “problematic” is really the most dangerous word in social justice circles.

Taking trans issues as an example, saying “transsexual” instead of whatever is the word du jour in trans communities is problematic, forcing trans women in men’s bathrooms is problematic, laws mandating surgeries for legal recognition are problematic, “gender dysphoria” being in the DSM is problematic, not problematizing the association between “male” and “penis” in is problematic, advocating cuts to trans healthcare is problematic, everything is fucking problematic.

Some of these exemples of “problematic” need to be denounced, other are symptomatic of overarching issues, others still are really open debates where many legitimate positions exist.

Describing them all as “problematic” levels everything into a “perfect”/”problematic” dichotomy that loses all sense of scale and consequence. If we can’t see the difference between using inadequate language in private settings and implementing discriminatory policies, we are setting ourselves up for some dangerous situations.

Using “problematic” as a standard focuses on the attainment of perfection, on showing that you have deeper understanding than someone else, with no reference to the context: who’s doing something, what position(s) of power they occupy or not, whether they have access to the intricate knowledge base of radical communities, what the real consequences of something are, etc.

This word is at the core of call out culture, a problem we have because we prefer showing ourselves better at the game of social justice than nurturing alliances or favouring education.

Instead of saying something is problematic, why not explain why it is? Can’t we see the difference between something that is violent and something that is inaccurate? Between dangerous and symptomatic? Between denouncing and educating?