Last week, an alarming number of Social Justice Warrior-hating Redditors convinced themselves that lesbian jewish leftists were taking over control of the site. The conspiracy frenzy was full of sexism, racism, and transphobia. On a Reddit message board, one user defined a social justice warrior as, "Someone who takes Social Justice too far and into the realm of Social Revenge. i.e. Political lesbians who think all men are rapists, no exceptions. Trans or gay who think all "cis" gendered folk should be killed. Racists who think everything is the fault of whites. ...They like to call anyone who disagrees with them racist, homophobic, rapist, or white supremacist."
Sam Biddle, the Gawker writer who covered the story, concluded that even though the SJW-hating Redditors sound kind of nuts, their persistence is important to pay attention to: “There was a time when the fringe truly existed on the fringes of society, where they could be insulated from the non-fringe and egg each other on into new and more brazen forms of fringedom," writes Biddle. "But...now those same people share real estate with all the rest of us. They are just one click away.”
It’s true---the internet has made it easier than ever for trolls to find and rile each other up, which has made them more confident than ever in their rightness, and also contributed to their hatred spilling over into the parts of the internet the rest of us inhabit. Threats of violence from trolls is a serious problem that desperately needs to be dealt with. But the internet has also given those of us on the right side of history access to tons of new tools for organizing and a larger platform for sharing messages of justice and equality.
“Social Justice” is actually defined in the dictionary as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” By this literal definition, an SJW is someone who’s willing to go to battle to achieve equality and justice--concepts that in and of themselves are pretty difficult to hate on. Before trolls tried to turn SJW into a derogatory term, people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were admiringly referred to as Social Justice Warriors.
In the spirit of taking back the term Social Justice Warrior, we spoke with two particularly badass SJWs about how they’re using the internet to advance social justice. They’ve both become experts at effectively reverse-trolling the trolls---instead of confronting them, they fight back by continuing to use the internet to make the world a better place.
Feminist Vlogger Laci Green, who's MTV YouTube channel is all about social and sexual equality, and Kristin Russo, co-founder of Everyone is Gay, an organization that works to improves the lives of LGBTQ youth, weighed in.
MTV: How has the internet changed activism?
GREEN: The internet has changed activism permanently---it is so much easier to reach the masses. Think of the stereotype of activism in the 60s and 70s. There’s a person standing on a crate with a big megaphone and maybe 100 people around them---if they’re lucky. Today anyone can stand on the crate and the crowd is literally 1 million times larger. The internet also makes it easy to start conversations with people who wouldn’t normally seek them out, to unite people behind petitions and causes, and to mobilize people into action at voting booths and marches. Activism has gone viral.
RUSSO: At Everyone is Gay, we receive questions from all across the world and 90 percent of them are anonymous. If people had to attach their names or any identifying information to them, most of those questions wouldn’t be asked, because a lot of them come from young people who are afraid that others might find them out. For young people who are afraid that their parents might throw them out of the house if they find out that they’re queer or trans, the anonymity of the internet lets them participate in [LGBTQ] communities and connect with others in ways they might otherwise not be able to.
MTV: How do you use the internet to advocate for equality?
GREEN: My activism is all about education. We don’t teach people about social justice issues [in school], which is a problem because they aren’t always obvious to pick up on and understand. YouTube videos provide a unique platform to get people to see things in new ways, to offer new perspectives, and to get a conversation started. It’s also really personal and there are tons of voices, so it’s easier to be yourself and speak your own truth.
RUSSO: Everyone is Gay would not exist without the internet. We started out just on Tumblr as a blog where we gave advice to young queer and trans people about coming out, about identity, about really silly funny things, about relationships. From there we very quickly learned that there was a very big gap in that conversation. We added a Twitter presence, a Facebook presence, an Instagram presence, and a Youtube channel. Our newest project is the Parents Project, where we’ve created an online platform for parents who have questions about their LGBTQ child.
MTV: What's the most important thing you've learned about using the internet for activism?
GREEN: The internet reaches an absolute sh-tload of people--people you never knew existed with so many backgrounds and experiences... You could be speaking to anyone out there, and I’ve learned more about how to do that tactfully. You have to be sensitive and thoughtful about what you say in order to really advance the cause and not alienate people. People also come in with lots of levels of understanding about these issues. I’ve had to learn how to balance my desire to resonate with newcomers without sounding like I’m talking down to people who are more advanced.
RUSSO: So many of us speak in the language of ‘how many likes, how many reposts, how many shares.’ Those things can be important, but [Everyone is Gay co-founder] Danielle and I are constantly reminded that it isn’t all about those numbers. Young people and parents come up to us and say, ‘You’re really helping me get through a hard time in my life,’ or ‘You’ve really helped my family.’ I know a lot of young [internet activists] who get discouraged if they don’t have a lot of subscribers or followers or likes, but we try to encourage them at every turn to keep doing that work, because if you’re making someone’s life better--even just one person--that’s enough.
MTV: What sort of harassment or trolling have you faced?
GREEN: You name it, I’ve dealt with it. Name calling, making fun of my appearance, threatening to kill or sexually violate me, stalking, harassment, intimidation. I’ve had to get restraining orders and I’ve had to move because of threats to my safety. It sucks.
RUSSO: The majority of people following us are queer and trans young people, so we don’t actually see a whole lot of negative feedback. There’s a fine line--we’ve gotten angry messages that call us out for phrasing something in a way that made someone feel upset, and we’ll address those. But when we do get messages are just intended to make us feel bad, we delete them. The biggest thing we’ve learned about people who harass and troll is that 9.5 times out of ten, the best option is to not respond. The best advice I have is to just ignore it, just delete it, and don’t give it any attention or space--it doesn’t deserve it.
MTV: Why do you keep going even after being harassed or trolled?
GREEN: I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I very, VERY seriously considered walking away. I sometimes fantasize about it when a new tidal wave of vitriol rolls in over this issue or that. But if I left, I would be allowing myself to be silenced. There would be one less voice in the mix pushing us forward on these causes. Instead of quitting, I take a lot of breaks. I live life outside the computer with people who love and support me. It helps me deal and keep things in perspective.
RUSSO: The voices that tell us we’re doing good are so much more powerful than the ones telling us bad things. On the internet, oftentimes the people saying the mean things clamor the loudest. Usually when you’re hearing lots of hate or negative, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the people who support you and value what you’re doing. They just might not be as loud as the people who are trying to tear you down.