Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, 'SJWC?' 2015

Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, 'SJWC?' 2015


I come here to confess: I’m pretty sure I’m an SJW. At least sometimes. And I think maybe writing centers aren’t the place for that kind of thing.

What is an SJW? The acronym stands for ‘social justice warrior’ and it’s something I was initially surprised to find is used as a pejorative term. I’m not sure how much of a warrior I am in the traditional helmet-with-horns-and-fur-trim-and-carrying-a-shield sense, but I’m happy to think of myself as engaged in a non-violent struggle for social justice that is in a sense… warrior-like. According to Urban Dictionary, though, an SJW

is a particular class of internet denizen who is on a crusade to push their liberal agenda through tumblr/reddit/social networking (they are almost never involved in irl activism). They get on their soapbox and screech like a banshee to anyone who crosses their path. The SJW sees him/her/itself as a knight in shining armor who is fighting to right the wrongs of the world. They see the world as divided into two camps - the oppressors and the oppressed.

I guess in this definition the screeching is the warrior bit, and I do see the world as being awfully divided (though not that neatly) – I must be one of these. It’s true I haven’t been to a march in a while; all I have left to hope for is that my blogging style isn’t too banshee-like. The definition goes on:

The truth, however, is that the SJW is a hypocritical, fundamentalist demagogue. Their morals only exist to further their own agenda, which is always right. An SJW holding a reasonable discussion or fair debate is almost unheard of. Their modus operandi is to spew a deluge of words rivaling Tim Buckley, filled with labels, slurs, and provocation. Their favorite tactic is to label their opposition as "privileged/cis/racist" etc. to instantly put them on the defensive.

They consider all disagreements with them to be the result of patriarchal oppression rather than rational thought, even while they blindly follow dogma. They champion equal rights, while trampling on the rights of anyone who upsets them through defaming, harassing, and ganging up on them. They are completely unaware of the sheer hypocrisy of this. SJWs are the sophists and zealots of the internet age.

I don’t know who Tim Buckley is, but otherwise… ok. It’s true that I am (almost) always right – a blessing I share with many of my colleagues, I would add – and I am pretty curious about how my ethics and my own self-regard intersect. What I’m saying is that this definition I’m trying on here fits uncomfortably well, however biased the definition I’m working with may be. Even without the hyperbole of this critical definition I think most people can recognize the ‘type’ being referred to here, and as a young fourth-wave feminist advocate I’m certainly prone to my share of intemperate online ‘activism,’ mostly consisting of reposting the awesome articles I read (and no, I don’t do that just to prove how smart and woke I am – not ever).

However, in the writing center I try to be measured, precise, non-confrontational, and if not unbiased, at least biased in favor of openness and willingness to listen to the student writers I work with. While working with writers in the writing center I don’t really advocate anything per se; instead I make up part of an environment purposely built to accommodate difference and to help students achieve the goals they bring in with them.

This means that I’m frequently asked to help students achieve goals, like editing their writing to accommodate the strictures of what I called the ‘institutional dialect’ last week – Standard Edited American English – or writing a personal essay entirely without the use of the word ‘I,’ that I may find less than thrilling. I like that I can help with these goals, but that students are forced to try to meet them in the first place troubles me, much as it does many other writing center theorists and practitioners. We know that there is more than one English, even more than one ‘correct’ English; we know that focusing on expression over content diminishes the role of both student and instructor, even of language itself; we know that writers often have within them a great deal more than they can express within the structures they’re given, and a sizable proportion of what I read as a writing center scholar and editor of a writing center journal revolves around precisely this problematic: how do we assist students forced to accede to institutional pressures while not ourselves acceding to them? I have argued that we work through excess, through aporetic writing, and in Pittsburgh this year these same questions were posed repeatedly.

But as my co-editor points out, when someone comes into the writing center with an essay on reverse racism, we are tasked with helping that student meet their writing goals. When a student came to me with an argumentative essay on how white men are oppressed by political correctness on campus I had to put on my sophist’s hat and help him solidify his arguments and avoid fallacies, because those were his writing goals. The non-directive, non-evaluative guidelines within which we work in my specific writing center insulate us from more than becoming a copy-editing service, even as those guidelines are informed by rigorously evaluative research whose explicit goal is to improve and direct the ways we do our work. This odd, central tension in writing center work is probably what makes it such an interesting, exciting field, but I guess it means I have to keep my internet activism out of my writing center consulting even as it drives my work as a scholar and informs Praxis’ editorial mission. Oh well - back to my social network battleground!