The Moral Superiority Olympics: How The Quest for Ideological Purity Obscures True Social Justice

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Beyond posting pictures of your dinner, awesome vacations, and endless selfies, social media is an excellent place to be exposed to other perspectives on the world and different communities and identities. If you’re a kid in high school or live in a rural area or frankly just want to learn, platforms like Twitter and Tumblr can be a great gateway to familiarize yourself with the experience of marginalized folks. The premise seems simple: caring about structural and everyday issues that impact minorities means you believe in the cause of social justice, and social justice is a good cause…right?  

However, outside of progressive spaces, social justice has acquired negative connotations. Right wing trolls are quick to demonize feminists and anyone who advocates for social equality as “social justice warriors” — hypersensitive liberal snowflakes who hover in every comment section waiting to be offended. This boogeyman myth that man-hating feminists are going to flood your mentions every time you express an opinion is largely exaggerated. As with everything else, there are degrees of activism, but in 2018, caring about the plight of your fellow human should be the basic litmus test to prove you’re not an asshole.

Unfortunately, over the last few years, social justice spaces have become less about sharing information and educating each other to unveil a daily Hunger Games of moral superiority. Rather than working together to eradicate actual bigotry, everyone focuses on cannibalizing their fellow advocates and exposing them as false shepherds of social equality due to perceived moral transgressions.

Unfortunately, over the last few years, social justice spaces have become less about sharing information and educating each other to unveil a daily Hunger Games of moral superiority.

What is responsible for this phenomenon? As a social justice warrior myself, I have identified a potential catalyst. I would argue that once you get into an echo chamber of your own beliefs, you tend to lose your point of reference for actual opposition. It’s probably easier to start infighting amongst your own group than to face potential backlash and harassment from your true ideological foes.

Additionally, I have witnessed a particular type of self-absorption taking root amongst social justice advocates – one far more complex than the vapid self-importance we are parodied as having. Somewhere along the line, social justice became about the performance of the individual above actual enlightenment. If everyone in the room is saying the same thing, eventually complacency and boredom sets in. To make yourself heard, you have to start shouting something new, even if that means distorting the facts or taking down your cohorts in the process.

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Perhaps the gymnastics we perform in order to create ever-more nuanced levels of moral superiority combined with our impulse to present idealized online personas has inflated our political righteousness to a degree that has led to the corruption and abuse of call-out culture.

Now, given that I’m writing an article discussing the toxic effects of misinformation used for malicious gain, I would be remiss if I didn’t clarify that I’m not trying to demonize the concept of call-out culture in any way. The original intent of call-out culture was to stop the violent harassment of Black femmes on social media by naming and shaming their trolls. It was used as a last resort when the usual recourse of messaging, blocking, and reporting was ineffective at keeping said users at bay.

My own intention is not to argue that call-out culture is inherently bad, but instead bring attention to how frequently it is misused for personal vendettas or the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Ironically, something that was once used as a tool against harassment is now being weaponized as a vehicle of harassment itself.

To put it very bluntly, it’s become increasingly difficult and draining to be involved in social-media-based social justice because it’s devolved into a pretentious circle jerk of ideological smugness. I myself once believed that anyone offended by being called out was merely a butthurt bigot resisting change – I even wrote an article about it. I naïvely believed that anyone who got called out had to be in the wrong and all they had to do to avoid negative scrutiny was educate themselves to understand where they went awry.

To put it very bluntly, it’s become increasingly difficult and draining to be involved in social-media-based social justice because it’s devolved into a pretentious circle jerk of ideological smugness.

That was before I realized that call-outs have essentially become the hallmark of social justice trolls. Yes, I said it, trolls! We detach ourselves from accountability for negative Internet behavior by imagining that trolls are pasty virginal Redditors living in their mom’s basement (a stereotype that in itself is tired and overdone), but the reality is that trolls can come in any political flavor.

If you repeatedly harass, slander, or malign someone online, you are a troll! Particularly, this rule stands if the perceived moral transgression is based on rumor, taken out of context, or if the individual has already apologized. Harassment doesn’t magically become acceptable just because you think you’re doing it for “the right reasons.” This isn’t The Bachelor. There’s always a lot of talk about activism fatigue, but what do you do if the people causing you fatigue are in your own community?

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As I alluded to earlier, the root of the problem lies in the performative nature of modern social justice. We’ve allowed our egos to supersede the real issues. For a movement that claims its central passion is helping others to learn — or in many cases, unlearn — their biases, we sure are quick to take a shit-ton of glee in punishing and humiliating people for supposed failures. Isn’t the whole point of social justice that we’re always growing and evolving? It’s more than a little hypocritical that we threaten to ostracize anyone over the slightest mistake for the sake of making ourselves look better.

For a movement that claims its central passion is helping others to learn — or in many cases, unlearn — their biases, we sure are quick to take a shit-ton of glee in punishing and humiliating people for supposed failures.

It seems that nothing and no one will ever be pure enough to satisfy the most ideologically militant. For those who have genuine issues with individuals on certain topics, some suggest the practice of calling in, but the actual efficacy of that practice feels questionable in the increasingly polarized social media climate of trash vs. gold star purists.

A writer and activist friend of mine expressed frustration that critics would bombard her Facebook page with self-righteous indignation about the problematic aspects of her most recent article, only to ignore her when she messaged them to discuss it privately. It was evident they cared far more about impressing their activist friends with their outrage than actually debating the issue they claimed to be so angry about. Selecting social issues at your own convenience and pretending to be invested in them for the sole purpose of buoying your personal image and scoring points with your network of like-minded crusaders represents an appalling and fundamental perversion of everything social justice is supposed to stand for.

The sad result of this mob mentality being facilitated by social media is the way it has effectively intimidated people out of learning about an important movement or merely publicly stating their opinion about anything. I have to admit that I was incredibly reluctant to write this article from the start for the fear of putting my name on even the vaguest and most innocuous critique of social justice and call-out culture. I am hyperaware of how likely it is that the author of this type of article will be automatically perceived as making excuses for bigotry or having apologist sympathies for problematic individuals and media.

Selecting social issues at your own convenience and pretending to be invested in them for the sole purpose of buoying your personal image and scoring points with your network of like-minded crusaders represents an appalling and fundamental perversion of everything social justice is supposed to stand for.

Frankly, even making the statement above is a stale deflection; a half-hearted attempt to avoid criticism and introspection. It is clear that I am not justifying problematic behavior, but advocating for a greater nuance in debate and reaction. And yet, I can’t help but feel anxious over how my argument could be misconstrued and publicly ridiculed by trolls in the name of social justice.

I would challenge each one of my fellow social justice warriors to ask yourself a simple question: What does that say about us as a community if people don’t even want to join our discussions because they’re terrified of being ripped to shreds over asking a simple question? Bullying and mockery will never advance your cause. Your Tweets may be morally superior, but that doesn’t speak to your character. True social justice warriors need to return to caring more about upholding the common goal of the community than the self-indulgent, counterproductive game of pandering to audience approval.

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