The Hateful Baggage of the Term SJW

“I wanted to write a movie that was about modern activism. I see that a lot of people want to care and want to help, but in general I feel like people don’t really want to inconvenience their own lives. And I saw a lot of people just reacting to things on social media. These social justice warriors. ‘This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.’ And they’re just tweeting and retweeting. They’re not actually doing anything.”

Eli Roth had that to say and more about SJW’s in an interview this past July with the LA Times. He followed up this shot across the bow to online activist types with a poster that could only be described as inflammatory, at least to anyone familiar with the ongoing culture war being waged online. The problem with taking on this term is that Roth also has to take on all the baggage that comes with it – namely an association with misogyny, racism and harassment so strong it has arguably poisoned the well. That is, of course, if you don’t think the water down there wasn’t toxic already.

So what is a Social Justice Warrior? Where did the term come from?

A common belief is that the term SJW arose out of online gamer culture. In 2015, the term is commonly associated with the GamerGate movement and this strange axis of gaming, right-wing libertarianism, pickup artists, white power, mens-rights and Silicon Valley “brogrammer” culture but it’s actual origins give us an important insight into the term and how it was used, then and now.


This was the blog that launched the term into the consciousness of the internet, the first time the term had been used prominently. Was it a video game blog? Negative. It was a blog run by fantasy author Will Shetterly and created back in 2009. The blog started off slowly but really ramped up in 2014 and into the start of the GamerGate movement. Shetterly would also publish an ebook entitled How to Make a Social Justice Warrior.

He denies coining the term in a recent blog posting but does agree that he “helped popularize” it. The true origins of the term probably lie in long-dead LiveJournal accounts. In any case, the use by Shetterly is the first identifiable instance we can trace online and he agrees he helped bring the term out of the depths of internet comments and into a broader public consciousness so he remains its spiritual father.

Shetterly ostensibly begins this journal as a Marxist, or at least an admirer of “Marx’s tools for analyzing power” but with this bizarre obsession with trying to convince black activists that racism and class were the same issue and by solving class problems, you would solve race problems. This was the initial focus of the blog – trying to prove that racism wasn’t really an issue and if we all just forgot about it and worked on class issues we’d elevate all races. Naturally his ideas – and his methods for getting his point across, drew a lot of fire from the rest of the activist community.

how to make a social justice warrior

As you go forward it grows into attacks on feminists, gays, identity politics in general become the real problem with society, says Will Shetterly. People seeking equality and justice, recognition as human beings like the rest of us were the ones holding us back from a better tomorrow. If only they would stop all their bleating we could fix these class issues…

Another thing you will notice is increasing complaints about being banned from comment sections and having comments deleted. He calls this being “censored”. He uses the blog to post his “censored” thoughts. This is significant if you decide to look back a little and see what set Shetterly off to start the blog in the first place.


That’s the title of a January 2009 post on the blog of LiveJournal user coffeeandink. In the post she details encounters with Will Shetterly in the comment sections on LiveJournal and outlines his history of racist tirades and online harassment. Her advice to the community is to not engage with him because he will verbally abuse people who disagree with him, particularly women. The post is tagged: Will Shetterly is an abusive asshole.

Hundreds of comments were made in response, most detailing interactions with Shetterly where he was racist and/or abusive and how he would harass people – women in particular – online.

Social Justice Warriors: Do Not Engage wasn’t Shetterly’s only response – he and another blogger also outed the real name and other personal details about coffeeandink – exposing her to very real personal and professional threats as detailed in this Geek Feminism wiki post: The deeper you get into the world of Will Shetterly in ’09, the more clearly you see the reflections of what is transpiring today.

6 years later video gamers are using the term SJW to harass and abuse women into silence. The term began as an ugly ideological cudgel and it remains an ugly ideological cudgel, it’s history inseparable from association with harassment, racism, abuse, misogyny and these online culture wars. Any minority that tries to use social media to get their voice out gets slapped with the label and abused with it.

Let’s look at some quick case studies of people targeted as an “SJW” in recent history.

Zoe Quinn

Zoe Quinn kicked off GamerGate well before it had a name. An indie game developer accused of sleeping with games journalists in exchange for positive reviews of her game, Quinn got right in the crosshairs of toxic Chan culture when an angry ex-boyfriend took to 4chan to get revenge and shared very intimate details of their relationship. Internet trolls dug up every single facet of her life and posted them for the world to see over and over again – her address, her private emails, her private phone number, private intimate photos. Her online accounts were hacked.

The trolls used IRC chat rooms to coordinate the attacks on Quinn in the beginning. They are explicit that their goal is to get her to end her life – they are gleeful at the prospect of her killing herself. You can read the raw chat logs here.

To this day people will tell you Zoe Quinn slept with game journalists for a good review. The same people can’t produce a link to this review because the review doesn’t exist. It never did, but that doesn’t matter because gaming ethics is only the cover story for a movement that is about reactionary male anger, not ethics.

Leigh Alexander

Just as GamerGate was finding a name and picking up steam, gaming journalist Leigh Alexander published an article titled “Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over”. The point of the article was to illustrate that gaming has become, and in many respects always was, a diverse hobby with plenty of people partaking who would not fit the popular perception of “gamers” or gamer culture.

This enraged GamerGate and Alexander was subject to the same threats and harassment as Quinn. The publisher of the piece, gaming website Gamasutra, and their advertisers were targeted by GG and they succeeded in getting the piece dropped and having Intel briefly pull their ad account from Gamasutra. She continues to receive threats to this day but has managed to successfully launch her own gaming news site – Offworld.

Anita Sarkeesian

Roger Ebert once argued that games would never be art. This upset a lot of gamers who felt their medium was being disrespected. Anita Sarkeesian certainly sees games as art and she decided she wanted to do a series of videos that critique gaming from a feminist perspective – the kind of thing that has been happening in the art world since forever. There are a lot of problematic trends in gaming and she wanted to explore them so she started a campaign to raise funds to produce her videos. It wasn’t long before she eclipsed Zoe Quinn as GamerGate Enemy #1.

The attacks on Sarkeesian have been relentless. Conventions have had to tighten security. Her twitter feed is a constant stream of abuse. She was doxxed, harrassed, stalked and threatened and continues to be to this day. A feature length documentary about her and her evil scheme to censor video games and destroy freedom has been produced. Here is what one week of her Twitter feed looks like, almost a year after all this started:

There is this common thread of right wing misogynist hatred linking all these cases, but if you aren’t convinced that these people are a hate group then check this study out. One of the largest online gathering points of GG is Reddit, specifically a subreddit called Kotaku in Action. Analyzing user data for the subreddit and then checking out what other subreddits those users participated in a whole bunch of overlap between KiA and right wing hate subreddits began to emerge. KiA posters were highly active on subs like Coontown, a viciously racist community, GasTheKikes, WhitePower, the list goes on. There is a clear link between the anti-SJW crowd and right wing hate.

Even the Southern Poverty Law Centre got in on the action – they reported on GamerGate in their Hatewatch bulletin. Even if there is a legitimate argument at the core of it all, it’s tainted by all this abuse and frankly inhumane behaviour. You can’t take up the mantle of fighting SJW’s anymore without having to take on that legacy of misogynist, racist terror.

This is the baggage that the term SJW comes with regardless if you look at the past with Shetterly or the present with gamers.

It is disappointing to see horror caught up in all this. All kinds of geek culture has this part of it that a bit feels like a minority, not accepted by society at large. I always felt this made us just that much more tolerant than the average person, knowing in even that tiny way what it feels like to be on the outside of things. Yet the comments I’ve read on horror blogs have this tone, this ugly vibe to them. I’m seeing open racism going out there unchallenged. I get that “geek culture” is the dominant culture these days, but is this what comes with it? Did we forget something?

This anti-SJW marketing is using a term rooted in hate and harassment to amplify a movement known primarily for hate and harassment. I think this is something Roth and his team realized when they started courting this demographic without really understanding it – an irony to say the least – and backed away from the whole thing. Seeing how many horror fans were eager to see some SJW’s get eaten though, I think it reveals some troubling attitudes we need to talk about.

So let’s agree on something here, Horror Nation. The marketing for The Green Inferno tried to push us towards a GamerGate-style horror movement. I don’t expect us to all agree, particularly when it comes to politics, but can we agree – as people who have all felt a little bit like a outsider at times – to respectfully disagree? To be able to talk these things out without rancour or ideological divides? To listen and try and find common ground before we go to each others throats?

Nobody should ever have to feel afraid or threatened. Nobody should ever have to feel discriminated against. I think those are basic things we can all agree on. This kind of marketing wants to divide people but let’s resist that because enough people have been hurt by this nonsense. Whatever your grievance can we forget the term SJW? It isn’t ever going to mean something that isn’t hateful and we can do better than hate.

The internet is living up to the promise of giving a voice to those who previously had little platform to speak on in society. We need to learn how to listen to each other and meaningfully communicate if we are going to survive the challenges of this coming century.

For more on The Green Inferno and the twisted marketing campaign behind it check out the Jungle Gate series of podcasts – hosted by horror podcast legend Stuart “Feedback” Andrews and myself we take a serious look at the film and the attitudes it tried to stir up in a desperate search for an audience as well as the media landscape in Horror Nation in 2015. Click the image to visit the Cinephobia Radio page.


Posted in Jungle Gate, Unsolicited Opinions of Questionable Expertise, Video games.