The wife and I are slowly working our way through the gay rights mini-series When We Rise. It’s slow going partially because our DVR has recorded it in a rather haphazard way, but also because it’s an emotional rollercoaster. In fact, it kind of broke me, but I want to talk about one aspect of it.
I’ve never really heard the term “social justice” used in the context of something like an ABC mini-series. It’s mostly a fringe term that some writers like myself use, but mostly it’s a slur hurled at people by the alt-right. Yet, When We Rise used it extensively in their marketing. That felt wonderful.
It’s hard to describe the conflict around the term SJW or social justice warrior. It was birthed on Tumblr to sneer at some of the more misguided attempts at equality that pop up in that forum, but it quickly became the go-to term for the alt-right to use against anyone ever advocating for minority rights, representation in media, or just generally making the world a less shitty place for anyone but white cishet males. Chan boards and Reddit adopted the concept, the misguided crusader as a mockable entity, and it spread out into the greater web.
There’s grown up this weird cult on the web I call the South Park Boy’s Choir. A core conceit of many South Park episodes is basically “caring is dumb.” With rare exceptions, any advocacy outside of that for free speech is taken as an object of ridicule on the show. Concern for marginalized people, regard for the environment, pretty much any social issue is assumed to be the work of wrongheaded nanny-minds too stupid to realize the real solution is to be cynical and dismissive.
You will see this cult in the comment of any story that decries transphobia, Islamophobia, the gender-based wage gap, or other social issues. It’s a catch-all for the sin of giving a shit used by those who make NOT giving a shit their brand.
It used to bother me. It used to bother me a lot, but after watching When We Rise, it never will again.
The moment the show broke me came in the fifth episode. It involved the AIDS quilt, which by the time the episode takes place has grown to massive size to honor the dead in the AIDS crisis. Cleve Jones is there, and he describes how President and Should-Have-Been-President Clinton appeared out of nowhere to witness the quilt. He guides them through viewing, Hillary asking to see the names of specific friends she has lost, and it’s this pivotal moment in history when after years of letting this epidemic rage the head of the country actually bothered to care about something that didn’t directly affect him.
Then, causally, Cleve mentions over 300,000 Americans have died of AIDS by then.
300,000. 300 Hundred Fucking Thousand. Are you shitting me? Let’s build a spectrum. That’s about 5 percent of the Jews that died in the Holocaust or roughly 100 times those who died on 9/11. Draw your own graph. Or hey, if you want to be thoroughly depressed, watch Lindsay Ellis talk about it while also telling us why Rent sucks dick.
The visit by the Clintons was one small, very small, step towards greater rights for gays in America. It’s perhaps better described as the boot print of a larger army’s march. Yes, it was Bill Clinton who signed DOMA, and yes, I fully believe Hilly Clinton when she says that it was the only way to stave off a constitutional amendment. The backlash against gay rights in the ‘80s and ‘90s was a monstrously huge thing. I absolutely believe that without DOMA there would have been a 28th amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
But all that aside, When We Rise is more compelling because it shows exactly what SJWs do. They chip away at a system, bit by bit, and in spite of violence, terrorism, official condemnation, and familial abandonment to make things better for people who do not represent the power structure. These people bled and died so that others would not have to.
The opposition? Not so much. Every cop that denied women’s organizations a chance to march? They didn’t suffer. They didn’t end up lying in the street nursing a wound. All the moral majority ever got in the way of harm while they were opposing the gay rights movement was a pie in the face.
SJWs get things done. You can look at the bend of history’s arc on gay rights over the last thirty years and see that. They change the world for the better, while armies of armchair moralists dedicated themselves to comforting the comfortable stand in their way for no other reason than an upset of convenience.
The culture war is a war in the Ragnarok sense. The opposition cannot win it, but they can impede it. That mindless South Park Boy’s Choir constantly screaming “fag,” is ultimately no match for those willing to stand in the streets and risk incarceration, abuse or death in the name of a cause.
The moral of the story is: care. Care about the world, and about people who aren’t like you who are in it. The anti-SJW crowd? None of them are ever going to be remembered as anything but a nuisance. Be an SJW. They’re the ones who get movies made about them. Chan lords and Redditors insisting that an unfair world is just a difference of opinion? Their words will disappear. Their house will disappear. Their name will disappear. All memory of them will disappear.