In our time, the term “Social Justice Warrior” has become something of a needling pejorative, and rightly so, for Social Justice Warriors are profoundly unpleasant and largely unlikable people. Being a Social Justice Warrior doesn’t simply mean you hold liberal political views; millions of people hold those views and they’re as pleasant and well-adjusted as anyone. Social Justice Warriors, in contrast, are neurotic, hysterical, very stupid individuals. They are not stupid in terms of innate ability or intelligence, mind you—a low IQ and/or low intellectual aptitude is neither a sin nor a vice. Rather they are stupid by their own volitions, determined as a matter of choice to remain belligerently ignorant and caustically uninformed about even the political and cultural topics on which they fixate. Willful idiocy is among the most destructive types of idiocy, for it cannot even recognize itself as such; indeed it mistakes idiocy for virtue, and in doing so elevates the former while trampling on the latter.
I do not make these descriptions lightly; nor do I make them broadly. In terms of raw numbers, Social Justice Warriors are actually fairly uncommon. Not very many people can maintain the type of perpetual seething rage and wanton gooberism that the label requires. But that’s the magic of the brand: it doesn’t really need a lot of adherents to make a lot of change. In the same way that just a few guys with box cutters can hijack a few planes and change the course of world history forever, really dedicated progressive activists can similarly change the social landscape with relatively few individuals involved.
Such is the case with—for goodness’s sake, of all things—young adult literature:
When Laura Moriarty decided she wanted to write a dystopian novel about a future America in which Muslims are forcefully corralled into detention centers, she was aware that she should tread carefully. Her protagonist is a white teenager, but one of her main characters, Sadaf, is a Muslim American immigrant from Iran, so Moriarty began by diving into Iranian books and films. Moriarty explained via email that she asked two Iranian immigrant friends to read an early draft and see if Sadaf seemed authentic to them, and whether the language and accent fit with their memories and experiences. A friend of Pakistani and American descent who is a practicing Muslim gave additional feedback. Moriarty asked a senior colleague at the University of Kansas, Giselle Anatol, who writes about Young Adult fiction and has been critical of racist narratives in literature, to read the book with a particular eye toward avoiding another narrative about a “white savior.” And after American Heart was purchased by Harper, the publisher provided several formal “sensitivity reads,” in which a member of a minority group is charged with spotting potentially problematic depictions in a manuscript.
None of this, as it turns out, was enough to protect American Heart from becoming the subject of the latest skirmish in the increasingly contentious battle over representation and diversity in the world of YA literature. American Heartwon’t be published until January, but it has already attracted the ire of the fierce group of online YA readers that journalist Kat Rosenfield has referred to as “culture cops.” To them, it was an irredeemable problem that Moriarty’s novel, which was inspired in part by Huckleberry Finn, centers on a white teenager who gradually—too gradually—comes to terms with the racism around her. On Goodreads, the book’s top “community review,” posted in September, begins, “fuck your white savior narratives”; other early commenters on Goodreads accused Moriarty of “profiting off people’s pain” and said “a white writer should not have tackled this story, and neither should a white character be the center of it.”
The backlash escalated last week, when Kirkus Reviews gave American Heart a coveted “starred review,” which influences purchases by bookstores and libraries. Kirkus’ anonymous reviewer called the book “by turns terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching,” and praised its “frighteningly believable setting of fear and violent nativism gone awry.” The book’s critics were not pleased with the commendation. “Kirkus Reviews of books reinforce white supremacy,” author and activist Justina Ireland, who had posted a critical review of the book on Medium, wrote on Twitter. “I’m sick to my stomach over this, and I’m so sorry Muslim folks have to contend with one more reminder that their humanity is negotiable.” BookRiot published a list of “Books by Muslims to Support Instead of Reading ‘American Heart.’”
Kirkus listened: the company removed the review, claiming that it “fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity.” They then re-posted it in an edited form, said update presumably containing more clarity and sensitivity than the original.
What is most astonishing about the company’s decision is that, in the statement, they point out that the original starred reviewer was an “observant Muslim person of color.” Got that? To recap: in writing a book featuring Muslim characters, the author of the book did extensive cultural research, asked two Middle Eastern friends (who may have been Muslim) and one Pakistani-American friend (who definitely was Muslim) to look over the manuscript, and had a colleague who is “critical of racist narratives” read the book. Furthermore, the manuscript was subject to several “sensitivity reads” by “member[s] of…minority group[s]” to ensure that no “problematic depictions” made it into the final draft. And then, finally, the book was favorably reviewed by an “observant Muslim person of color.”
And what was the response? “Fuck your white savior narratives.” Fuck em, lady! And this from people who, lest it be forgotten, haven’t even read the novel.
Still: it gets results. Probably only a few dozen people, at most, caused this ruckus. And yet it was still enough for a major book publishing company to make a highly insulting and cowardly decision in the face of a nasty slander campaign. If you’re running a business, I suppose you have to think about how this stuff looks to the public; you have to think about your bottom line, and whether you want a bunch of shrieking activists claiming that you believe that “[Muslim peoples’] humanity is negotiable.” That kind of thing might stink on social media.
Then again, it might not. A great many people have learned to ignore this kind of pablum. Others might pay some attention to it but are happy to judge the book on its own merits. Still more people are probably completely unaware of these dumb manufactured controversies. What this means is this: it is highly unlikely that the uninformed and senseless ramblings of Internet Social Justice Warriors matter all that much. It would be very encouraging if companies stopped taking them seriously, for they do not deserve to be taken seriously. Ignoring them is the best option at this point; they can be “sick to their stomach” over “white savior narratives” on their own time, and outlets like Kirkus can stop believing that such opinions matter at all.