Social Justice 101 – Terms

June 8, 2012

Today I’m going to define some terms for you.

I’ve noticed a lot conversations on the internets about certain things that keep using certain terms that people don’t seem to understand. Don’t seem to grok, really. I’m going to explain some of the more confusing words (as well as words that mean different things in different places) so that we’re all on board as to what I’m talking about, and by and large most social justice warriors are talking about, when they use certain terms. This way you’ll be fully equipped when it comes to understand and participate in conversations that have an effect on you (and believe me, they do). Some of this is political, some of this is anthropological, some of this is academic. All of it is important.


Ableism is discrimination, knowingly or unknowingly, against people due to medical conditions. This can be anything from dietary restrictions (so, if one wants to get really technical about it, the lack of gluten-free or vegan/vegetarian options in food places is ableist) to physical disabilities to atypical neurological construction and other mental disabilities. Fighting Ableism, like all aspects of Social Justice, is not about giving deference to people who have disabilities and more about giving them social equity and bringing them to par with people who are not disabled. As well, like all aspects of social justice, there are several Triggers or Triggering Terms that should be avoided.


A word constructed from the prefix a-, which means without (like the French prefix sans), and the word gnosis, which means knowledge or understanding (sometimes translated as hidden knowledge or wisdom). While, technically, there are many things one can be Agnostic about, the term is frequently used in the context of discussing religious belief. Agnostic means “Without Knowledge” and means, in the context of religious belief, someone who does not know whether or not any Divine Agent exists. From a secular, scientific perspective it can be argued that everyone is Agnostic since there is no way to interact with the supernatural, so there is no way to say for certain that there is or is not a Divine Agent.


A word constructed from the prefix a-, which means without (like the French prefix sans), and the word theism, which is a modified version of the Greek word for God – Theos. Together, it means “Without God”, or more accurately, “Without Belief in God.” While Agnostic is a position based on knowing if there is or is not a God (something that, arguably, is impossible), Atheism is about a position on belief  in a God. They are not different strengths of a lack of belief (for instance, Agnostic people are not unsure if there is a God or looking for God), but positions on different questions. Anyone who has no theistic belief system (that is, belief in any form of Divine Agent) is an Atheist. This includes certain kinds of Buddhism, certain obscure versions of Neopaganism, and most civic religions. Animists and other “small-spirit” religions are not atheistic as belief in the supernatural, in general, is belief in a Divine Agent (or someone or something that can operate outside of the boundaries of the natural world).


The discrimination of people based on their social class, perceived or real, and their lack of wealth and financial capability. Classism is mostly systemic though there are clear examples of directed Classism in the media and in every day life. These things include assumptions about people who are homeless, how they became homeless, and how one avoids becoming homeless. It also includes assumptions about what helps or hurts homelessness or those who lack wealth or economic capabilities. For instance, asking people to join  you for lunch or asking a group of people to pitch in on an expensive trip (say skiing or going to a concert) can be Classist as it ignores those people, as well as alienates those people, who cannot afford to participate. Systemic Classism can be seen in most aspects of employment and the generation of wealth. Most people who are born wealthy stay wealthy, while everyone else is more or less successful at not being poor. These stratified differences between social classes (the Privileged and the Underprivileged) in the United States is dramatic and clear-cut. For instance, systemic Classism includes the ability to go to college or even succeed in earlier education. Not being able to afford basic living expenses causes obvious problems in education, but smaller issues (such as being unable to afford to live in a safe environment, having to work multiple jobs and not having time to focus on children’s education, or not being able to afford good healthy meals) can also have disastrous effects on a child’s education. Like many parts of the problems facing society in general, people who lack Class privilege frequently lack other privileges as well, though there are people of all races, ages, philosophies, and orientations that lack economic privilege.


Discrimination is social, economic, or material effects from a lack of privilege. Most of the discrimination people are aware of is active, social discrimination. This takes shape as disparaging terms and behaviours made toward or around underprivileged people, violence against underprivileged people, and enforced barriers keeping the underprivileged from certain social, economic, and legal forums. However, there are wide varieties of systemic discrimination. This includes the lack of wheelchair ramps at old buildings, the fact that there just happens to be older and wealthy white men in charge of nearly everything, and the lack of quality schools and food establishments in the heart of most American cities. These forms of discrimination grow out of the status quo being unchallenged and silent preconceptions about the underprivileged being believed by people (and this can even be the people who are negatively affected by these preconceptions – see women with internalized misogyny or the “self loathing” archetype). Finally, it is important to note that the underprivileged cannot discriminate the Privileged since the underprivileged lack any power over the Privileged individual. To put this another way,  attractive, wealthy, able-bodied straight white men have a safe place called everywhere. 



The academic study of gender and sex’s effects on society and how society responds to gender and sex. Feminism is generally divided into three waves, starting with Women’s Suffrage movement and extending deep into the 20th century. Second Wave Feminism arose during the 1960’s, lasted through the 1980’s, and is where most popular images of the Feminist movement come from. Second Wave Feminism is associated with bra burning, women’s empowerment religions, and an initially strong pushback to patriarchal social systems. Third Wave Feminism arose in the 1990’s and takes the base ideas of Feminism (equality between the sexes, studying and analyzing women’s roles in society, internalized hatred or distrust of women, etc) and applying rigorous philosophical and scientific examination of both the claims of the external culture, the initial philosophical pushbacks of First and Second Wave Feminism, and looking at the entire environment that sex and culture operate in. Third Wave Feminism isn’t just interested in empowering and supporting women but, as an academic philosophy, is interested in removing all constraints from gender and has intersectional goals to combat all forms of inequality. This stands at odds with traditional notions of Egalitarianism, which is based on the assumption that everyone in society wants to be just like a wealthy, white, European man. Feminism is interested in letting everyone have equal opportunity to be whatever is they want to be.


A Fetish is not just a sexual proclivity, though I’m sure many of you are aware of that. A Fetish is an important behaviour or object that is part of a system of Taboos. Many religious items are Fetishes for particular ceremonies or as ritualized embodiements of ideas or beliefs. To Fetishize something is to make it Sacred and to create Taboos surrounding going against the object of Fetishization or to undermine the Fetish’s Sacredness. An example of this is easily seen among many Libertarians – they Fetishize the idea of the Free Market. Regardless of actual data, they consider any policy that undermines the Fetishized belief in the Free Market is attacked, derided, and ignored. Fetished ideas are an intrinsic part of creating a discriminatory status quo, as well as enforcing the society among the underprivileged.


The unity of various branches of the social justice movement being exercised together. Rather than fighting just racism, classism, sexism, ableism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia,  or any other particular form of discrimination, Intersectionality is combating all of these social problems simultaneously. Intersectionality is frequently seen as the natural focus for most social justice movements (as encouraging any kind of equality frequently encourages every kind of equality). The term is derived from various equality movements overlapping, or intersecting, each other.





Privilege is the set of social benefits, capabilities, and freedoms that come with being a member of a certain group (or, in rare cases, not being a member of a certain group). Examples of Privilege include able-bodied people not needing to worry about how to navigate around a city or operate a particular tool, men not needing to worry about Rape Culture, or non-People of Color not being asked constantly to defend, define, or describe themselves. Privilege is not something that one can give up, nor is it something that is “wrong” about a person. Privilege is an outgrowth of the dominant culture and it isn’t something that anyone has to, or should, apologize for. However, using Privilege as a weapon (by not being aware of it or using Privilege to discriminate against the underprivileged, or those who lack Privilege) is a problem and should be avoided whenever possible. After becoming aware of Privilege, consider using Privilege against people to be similar to physical violence – if you respect the woman you’re talking to enough to refrain from punching her, then you should respect her enough to listen to what she’s saying and give it equal weight compared to anyone else.




Science is the standard method of study of natural forces, elements, and aspects of the physical world. This includes all the “hard” sciences, engineering, and the social sciences. The process is simple;

An Observation is made. This can be as simple as “I am where I am” to something as complex and specific as the methods that DNA uses to encode itself.

A Hypotheses is made. This is an estimated projection as to why the Observation is what it is. When I was a kid it was described as an educated guess but I see it more now as coming up with a model that will explain the observation. Generally, a good hypotheses is specific, detailed, and complete in how it describes how the initial observed event or element has come about and what it means.

An Experiment is conducted. This stage of the scientific process creates an experiment to isolate parts of the Hypotheses and test them for voracity. Experiments frequently build on one another a single large hypotheses is checked. CERN is doing this with particle theories and many social hypotheses take multiple experiments and analysis rounds to determined the best methodology to test the hypotheses even while conducting experiments. But rigorous study is part and parcel with the scientific method.

Lastly, with Conclusions reached, the Hypotheses is modified. Each Experiment hones the original process into a Theory. Theories are collected experiments and data that make a predictive model about the world around us.


Secular is a system (legal, social, financial, etc) that is independent of religious elements and thinking. This doesn’t mean it’s atheistic or antitheistic. Secular systems are nontheistic. They do not interact with religion at all, nor do they interact with any form of atheism. Secular systems are rooted inherently in natural forces and the natural world, as well as being heavily rooted in science. Secular systems are also data-oriented when found in legal and financial contexts. (Or, rather, when they aren’t data-oriented, they’re ineffective and problematic.) So if someone is encouraging secular thinking that doesn’t mean they want to take your religion away from you, they want to work together and ignore each other’s religious feelings and focus on fixing the problem at hand in a more pragmatic way.


To put it simply, Sex is the sexual persona one identifies with (with the prevalent options being Male, Female, and Intersex but I’m sure someone can point out more Sex variations), Gender is the social role that one identifies with (Man, Woman, Genderqueer, and the many, many variations among them). Someone who is Cissexual (is a Cismale or Cisfemale, or Cis* for everyone who is Cissexual) is a person who was born or assigned a Sex at birth and is comfortable in this assignment. Someone who is Transsexual (Transmale, Transfemale, Transman, Transwoman, or Trans* for everyone who is Transsexual) is someone who does not identify as the Sex they were assigned at birth. A person is Trans* and should be treated with their identity Sex no matter their medical status. If a Transwoman, for instance, identifies and comes out to one as a Transwoman, she should immediately be referred to as a woman as well as in every instance after that moment. A Trans* person does not have to prove, explain, or validate their Sex in order to identify as part of it – this is their choice, and no one else’s, and must be respected. Similarly, Gender is the chose of the individual and identifying as a Gender that is not commonly associated with one’s Sex does not make one necessarily Trans*. Finally, Intersex individuals are any people who are between Sexes due to medical procedures, birth happenstance, or personal preference. Intersex individuals will usually adopt a particular Gender as their preferred pronoun but it’s always polite to ask if you’re not sure. (At least so long as you don’t ask in a rude way.)






First, to begin with, let’s go over what a theory is not. 

Theories are not guesses. Theories are not presumptions. Theories are not unknown systems.

Theories are rooted in proven facts. They are called Theories and not Laws because it is predictive but not impossible to falsify. When a theory is falsified, it’s modified given the new data that the falsification created. Theories are still constantly honed to be as correct as possible. Theories like the Theory of Evolution or Germ Theory are huge, complex predictive models that gather hundreds of observations and predictive hypotheses that are rooted in thousands upon thousands of experiments and repeated systems that lead to a consistency of information.

As you can see, the scientific method relies on logical examination and logical operation, as well as being rooted in observational rational thinking. Science is heavily intertwined with the science of mathematics as well as philosophies on ethics, examination, and observation. Philosophy and mathematics gives scientists the tools to determine what methodologies to start with, and the following data and structures from those initial methodologies give us the foundations of all the sciences we engage in today.



As with any piece I write about Social Justice and any of the various movements that are part of the Social Justice meta-movement, I’m completely open to any criticism and suggestions anyone has. I know that I’m using a particular amount of privilege to even put this on the internet (between being emboldened by society as a young white male and the social and economic benefits from my former good jobs and the time to work on these posts). I hope that this glossary is generally useful to people, however, and I am going to try to update it over time.


5 Responses to “Social Justice 101 – Terms”

  1. A.Z. Says:

    As a disabled SJ activist, I would argue that equating gluten-free diets with vegan/vegetarianism is not a valid comparison. Choice is key here. Disability is not a choice. One does not choose to be disabled, have a chronic illness, or have an allergy that can kill you or cause severe illness.

    Gluten-free diets are medical necessities. GF is a medically approved treatment for Celiac’s Disease, and often medically recommended for other illnesses. I have not met a GF person that does it for any other reason than to treat a medical condition. I am gluten-free because I have to be, not because I want to be.

    Vegan and vegetarian diets are choices. To my knowledge, they are not medically approved to treat any disabilities or illnesses. While it may be unfair that vegan/vegetarian options are not widely available, I feel that saying it is ableist is not legitimate, and is disrespectful to people who have dietary restrictions that are medically necessary. Just wanted to offer a friendly suggestion on how to improve the definition you’ve given, which is otherwise accurate.

    • Luarien Says:

      There’s definitely medical conditions that require vegan or vegetarian diets (though they’re much rarer than Celiac’s Disease), such as general allergies to meat and proteins that force people to avoid certain protein structures. Granted, I can’t summon more specific information but I did know someone who couldn’t eat meat as a kid due to the way their stomach lining responded to certain proteins.

      So it’s a very rare condition, but it’s no more a choice for those people who are afflicted by it. And I’m personally kind of lenient toward conditions like this as I’ve got fibromyalgia (or something similar to it – I can’t afford to see a doctor to nail it down, but I know it’s malformed my joints over time) and I’m sensitive to the plight of invisibly disabled people and people who have had their disabilities reduced by the meta-conversation about ableism in some ways. And a meat allergy really sounds awful (’cause I’m personally a huge fan of bacon and cheeseburgers), so I feel for them in a more conventional sense.

    • Annalise Says:

      Veg diets can be prescribed as a treatment for high cholesterol, diabetes and a variety of other medical conditions. Check out Neil Barnard’s “Breaking the Food Seduction”. Many people nowadays are referring to it as a “plant based diet” though…to avoid some of the perceptions associated with veganism etc.

      • Annalise Says:

        However, I personally wouldn’t consider lack of access to veg food an equivalent to “ableism”. It’s unfortunate, but many people who follow plant-based diets have the ability to get food when they need to. I feel that to attach an “ism” to anything means there is a lack of opportunity or privilege which will seriously harm a person’s life chances.

        • Luarien Says:

          …except you’re ignoring the people who have meat and protein allergies. People who can develop serious harm from eating something that isn’t vegitarian/vegan. Again, the condition is rare, but it does exist. It’s just as ableist for people who can develop tears in their stomach from eating meat to not have any other food options as it is for government agencies to require me to call them when I have crushing anxiety problems over calling people. And if you don’t think that erasing and ignoring anxiety disorders that are part and parcel to mental health issues, then you don’t really understand ableism as a concept.

          Life chances might be how you measure it, but oppression comes in a lot of different forms. I won’t say that I’m necessarily more oppressed than any other person (I’ve only really got two – disabilities and I’m poor), but that doesn’t change the fact that being in a situation that is counter to one’s health needs and capabilities is ableist. It neccessarily excludes you to the advantage of the able-bodied. Whether it’s a lack of vegitarian options to those with meat allergies or a lack of accomodation to someone in a wheelchair. One situation is just much easier to understand than the other because it’s more visual.

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