“Feminist ethicist Beverly Harrison once wrote, “God is in the connection.” In the “spectacular social media defeat” of Rush Limbaugh, are we seeing how God and justice can be connected in a wired world? In a way, yes. The new face of spiritual feminism and its justice-making ethos can be glimpsed in social media in action.
It is also becoming clearer that this kind of social media activism is an emerging force in American politics, and it is demonstrating that through social media activism, progressive values can have an enormous impact on reframing issues.
Here’s how we know it’s a new day in politics and values: political and religious conservatives believed, in an election year, that with the economy improving they could turn once again to their “culture wars” issues and win. An Obama administration regulation on health care coverage on women’s health, including birth control, became controversial for religious institutions. Despite a fair compromise worked out by the administration, conservatives quickly framed this issue as a “war on religious freedom” being waged by President Obama.
It didn’t work. The picture of Rep. Issa’s all male “birth control” panel went viral. The “war on religious freedom” seemingly overnight became a “war on women.”
Rush Limbaugh entered the fray and it was all over except for the Tweeting.
Yet, this is not the first time Limbaugh has verbally attacked women on his radio program; Maureen Dowd wrote in her New York Times column “Have you no shame, Rush?,” “As a woman who has been viciously slashed by Rush Limbaugh, I can tell you, it’s no fun.”
But this time, it’s also Limbaugh who is not having any fun at all as his advertisers run for the exits.
Why? What has happened is that many women are finding each other through social media and they are able to give powerful voice to their outrage at the injustices done against them? At latest count, the social media firestorm against Rush Limbaugh has caused 35 advertisers to drop advertising on his show.
The outrage has been there for a long time, simmering. But the connection to new media has changed how women understand themselves. They are realizing they don’t have to be voiceless and powerless any more. Women, especially younger women, connecting through new media are finding a new sense of self-empowerment. And they are using that power through social media.
This social media activism is changing American religion and politics, as I noted in my book “Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World .”
I believe social media is inherently progressive, even, as I note in the title of this post, feminist. Here’s why: it is decentralized and non-authoritarian. No one tells you to “share.” You, as a person who cares about an issue, can take action, but it is a lateral action—you go sideways to your friends, your Twitter followers, your connections. Those people in turn have the option to act or not act. It’s up to them. The metaphor of some web-driven data going “viral” comes from the way in which the spread of social media activism is like the way people catch a virus. It goes from person to person through connection. Conservative political philosophy, by contrast, favors centralized, authoritarian and top down forms of power. It isn’t social.
In the early years of the Internet, information on line was one directional; there were websites with information you could read, and emails that could be written and forwarded over and over again to feed conspiracies about, for example, the president’s birth or his faith.
But social media is connective, dialogical, and it facilitates person-to-person communication. “Women” are not “essentially” more inclined to connect laterally. Women differ greatly from each other by race, class, sexual orientation and so forth, so vast generalizations that ‘all women’ are essentially “connectors” don’t make much sense. But society has assigned women this role, generally speaking: women are the connectors in society. Here’s a simple example—between a husband and wife, who is the one who ‘keeps up with’ the extended family? The wife, of course. Women are supposed to be the connectors.
And now that important life-skill has found a wired world. Women are taking their gender assigned role as the connectors out for a drive on the information highway and they like what they find.
This is just beginning to change how values engage politics.
Mitt Romney, emerging a damaged front-runner from “Super Tuesday,” had only added to the perception of him as weak on leadership by literally walking away when asked about Limbaugh’s diatribe against Sandra Fluke, and then giving the brush off statement that Rush’s words were “not the language I would of used.”
I believe Romney’s failure of leadership on this issue will come back to haunt him in the campaign, as social media plays those clips over and over and over.