- Participating for Transformation in Online Space
Giving us various examples of the constructive use of technology for social change and justice, Gina Messina-Dysert calls attention to the opportunities that new technology and the digital world bring to feminist studies in religion. She states that the digital world initiates a new revolution that embodies feminist values and represents an opportunity for traditionally silenced voices to “take the microphone” and be heard. She highlights the positive results that [End Page 163] have already come about because of feminist religious activists’ and scholars’ use of social media, citing the Ordain Women movement, The Exponent, and WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) as just a few examples. She is enthusiastic and filled with hope that the digital world will continue to deepen and expand feminist activism and scholarship in religion and religious studies and contribute toward revolutionary change. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and I join her in celebrating the positive impact and the possibilities that social media can help bring about. At the same time, I am also aware of the complexities that are involved in any medium—online, print, or otherwise—as well as the limits of online mediums in particular.
Feminist values of starting from a place of experience, radically democratic participation, and dialogue among different equals can all be possible in the digital world if we are intentional about the character of our engagement, but they are not inherent to the nature of social media. The digital world brings its own particular challenges when it comes to embodying these feminist values and ways of doing things.
I have served as a project “web-weaver” of Feminism and Religion (FAR) since its inception in summer 2011 and have witnessed the tensions and conflicts, silencing and belittling, and complete disconnects that can take place among feminists when we encounter one another on blogs.1 While the online nature of the blog space does allow for a wider reach, the inclusion of many voices, and real-time conversations, as Gina affirms in her essay, it does not make our engagement with one another across difference any less challenging. The immediacy of online forums can actually facilitate reactionary comments and knee-jerk reactions that do more tearing down of one another than building up. It takes effort to constructively relate to one another across our differences and to participate in creating new time/space where our varied feminist endeavors can be strengthened and nurtured.
On FAR, tensions and conflict often arise between feminists of different persuasions. The classic disconnect between feminists who stay in their more traditional, patriarchal, religions and those who have left them, is alive and well—among others. At its best, the seemingly unbridgeable disparity between feminists, which is at times reflected in the cutting or dismissive responses that are left in a blog post’s comment section, can lead to tense but productive conversations. Clarity of perspective is pursued and deeper understanding is achieved by those of varying sides of the same topic. At the same time, when there is an absence of dialogue and sincere encounter with one another, what results is a cacophony of voices that whiz past one another toward no productive end at all; as Mary Hunt once noted in relation to feminists’ participation [End Page 164] in online forums, “We can do better.”2 However, the conditions for doing so are not default but must be created.
Social media has indeed opened up a new space for feminist activism, scholarship, knowledge production, and collaboration, but it is not in itself feminist. Social media as feminist space is created as we intentionally engage and bring our feminist values to bear on it; only then can we connect with other feminists toward common cause, and even if not toward common cause, then at least toward mutual regard as different equals. It is up to us to practice a feminist way of relating in online space and to be intentional about our engagement if we are to bring feminist theory and practice into fruition and create the kind of online space that Messina-Dysert talks about—one in which previously suppressed voices...