Never Fight a Culture War on the Internet

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Maybe the GOP (or more specifically, certain members of the party) returned to the '50s in just one day, but the rest of us haven't. Beyond the obvious social and cultural shifts of the last 60 years, there is one major factor: the Internet.

Talking Points Memo's Evan McNorris-Santoro looked at the confluence of events on Thursday and pronounced it "the day Washington fell into a time-warp," turning back the discussion of women's rights 60 years. Others, such as the editors of The New Republic, think we are on the brink of a "culture war" over women's rights. They're reacting to the last few weeks of controversy: most recently women were kept out of a hearing on Obama's new contraception ruling so that men could discuss the "religious freedoms" at stake without having to be bothered by that silly context of female health concerns, and one 71-year-old Rick Santorum backer made a horrible grandpa joke about birth control, for which he has apologized. It goes back further -- we're also talking about the recent public battle between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood, in which Susan G. Komen initially withdrew funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings (for "legal reasons" that seemed very clear to many were actually anti-abortion ones) but changed their tune when the backlash appeared detrimental to their organization.

All three episodes have elements that would be familiar in the 1950s, but the way we engage in media -- and the widespread, rapid exchange of information via social media and other tools -- has changed things drastically between then and now. In the 1950s, an Internet campaign would not have existed to essentially force Susan G. Komen to backtrack on its stance about Planned Parenthood. Outrage over what looked like former Komen SVP Karen Handel's heavy-handed orchestration of the decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood due to her staunch anti-abortion ideology would likely not have resulted in Handel's resignation, a resignation quickly proliferated online. In the 1950s, should Fleiss's Bayer Aspirin joke have circulated widely enough to have offended enough people to inspire action against it, women and men would not have been able to call him out on it so rapidly, nor to make him accountable for it. He never would have apologized on his own blog. (Nor, apparently, taken down that blog.)

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Even if some Republicans desperately would like to return to another era (and some, arguably, haven't changed much in their attitudes since that time), the way in which we're having these discussions -- on blogs, on Twitter, on our Facebook pages, and in an overwhelmingly participatory, everyone-has-a-voice fashion -- has changed the political and social landscape forever. As much as we bemoan the state of things today (and there's no denying that certain attitudes are not only old-fashioned but downright archaic and dangerous), we have to acknowledge that we're in an unprecedented time for change. One thing the Internet is very, very good at is existing as a place where the self-righteous, the inauthentic, or the blatantly ridiculous can be brought to a kind of public justice -- shamed, held accountable, debated, made to explain. The Internet catalyzes backlash. And we keep seeing the Internet get results.

The recent examples of such Internet wins, righting the tasteless jokes and PR injustices; taking one person or group to task and punishing them for their mistake, all seem to involve short skirmishes rather than full-out wars, though. Maybe it's the attention span of the Internet, or the 24-hour news cycle -- maybe this war will actually happen in short, bitty bursts online as opposed to the drawn-out physical campaigns of old. Or maybe this isn't a war at all. Maybe we're just living in a particularly fraught time because we sit on the precipice of great change. 

Either way, it seems as though she who uses the Internet best will have a distinct and unprecedented advantage in the ongoing battle. And the more retrograde conservatives get, the stronger the foundation, mobilization, and mass of any counter-argument. Practically speaking, as Evan McMorris-Santoro writes in TPM, "This could be a big problem for the GOP when the calendar reaches November."

Thank the 21st century for that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.