Nat Okey, Exhale Volunteer:
The recent media attention over the Twitter thread, “#ihadanabortion”, reveals the deep difference between online networking and social change. I hope that every woman who tweeted about her abortion found the experience to be a positive one, and yet in order to have a lasting effect on the abortion debate, the campaign must be connected to a broader culture change agenda.
Recently, best-selling author and cultural commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote in the New Yorker magazine about the difference between the weak ties of social networking and the strong ties needed for social change. He makes his point that people take on great personal risks, like violence or death, in order to change culture because of strong ties, with examples of the early lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Summer campaign. On the other hand, weak social ties, like the kind we have with people on Facebook or Twitter, don’t give us what is really needed to face our own fears and the real risks to our lives or livelihoods.
The problem of weak social ties played out with #ihadanabortion, as it quickly became politicized and was used as another culture war proxy. The thread digressed to include pleas for people to go sign a Planned Parenthood petition, amongst many other things. You can’t have a transformative conversation, which is necessary to change the debate, in 140 characters or less with anonymous strangers with constant tangents being introduced. The multitudes of nuance that the abortion debate contains and which must be respected can not be adequately addressed by tweeting.
Instead of trying to speak to the masses one tweet at a time, we should focus on supporting women who have had abortions, as it is their relationships with their own friends and family that will prove the tipping point to cultural change. When people have strong personal ties to you, they will view an issue differently if it affects you. Where once something was unacceptable, through their prism of you they can see and feel the issue differently.
Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe this in their new book, American Grace. In a recent review in the New York Times, Robert Wright discusses this effect in regards to LGBT people in the U.S. and how our society has become much more accepting with relative quickness:
Putnam and Campbell favor the “bridging” model. The idea is that tolerance is largely a question of getting to know people. If, say, your work brings you in touch with gay people or Muslims — and especially if your relationship with them is collaborative — this can brighten your attitude toward the whole tribe they’re part of. And if this broader tolerance requires ignoring or reinterpreting certain scriptures, so be it; the meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.
The bridging model explains how attitudes toward gays could have made such rapid progress. A few decades ago, people all over America knew and liked gay people — they just didn’t realize these people were gay. So by the time gays started coming out of the closet, the bridge had already been built.
And once straight Americans followed the bridge’s logic — once they, having already accepted people who turned out to be gay, accepted gayness itself — more gay people felt comfortable coming out. And the more openly gay people there were, the more straight people there were who realized they had gay friends, and so on: a virtuous circle.
Once people realize that their co-workers, partners, friends and family members have had abortions, we can develop our own Pro-Voice virtuous circle.
This kind of bridge-building work won’t happen through Twitter. As Gladwell writes, online social networking is
“a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections… It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
A Twitter campaign alone will not de-stigmatize abortion. We need to build more bridges and foster more strong ties. This approach can give us a world where all the women who’ve had an abortion can speak freely about their experiences, and a world where the rest of us can see abortion less as a political issue to be debated and more about abortion as an experience lived by a woman we love.