For Anthea Butler, there was a depressingly familiar pattern to the controversy that erupted in July in response to a blog post she wrote about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Butler, an associate professor of religious studies and graduate chair of that department, posted a short piece in the online magazine Religion Dispatches entitled “The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God,” in which she recounted her reaction to a book she had first encountered years before called Is God a White Racist? “As a budding seminary student, it took me by surprise,” she wrote. “Now, as a wiser, older professor looking at the needless death of Trayvon Martin, I have to say: I get it.”
After the story sparked protest on the Internet, Butler explained in a Huffington Post interview that she was describing her view of a particular conservative conception of an “American god” and not what she called the “big ‘G’ God,” an argument that she had elaborated in the concluding paragraphs of her blog post. But that distinction was lost on most commentators—and was perhaps no less objectionable to some of her critics on the right.
The furor was actually a repeat of an episode Butler describes as one of the worst weeks of her life, which had taken place a little less than a year earlier in September 2012. On the day after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Butler awoke to the news that the violence had claimed the lives of American officials, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
At 8:34 a.m. she tweeted her quick, visceral reaction to the news, singling out for condemnation the shadowy figure behind Innocence of Muslims, the film that had inflamed the Muslim world during the previous week: “Good Morning. How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks? I need him to go now. When Americans die because you are stupid…”
Within hours, an online firestorm had ensued. Butler’s tweet went viral, provoking virulent reactions from predominantly conservative commentators, who pounced on what they cast as a glaring example of self-serving hypocrisy by a liberal, Ivy League professor unwilling to defend freedom of speech that didn’t conform to her views.
“It became a feeding frenzy,” Butler recalls.
Butler has been one of Penn’s most active professors on social media since 2008, when she began contributing blog posts to Religion Dispatches.
“There was so much going on that was interesting, and I thought this was a good way to have a different kind of discourse than what we would have in a classroom or in a journal,” she recalls. Soon she added tweeting to her repertoire, initially intending for it to serve primarily as a way of directing traffic to her blog posts.
Butler didn’t set out to be a public intellectual. Her bachelor’s degree is in marketing and she came to academe as a second career, after working as a pension-plan administrator. She took quickly to scholarship and teaching. Her background—as an African American growing up Roman Catholic in Texas—helped to shape her academic focus on the intersection of religion with politics and women’s issues, and African-American religious history.
Her online following received a boost in 2010 when she weighed in on the controversy surrounding Atlanta Bishop Eddie Long, a prominent African-American pastor and vocal opponent of gay marriage who had been accused of molesting four boys. Butler’s social-media persona is quite like the one her students encounter in the flesh: informative, forthright, and sometimes provocatively irreverent. Her impassioned indictment of what she called the “[h]omophobia and sexophobia of black church leaders” raised her public profile. Television appearances further boosted her popularity.
Her increasingly active online presence represented not just an ego-boosting change of pace from the sometimes staid conventions of academic discourse, but an opportunity to engage with an audience beyond her students and fellow academics about issues of importance to her.
“For me, it’s about teaching, doing the same thing I do in the classroom,” she says. When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation earlier this year, for example, she took to Twitter to talk about why his decision was historically significant and what it meant for the Catholic Church.
But it was also about learning, she adds. Twitter became a kind of giant chatroom where she relished exposure to views and source material that she would not have encountered through the customary scholarly channels. As she became more prolific on social media, it evolved from something extraneous she did in addition to her work to an essential component of how that work was evolving.
“For an academic, what’s really important is that you get exposed to articles that you would otherwise never read,” she says, noting that for scholars seeking to broaden their research beyond the confines of their specialty, social-media channels provide an easily accessible path to interdisciplinary engagement.
By last fall, Butler was a social-media veteran and Twitter had become her preferred venue. Whereas journal articles take on average a year or more to write and publish, Twitter offers instant feedback. “It’s a place to work out little ideas,” she says, though hastens to add, “I don’t necessarily put the big ideas out there.”
Twitter’s strict character limit has also helped hone her rhetorical skills. “It forces you to be concise, you have to get to the point,” she says, adding pointedly that this is a skill that eludes many of her fellow academics.
When the attack in Benghazi occurred, Butler was on sabbatical, taking time off to work on projects including her forthcoming book, The Gospel According to Sarah: How Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are Galvanizing the Religious Right. She’d become increasingly dismayed by popular coverage of several religion-related issues, including the Koran burnings by pastor-cum-provocateur Terry Jones and the inflammatory film Innocence of Muslims, which denigrated Mohammed.
Her early-morning tweet, suggesting that the filmmaker should be jailed, was born of frustration and grief at the tragic turn that events in Libya had taken during the night. “The reason I tweeted that was not because I was thinking about the First Amendment,” or arguing that free-speech should be curbed, she says, but “because I’m so pained that this happens and that innocent people die, usually Americans.”
Butler’s posts quickly found their way to Twitchy, a conservative site, which “storified” them, compiling them into a post that generated hundreds of online comments. Butler and her Penn colleagues soon found themselves the targets of what she calls “the Vandal Twitter hoard,” as angry emails and phone calls poured in, prompting her to lock her Twitter account and block access to new followers. University officials offered to provide security at her home in case any of her online attackers decided to get more personal.
By the time Butler was confronted with a similar onslaught after the Trayvon Martin verdict, she was familiar with the drill. Having previously incited the ire of what she terms the “right-wing smear machine,” perhaps she should have anticipated the reaction her article would generate, but she insists that she was not being deliberately provocative. Her article was aimed at “people who teach religion and are studying religion,” all of whom understood that she was not being literal when she wrote that God is “a white racist god with a problem,” she says.
Butler’s post was partially an exploration of George Zimmerman’s remark, during a 2012 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity in which he professed not to regret pursuing Martin with a firearm, that the fatal incident was “all God’s plan.” That comment struck Butler as being emblematic of “what most good conservative Christians in America think right now. Whatever makes them protected, safe, and secure, is worth it at the expense of the black and brown people they fear.”
Butler went on to articulate her own view, which garnered less attention: “Is it right? Is God the old white male racist looking down from white heaven, ready to bless me if I just believe the white men like Rick Perry who say the Zimmerman case has nothing to do with race?” she wrote. “You already know the answer: No.
“The lamentation of the African-American community at yet another injustice, the surprise and disgust of others who understand, stand against this pseudo-god of capitalisms and incarceration that threaten to take over our nation.”
For Butler, the two episodes provide a sobering lesson in the perils of online engagement and the limits to creating teachable moments out of newsworthy events. She defends what she has tweeted and written, but even as she advocates a more active social-media presence for her fellow academics, she acknowledges that her brand of unfettered expression has its pitfalls.
“The work of a public intellectual is very hard, and if you say things that can be misinterpreted , especially about race, it becomes problematic,” she says. “This is the dark side of all this stuff.”
Though she says that she received solid support from Penn administrators, she notes that junior faculty without tenure blog and tweet at the risk of their career prospects. Using social media opens up the intellectual world in unprecedented ways that will shape the direction of future scholarship, but younger academics especially will need to navigate its more perilous avenues with care.
“It’s not for everyone,” Butler says. “You have to have fortitude.”
—Aisha Labi L’96