How do I react when I read something I disagree with online? I have to admit that I may Unfriend people if it is on Facebook or chose to Hide or to skim over their posts in future. Sometimes I do read them, maybe even respond, but it can be with bad outcomes, becoming a heated argument (what they call “flaming”) rather than an opportunity to learn. Why this does (or sometimes doesn’t) happen makes it an interesting topic for a dissertation in the Digital Education Masters I am doing through Edinburgh University, and something I explore here as part of my role in interfaith training.

Prince Harry interviews Barack Obama
Prince Harry interviews Barack Obama

Barack Obama spoke recently of this dilemma with digital media. Online ought to be a great place to learn from everyone out there with different perspectives, but often it is the opposite. He told of the potential of social media to balkanise society, groups with different realities cocooned by information that reinforces their biases. He contrasted this to meeting people face-to-face: online, everything is simplified but offline, we learn that people are complex. They may have different political views but support the same sports team or share the same desires to be good parents. What hope is there then for learning about contentious issues online? Is it better to be only offline?

Festival in Southall
Festival in Southall

I see what Barack Obama says within my work situation. I give interfaith training to groups that come to Southall; it is a part of London known as “Little India” due to its diversity of faiths, with Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities co-existing there. The obvious occurrence of different perspectives is with visiting group members having faiths different to those they encounter. A less obvious occurrence is where there is a spectrum of views within these groups on the degree of interaction that someone of one faith should have with those of the other faiths they visit. This often becomes apparent around the issue of partaking of food that has been blessed in the faith centres.

I agree with Barack Obama that meeting people offline changes perspectives, including on other faiths, by building respect for differences. Similarly, if there is opportunity within visiting groups to discuss why people react differently to accepting food, then there is greater understanding of approaches different to one’s own. I have seen this myself in visits by groups to Southall.

Does this mean though that we should avoid online environments for contentious issues? We may all have seen negative aspects online but there are also unique positive aspects. Studies in Israel and Northern Ireland show digital environments helping to reduce prejudice between communities traditionally opposed, who would otherwise even find it hard to meet. My interest in this is as a Dissertation topic is to explore how to develop digital training on interfaith issues, to create safe spaces to learn about difference. There are three academic areas I am especially interested in, with the above studies showing that digital features can assist with this:

  • Allport’s work on the Contact Hypothesis: Digital environments may be important around issues such as the role of anonymity while posting, identifying with people within other faiths beyond contentious topics, the ability to see other faith groups as non-monolithic, the desirability of online lurking and the belief that individuals from other groups are typical of them rather than being exceptions.
  • Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice: In digital contexts, there are issues to consider in areas such as how identity is defined within a group, legitimate peripheral participation made possible for group members by digital contexts, variant understandings within the group and especially the role of boundary practices and objects which are shared with other communities.
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory comes last, but one central to the Contact Hypothesis. This occurs when individuals acquire “troublesome knowledge” that is incongruent with their existing assumptions. For interfaith training, this can be new knowledge and experiences relating to those of other faiths, which can be handled in many ways by participants, but when handled well, will stimulate new ways of thinking.

These are my initial thoughts then, exploring if (and how) digital can assist in helping us all understand faith communities better, given the particular communities we each may come from.

2 thoughts on “How to Create Safe Spaces for Contentious Issues Online”

  1. Hi Peter! This is a worthy pursuit. I’m wondering how much could be done to encourage actual inter-faith meetings “live an face to face” through the use of social media. Once a church we attended invited people of the neighborhood to a large park for a special event – free food and games, etc. The only method of invitation used was social media – no paper posters or flyers at all. The response was incredible – and we all had a wonderful time together, even people of really different backgrounds. The generosity and hospitality of the church was returned by the visitors who were extremely appreciative and polite, even though they came from different faith backgrounds. Just like with “blended learning,” maybe we should be considering more “blended friending” between people who might otherwise not meet one another! Just a thought.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jenny! I have seen social media really useful for events like that. I’m waiting to see whether that will work with interfaith training. I suspect that not all parties are fully on board with social media. I’ll find out in the next year… 🙂

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