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Dealing with Incivility in Online Interfaith Dialogues
Sep 1, 2016

Over the last few decades, the world has become more interconnected through developing technology like cell phones, laptops, and, especially, the internet.  There are many benefits from this connectivity, and this includes increasing the range and scope of interfaith dialogue.  People who live in areas with little-to-no religious diversity can find an online community which hosts people from multiple faiths where important issues of interfaith understanding can be discussed. 

At its best, the internet is a place where such online dialogues occur in a space of absolute equality.  People can persuade and be persuaded.  The importance of this form of communication led Benson (1996) to note in the late 90s that, “computer mediated communication has become a highly visible activity for academics, professionals, and the press, attracting powerful claims about its potential to contribute to the formation of a spirit of community and civility” (p. 361).  People interested in interfaith dialogue can form a virtual community that contributes significantly to the goals of interfaith cooperation and harmony.

Unfortunately, despite the many positives of increased connectivity, there are also some negatives, including online incivility. Anyone who has ever spent a bit of time on the internet has probably seen the way comment sections or discussions can devolve into name calling and hostility. Can online conversations about important issues, like interfaith dialogue, remain civil? 

Robin George Collingwood, who was a 19th and 20th century British historian and philosopher, felt that the first virtue of all social and political institutions rested on civility.  At the heart of civility was respect for others, which also implies an interest in reaching agreements with others.  The uncivil person was likened to the yahoo in the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.  In the story, the yahoo was given to persistent quarrel, lack of agreement and resorted to force to settle issues over reasoned understanding (Johnson, 2008).

In essence, civility is manners, tolerance, peacefulness, and a healthy respect for others.  The absence of civility in online discussions has led some to call for an end to anonymous dialogues online.  As noted by Hlavach and Freivogel (2011), “anonymity seems to unleash the worst in some of these posters; they hide their faces behind a pseudonym while their voices shout out angrily, free of the normal bonds of civility (p. 24).” 

When discussing online dialogues, the dangers must be weighted with the benefits. While the perceived safety of remaining anonymous allows people to explore ideas they might not be comfortable with if their identity was known to others, conversely, the banning of anonymous comments could also hurt the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed for the simple reason that they may be targeted for participating in online forums.  The use of online blogs for interfaith dialogues where there is a specific viewpoint towards interfaith cooperation and understanding may also prevent many who would seek to disrupt those conversations from joining those groups.  Still, it is always possible some may join these groups specifically to disrupt them (McCluskey & Hmielowski, 2012; Hlavach & Freivogel, 2011).

Despite valid concerns, anonymity is a protected right in the United States, first recognized in Talley v. California (1960).  This was confirmed in McIntyre vs. Ohio (1995) that anonymity was protected in the Bill of Rights.  This reality has motivated many who allow online dialogues of news articles or blogs / forums to seek a balance between unrestricted dialogue and controls on profanity and inappropriate comments.  Thankfully, despite the cover of anonymity, most commenters behave respectfully. It is only a minority of people who cause problems; but left unattended, these “trolls,” as they are known in cyber-talk, can disrupt online dialogues (Reader, 2012; Rich, 2011; Hlavach & Freivogel, 2011; Gsell, 2009).

How do these trolls disrupt online conversations? Incivility usually manifests as attacks, such as name-calling and the devaluation of an opponent.  These attacks can be personal in nature, or directed at one’s religion and ethnic group. Such attacks are almost never based in fact or sound reasoning, but are based purely on emotion. In many uncivil online exchanges, racist and bigoted comments are commonplace (Hwang, Borah, Namkoong & Veenstra, 2008). Why are some people using internet discussions as forums for unrest and bigotry? Johnson (2008) wrote that the absence of civility, according to Collingwood, is due to a collapse in traditional ways of life.  The norms and values that form the backbone of all societies are constantly shifting with generational, demographic, and technological changes.  These changes can be both positive and negative.  When these changes lead to greater alienation and disregard for others, the effects are negative.  One negative externality can be greater incivility in society, which is reflected in online discourse.

In the absence of these agreed societal norms and values, some proactive bloggers have attempted to create a “code of conduct” for cyber-exchanges.  One rule  states that posters cannot say anything online they wouldn’t also say face-to-face.  It has been found that when rules like this have been developed, most people have upheld them in their exchanges.  The problem is that although most people do uphold these codes and follow the rules of civility, the minority that engages in “flaming,” the intentional use of derogatory language to create online discord, can disrupt almost any online dialogue (Miller, 2007; Hurrell, 2005).

Another effort to limit disruptions involves having moderators monitor online discussions. Unfortunately, the sense that some figure of power might “control” the dialogue seems counter to the egalitarian nature of the internet (Benson, 1996).  Still, it is in everyone’s interest to limit incivility. The consequence of these uncivil exchanges is increased discord within all communities.  Online vitriol drives people away from important conversations.  In addition, it can lead to greater fragmentation – both on- and offline.  Hwang (2008) found that, “nasty language and name-calling tend to discourage people from sorting themselves into heterogeneous groups, partly because nasty language is off-putting and partly because people who expect to receive nasty attacks want a group of like-minded folks who will back them up when that happens” (p. 17).  The absence of civility encourages stratification and has centrifugal effects on the population.  These effects are counter to the goals of interfaith dialogue (Boyd, 2006). While searching for solutions to an increasingly uncivil society, few have discussed the important role religion can play in rejuvenating and maintaining civility. People of faith understand the issue from a celestial perspective.  In both the teachings of Jesus, found in the Gospels, and Muhammad, located in the hadith (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), the importance of controlling one’s speech is critical if a person hopes to reach Heaven.  In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus said, “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof on the Day of Judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”

In a very famous hasan hadith, found in the Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 36, Hadith 48, Mu’adh b. Jabal, an important Companion asked the Prophet to tell him an action that would gain him access to Heaven. After going through a number of deeds found in the pillars of Islam, the Prophet explained that the basis of all good deeds required restraining the tongue. Perplexed, Mu’adh asked, “O Prophet of God, will we be brought to account for what we say?” The Prophet responded rhetorically, “Are people thrown onto their faces in Hell for anything other than the harvest of their tongues?”

People of faith engaging in online interfaith dialogues can produce a civil environment by remembering these words.  As issues of faith emerge, some of them will be quite divisive; remembering the spirit of the word of Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, will keep people from saying mean and hurtful things.  The impetus on being civil does not mean that people will not disagree, but that people will disagree in a peaceful way.  This will build a community, not disintegrate it. The fact that both Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, warned their followers that bad speech could lead them to Hell is a strong exhortation for participants in these exchanges to monitor themselves.  The idea that words are typed but not spoken is of no consequence to the believer.

Even when teaching one’s faith to others, believers are expected to conduct in a civil manner: “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and argue with them in the best way possible. Your Lord surely knows best who has gone astray from His way, and He knows best who are the rightly guided” (Qur’an 16:125). Certainly, there will be divisive issues that surface when communities of faith come together to talk.  In particular, Christians and Muslims could vehemently argue about the dichotomy between Islamic tawhid (the Oneness of God) and the Christian trinity.  They could also argue about issues of marriage and divorce, the Hereafter, the death/resurrection of Jesus, and the meaning of the death of Jesus.  Despite differences on these topics, the faiths have much in common; interfaith dialogue aims to find these commonalities, but healthy disagreement should not be discouraged.  Interfaith dialogues are sometimes criticized for not encouraging a discussion on the differences between the faiths.

Online interfaith dialogues are a real opportunity to reach a larger audience of global believers.  In addition, they also present a real opportunity to encourage a civil interfaith exchange between believers.  A moderator may start the online discussion by reminding believers of the very words of those they claim to follow.  All religions/belief systems have an emphasis on civility, both in words and deeds.  After all, early civilization was based on religion, and it could be argued that modern-day secular states still owe a significant portion of their institutions to these early, religion-based societies.

There is a certain amount of sadness when online exchanges break down into uncivil name-calling, defamation, and bigotry.  This sadness only increases when the exchange is between followers of the world’s great religions.  Religious believers can lead the charge to bring civility back to online environments.  In addition, they can be at the forefront of establishing online interfaith exchanges that promote interfaith understanding and tolerance.  The world’s believers, now connected virtually, will not agree all the time, but their disagreements will be based in mutual respect and love. 


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