In the times that we’re living in now, we have access to a wealth of information, and misinformation, at our fingertips. Just by typing in some keywords, we can discover a vast wealth of knowledge about so many varied things – from how to make a shepherd’s pie to how to build a bomb.
From our own little far-off corners of the globe behind glass screens, we can provide our two cents on terrorism and Trump with little to no understanding, or empathy, of the nuances of said topics, and some people more than others are highly susceptible to becoming keyboard warriors. According to Urban Dictionary, these are people who are unable to express themselves gratifyingly in real life, and instead manifest their emotions, such as unnecessary rage, in the form of aggressive writing.
On the small, sunny island of Singapore, heated “debates” were happening in the Webosphere over an incident of casual racism, which was conversely shut down by assassinating the whistle-blower’s (Shrey Bargava) character.
X months later, a similar debate erupted over the ethics of having the Ramadh – I mean Geylang bazaar held during the Muslim fasting month in an arguably Muslim enclave, having a large number of vendors with questionable halal status for the sake of commerciality.
All of the above examples bring us to my point: We simply cannot put off having in-depth, face-to-face conversations about issues of race and religion. Not in these times. It’s easy to depersonalise, and worse, dehumanise, communities when you consider them the “other”, especially from behind a computer screen.
But how can we, as flawed human beings with our own biases, progress to see beyond the lens that we have been conditioned and brought up to view the world? Is there really a way to enable people from vastly different backgrounds to have respectful dialogues that don’t degrade to name-calling and personal attacks?
THE CASE FOR SCRIPTURAL REASONING
Imagine a rabbi, a priest, and an imam sitting together (no, this is not a set-up for a joke).
They’re holding excerpts of the Jewish Bible, Christian Bible, and Quran regarding a common theme (such as ‘Women in Religion’) and discussing each of their own interpretations AND each others’ scriptures. By the end of the session, no one’s hands are around anyone’s neck. No personal insults explicitly stated or otherwise, have been thrown.
This is exactly what Scriptural Reasoning (SR) trains your mind to do.
In 2015, an old secondary schoolmate of mine, Noor Mastura, approached me with the idea to start an interfaith group together. I had attended an interfaith dialogue session in a local university, which she had happened to be guest speaking at. I’d also been posting pretty regularly regarding interfaith work happening in other parts of the world on my Facebook (cue snigger). I suppose she must have surmised from those indicators that I was interested in exploring interfaith work.
Incidentally, Noor Mastura had just undergone a summer training programme for interfaith leaders at Cambridge University to be trained in facilitating SR. SR has an interesting history, which you can read for yourself here. It’s an activity that involves people of various faith groups (or who don’t ascribe to any faith group at all) reading and reflecting on scriptural texts together.
Since being introduced to the concept of SR, organising monthly sessions, and facilitating a couple of sessions myself, I’ve begun to appreciate the platform more and more. Its objectives are simple:
1) learning and understanding
2) exploring differences
Consensus, and finding common ground, is not as important as actively practising respectful disagreement; thus, setting up sessions as a safe space with its corresponding rules is of utmost importance.
The outcomes sound ideal, yet I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. When people practice disagreeing face to face and get exposed to different perspectives, they witness the repercussions of their words, which elicits empathy, breaking down the barriers of the “other”.
Slowly, they find themselves broadening their minds to accept- even if they don’t agree with- people who can have other perspectives, and that’s okay.
In an interesting point during one of the sessions that I recently facilitated, an atheist felt that the scripture implied that only people who had accepted faith were capable of doing good. Someone else then pointed out that doing good deeds, and having good intentions and opinions of others, could also be interpreted as part of accepting faith in the text.
In another notable point in the session, a Christian felt that a line in the Quran where God proclaimed that He was all-aware seemed to render good actions insincere, encouraging people to do good deeds only because they were being watched. Another person then pointed out that the line could also be interpreted as God speaking up for the oppressed, assuring them that He is aware of all evil behaviour towards them even as their voices are being silenced in this world.
Different perspectives were shared. No consensus was made in each. No rocks were thrown. Good food and other more casual conversations were had afterwards. Together.
HARD TALK IS REAL TALK
Globally, we need these conversations to happen. In Singapore, we need to move past simply wearing each other’s ethnic costumes on Racial Harmony Day, and having conversations around the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) model, because individuals are varied and don’t fit neatly into boxes. With the existing political climate and terrorism looming in the not-so-far-off distance threatening to tear diverse communities apart and get them at each other’s throats, generations of today have to move beyond mere tolerance into understanding and respect – whether or not we agree or disagree with one another’s beliefs.
What my experiences have shown is that there’s no such thing as waiting for people to be “ready” to have conversations about the difficult stuff – rather, it’s about giving people the avenue and the guidelines, which help prepare the right mindsets to have these conversations.
The fact that SR doesn’t build up to consensus might seem counterintuitive to some. But why? Is it realistic to expect everyone to think the same way and believe in the same things, or to simply push our different agendas onto each other and hope for the best? The answer is no. Instead, what we can and should build towards is facing off with the worst, most difficult elements not within “others”, but within ourselves that are toxic, intolerant and hidden (except, perhaps, when we’re behind computer screens).
Here’s to more tough conversations – and SR sessions – to make our world a more respectfully diverse, if not homogeneous, place. And to having fewer keyboard warriors to boot.