On dealing with offended feelings

The dialogue can be viewed in full in the video above.

An abrasive Youtube video, nasty behaviour in public caught on video, a poorly worded tweet. In recent years, these incidents have been causing waves online, mobilising those braying for greater policing of various expressions, and worrying those trying to maintain spaces for sensitive discussions regarding race and religion.

While the Singapore government has always dealt with these uproars efficiently through law enforcement, offended feelings are inevitable day-to-day among various races and communities, given the diversity and numerous fault lines in the local demographic. How should society move forward with regards to offensive remarks and behaviours?

A month ago, representatives from four organisations came together on April 28 to discuss these difficult issues. The dialogue, Religion and Atheism: A Conversation #2, was a follow-up from an earlier dialogue last year. Leading the second dialogue were Leftwrite Center founder Mohd Imran Mohd Taib,  Free Community Church’s Reverend Miak Siew, and Humanist Society (Singapore) President Tatt Si. BuddhistYouth Network director Yap Ching Wi moderated the dialogue.

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Photo: From left to right, Yap Ching Wi, Director of BuddhistYouth Network, Mohd Imran Mohd Taib, Founder of Leftwrite Center, Reverend Miak Siew, Free Community Church, Tan Tatt Si, President of HumanistSG.

Held at Free Community Church, the dialogue was vigorous but cordial, lasting close to three hours. Dinner and refreshments were provided before the dialogue, held after work hours.  It attracted a respectable crowd from various faith communities, in addition to non-religious attendees. About half of them were attending the interfaith dialogue for the first time, or for the first time in a long while.

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The dialogue started with the panelists sharing their personal experiences on encountering offensive behaviour. Miak Siew, for example, remembered one occasion when teenage atheist blogger Amos Yee hijacked one of his Facebook posts for another agenda. Imran remembered when he was growing up in Singapore, he noticed how a minority race suffering from racist treatment by a majority race would sometimes vent their angst on an even smaller minority. Tatt Si started his dialogue with some humour, confessing that how as an atheist, he is often the one giving offence.

Towards the middle and second half of the dialogue, panelists began to discuss how to handle offensive behavior and how society, in general, should handle offensive behavior.

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Tatt Si used the analogy of putting out a fire to argue how public uproars should be handled. A fire, said Tatt Si, requires fuel, heat and oxygen to start. Silencing dialogue during periods of public uproar is akin to cutting off the oxygen supply to the fire – a short-term solution at best. Instead, cutting off the fuel would prevent future fires from happening. In Tatt Si’s view, the fuel is religious dogma itself, as religious faith makes a virtue of not needing evidence to believe in something. More rational conversations are needed to address this, but the process is a difficult and long one, he added.

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Miak Siew emphasised that he was not offended by Amos Yee’s videos and he felt that Christians well-grounded in religious knowledge can be confident in the face of criticism against Christianity. However, Miak Siew is concerned about mob justice that has targeted Amos, with people making numerous police reports. Making so many police reports results in the government having to hold a tighter rein over such expressions, he said. In times such as this, Miak Siew felt that moderates need to speak up but moderates often err on the side of caution and do not speak up enough. Miak Siew wondered how in Singapore, could we let everyone thrive regardless of religion. He wanted more conversations to address that.

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Imran disagreed with Tatt Si’s point that religious dogma makes a virtue of not needing evidence to believe in something. Imran felt that Tatt Si drew a false dichotomy as many religious people also believe in the importance of evidence. On the problem of dealing with offended feelings, Imran called for more safe spaces to discuss sensitive issues. These safe spaces need to be created and expanded, both at the government level and via individual initiatives. As important as free speech, argued Imran, is how to make a good speech.  Imran felt that people in Singapore are still not used to dealing with differences in a mature way, and safe spaces are needed to help the Singapore evolve naturally to the next stage.

Imran also expressed support for including the non-religious in more interfaith dialogues. Besides the importance of including 18.5% of the population in such dialogues, doing so can help avoid false dichotomies in areas such as LGBT rights. For example, LGBT rights have often been framed as a religious vs secular conflict. This is not true because there are non-religious people who are anti-LGBT, and religious people who support LGBT communities, said Imran.

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Overall, Imran, Tatt Si and Miak Siew agreed that the State should trust that the majority of Singaporeans have the maturity to resolve issues of religious offences without having to resort to police arrests. From the panel’s perspective, it is only a minority who tend to be oversensitive and quick to make police reports or official complaints. The speakers all felt that moderates from all communities should speak up more during incidents of offense-taking. Not doing so will allow intolerant voices to dominate the public sphere.

A long QnA followed, with many questions. Watch the video (above) in full to find out more! If the preview is not working, watch the video here: https://vimeo.com/216365722

Photo below: Panelists with dialogue organisers, after the event.

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