How to get people talking about sensitive issues like identity

SINGAPORE – To get people discussing the difficult issues of identity and its impact on their lives, it is important to create spaces where participants feel safe and are not pitted against one another.

Digital platforms can provide ready-made, organic opportunities for such discussions to occur, though thoughtful moderation is also needed if the aim is to advance understanding rather than heighten differences.

These were the key points made at a forum on identity and engagement, organised on Tuesday (Nov 23) by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

For one thing, people can start engaging on the complex topic of identity by recognising the “family resemblances” between one another, said Mr Aaron Maniam, deputy secretary of industry and information at the Ministry of Communications and Information.

An Indian Muslim and an Indian Hindu, for instance, have their ethnicity in common even though they differ on religion.

“The more we can recognise those family resemblances, the more we will be able to find points of commonality with others, but not expect ourselves to be identical to them,” Mr Maniam said. “I suspect that will be a good starting point for truly recognising the range of identities around.”

Associate Professor Zhang Weiyu from the National University of Singapore’s department of communications and new media spoke on how to structure discussions on identity, recounting how a Polish study got two groups with strongly-opposing views to take part in a debate that ended with both sides even further apart than before.

Framing discussions around broader topics that impact all participants – rather than issues which only one side appears to benefit from – and on sharing their lived experiences could be one way around this, she suggested.

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“For instance…when we discuss policies regarding the pandemic, it will be very natural for the socio-economically disadvantaged to start talking about their experiences,” she said.

“We can use these broader topics as opportunities to discuss consequential differences.”

Mr Joel Lim, managing director of youth publication ZYRUP Media, added that social media can act as a “funnel” of sorts – allowing opinion leaders to emerge and represent their communities in discussions with other groups.

“You have the masses, and you filter down their opinions to key opinion leaders,” he said. “And those people are the ones you want to bring to the table, to discuss.”

The digital space can increase citizen engaged because it allows people to interact in an asynchronous manner – hopping in and out of conversations when it is convenient for them, noted Ms Chan Chi Ling, chief operations officer at non-profit organisation

But this form of interaction often results in important context being lost, she observed, adding that a balance must be struck.

“I think that’s the challenge and sweet spot we want to work towards,” she said.


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