Social media can be wonderful for connecting people, for sharing information, and even for discussing different points of view. What these platforms are not, though, are particularly effective ways of developing empathy and understanding for each other.

Recently, there have been some problems involving the Trent community on Facebook. Discussion posts have erupted into flame wars in which participants have been hurt and upset by the content, and also by language and personal attacks.

The issue of online conflict is hardly limited to Trent. Discussion, debates, and attacks have infamously escalated across the Internet, at times to the point of chasing people out of conversations, bullying, threats, and causing real harm.

Universities can and should encourage discussion and debate on controversial issues. Students are very often leaders in social change; they are passionate and idealistic in promoting their views. But how can we encourage all this, and still maintain an environment in which people feel safe expressing their ideas, advocating for themselves and others, and disagreeing with each other?

Trent community members can and do engage in a high calibre of debate. It’s possible to argue with the other’s position, while still thinking of the person on the other side of the screen.

Personal attacks don’t lead to reasoned debate, critical thinking, or, for that matter, convincing others of our viewpoint. It can be tempting to score points while forgetting how others may be feeling, especially if we can’t see them. Online, we can’t rely on empathizing with body language, facial expression, or tone of voice, all of which are important indicators of how people are reacting to what we say. Emoticons don’t cut it.  Online, it is much easier to project and make assumptions about a person’s intentions. It can be tempting to mock, bait, or tag-team to get a reaction. Unlike in-person conversations, it’s easier to lash out at a computer screen, or to attack text on a Facebook page.

With all of that, computers should be exploding all over the place. But principles of conflict resolution and effective communication can apply to online conversations, just as with in-person ones.

Asking open-ended questions can help clarify where someone’s coming from: “Okay, I’m not sure what you mean by that, can you explain?” Checking interpretation can also work: “So, it sounds to me like what you’re saying is ______, am I getting that right?” Acknowledging and validating people’s feelings and values can be powerful: “This clearly means a lot to you, and I didn’t realize that. Can you tell me more about it?” Another one: “It’s clear that X is really important to you, and Y is really important to me. Is there any common ground?”

Similarly, talking about the impact of behavior can be valuable: “When you said _____, it really hurt, because _____. Can we talk about it?” It’s important to acknowledge that this can be hard to do, and people don’t always have the emotional energy, particularly if they’re already upset. Taking a break from the conversation can certainly help with this, as can asking ourselves, “What do I really want this person to understand?”

And what if the person is saying something with which we really differ? How about, “I really disagree with that, because X, Y and Z.” Then it becomes about discussing with the person about what they said, which is much more likely to help them consider your point of view.

It’s worth considering how social media reflects the Trent community, and how student leaders and the University should respond. What are workable solutions if there is an eruption on Facebook or Twitter? What sort of impact does acrimony of the type we’ve seen recently, have on the Trent community, and on how our community is regarded by outsiders? How can we encourage civil discussion on controversial issues? What are ways that students can be empowered to take responsibility for social media posts, and what are constructive ways for students to intervene if trouble erupts?

There is the option of University policies or the TCSA. But are there ways to prevent escalation of the type that may need outside help? How can participants understand the impact of what they’re saying, when they’re not face-to-face with the person they’re disagreeing with? The TCSA and Student Affairs have been talking about having an open forum to discuss approaches to all of these questions.

Understanding the power behind words is important. For people who have been marginalized or discriminated against, advocating for themselves and others can be crucial, and it can also be exhausting. Being attacked or mocked for this advocacy hurts. For others, freedom of speech is sacrosanct. Are these two positions irreconcilable?

Not if there’s respect and concern for each other. Sometimes debating on one side or the other helps hone in on and refine our understanding of issues, but only if it’s a dialogue. The best kinds of discussions are ones in which people actually listen to each other’s viewpoints and learn from each other, even if they are on opposite sides.

Making an effort to see where someone’s coming from, having a desire to find common ground, and caring about people as much as we do about scoring debating points, are all helpful when discussing controversial issues. People can passionately advocate a position, and vehemently disagree about an issue, but still maintain civility. And nobody’s going to be convinced if they’re feeling attacked, mocked, or backed into a corner.

It’s not easy or simple to find the answers when it comes to balancing freedom of expression, rights of individuals, respect and care for others, diverse viewpoints, and debating difficult issues. It can be particularly challenging when doing it across social media. I like to think that our amazing Trent community can rise to the challenge.