Social Distance?
Discussing Institutional Engagement in a Digital Culture
Redeemer faculty, staff and students reflect on the complexity of participation and engagement with issues of the day on digital platforms.
14 min. read
March 29, 2022

The best place to start is the Bible.”

So says a student in a recent second-year Media Ethics class during a robust and engaging class discussion. In the classrooms at Redeemer University, it could have been about virtually any topic. In this instance, Dr. Murray Stiller, professor of media and communications studies, encouraged the students: “Let’s remind ourselves of that in class each week. The Bible is our common ground.”

Making a Statement

The discussion topic in class that day was complex and nuanced, revolving around a recent trend that has seen organizations and businesses respond to and make statements about justice issues on social media. Statements around race flooded social feeds after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The #StopAsianHate campaign began trending after a series of spa shootings in March 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. And in Canada, Every Child Matters became a nationwide movement after 215 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC in May 2021, with more continuing to be discovered at sites across the country.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” one student said. “Movements need visibility. But because it’s becoming such a norm, people are being more critical of them. If your statements don’t match your action, you can hurt the movement.”

Another student chimed in: “It’s a weird expectation that [organizations] will make statements, even when they have nothing to do with their mission.”

“It reminds me of influencers and celebrities,” said yet another student. “If they don’t make these statements, they get cancelled. You support businesses because of the quality of their products. By making these statements, [business becomes] bigger than it is.”

Do Justice. Love Mercy. Online?

The question that sits underneath this discussion is whether issues of justice have anything to do with Redeemer’s mission. Do racism, hate crimes and the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children change how Redeemer educates, disciples and inspires the next generation of Christian leaders?

“We teach our students to be people of integrity, to evaluate social justice issues based on the truths of Scripture, to seek God, to fall deeply in love with Jesus, and to live their faith in consistent ways, day after day,” says Laurie Busuttil, associate professor of business.

The answer is unequivocal. Yes, a Christian university education by its very nature is often animated by topics of justice and Christ’s redeeming work in the world that encourages students to find a calling and go into the world as Christ’s agents of renewal. It is not hard to find broad consensus at Redeemer about a fallen, broken world crying out for justice, peace and restoration. Redemption is in the university’s name and is integrated into the study of every discipline. But does that mean Redeemer should dedicate resources and energy to producing statements about these issues on social media? The answer to that question is less clear.

The Digital Native

When Redeemer began 40 years ago, the internet existed but was 15 years away from hitting the mainstream. Web 2.0, with the rise of user-generated content via social platforms, would take almost another decade. Facebook and YouTube hit the scene in 2004. For context, that was the year today’s average 2022 Redeemer graduate was born. Enter the digital native and complete transformation in how people interact, consume media and generally function in society.

Those media ethics students spoke to the experience first hand.

“Everything is very public,” said one student. “It’s normal to have pictures and information of yourself online. There’s a difference between us and our parents’ generation.”

I sense a lot more self-consciousness today. There is a real fear, especially in the digital natives, of saying or doing something that might become viral and garner unmerited attention.”

“It’s harmful because if you don’t have your own identity figured out to some extent, it changes the quality of your life,” another student explained.

In addition to these concerns, Dr. Doug Sikkema, assistant professor of English and core studies, contends that social media has increased fear in our culture. “I sense a lot more self-consciousness today. There is a real fear, especially in the digital natives, of saying or doing something that might become viral and garner unmerited attention.”

Knowing that Redeemer students have grown up in a performative digital culture where life is increasingly lived “on stage”, expectations of how businesses and organizations should behave have evolved and are varied and nuanced.

#Trending: A New Idea?

If we look at the way businesses and institutions have operated for decades, speaking into cultural issues is not exactly a new development.

“It may well simply be a new medium,” says Busuttil. “Organizations have long been speaking out through social-cause advertising, websites and press releases, often influenced by petitions, boycotts and letter-writing campaigns [from consumers].”

Brand identity and reputation management are not new concepts either, but a shift from promoting the features of a product or service to a lifestyle or worldview is more recent. It’s not enough to have a good product or service anymore. It’s not even enough to be an ethically responsible corporate citizen (unless you use that as a marketing value). Brands need to represent a lifestyle or way of being and living in the world so that it says something about who you are when you buy or use that product. This has blurred the lines between institutional mission and creating culture by commentary.

Understanding what happens when those two things cross over is a difficult but important thing to consider. A carefully worded statement may express the genuinely held belief of a board, corporate leadership team or even a workforce, but using a genuine position on an issue of justice can get tangled up with generating PR value and can all too easily become a manipulative way to increase brand awareness.

“Without being too cynical, it’s not hard to suppose that businesses that make such statements might primarily be interested in saying the sorts of things that people want to hear to increase public perception of being morally concerned, when, in fact, who knows?” says Dr. Adam Barkman, professor of philosophy. “We ought to respect business for being moral, not simply for saying moral things.”

Making a statement on social media may not necessarily equate to any new, related action, or for that matter, any sincerely held belief at all. That’s not to say a corporation can’t be socially responsible and give back to the common good or participate in cultural discussion. Redeemer’s business program will encourage that very thing. Many of today’s big brands have entire departments dedicated to managing corporate responsibility, charitable divisions and social enterprise, where giving back or doing good is “baked into” the mission. This is a positive, growing trend. But social media has tended to further blur the lines between marketing, public relations, information and entertainment.

The dawn of the social influencer and #ads have complicated the matter even further. On many social media platforms, a popular individual could have the same weight and presence as a major brand, organization or institution. But of course, individuals and businesses do not operate the same way offline. It may be easier for a celebrity or influencer to put out a statement relating to something the individual feels strongly about, while anyone who has worked for a larger organization knows the situation is much different when representing a community or workforce.

“It is one thing to weigh your own perspectives and to be responsible for your own behaviour online,” says Josh Sieders, acting associate vice president of marketing and communications. “It’s another to post on behalf of an entire community, especially when the basis for that community is not built around a single issue or goal, but rather around a shared faith that is expressed in a variety of ways. The community that makes up an institution may have strong missional alignment yet be culturally diverse. That has huge implications for what they will consider appropriate to represent them.”

Nuance and Division

Many of society’s justice issues have become incredibly complex and often politically charged. While some movements seem like they should be pretty clear cut, others are decidedly not. Even in a room full of Bible-believing Christians rooted in the same Reformed tradition, there can be a diverse collection of thoughts and opinions. A diversity of thought held within biblical boundaries can be seen as a strength at an institution like Redeemer. Healthy discussion and debate create an environment of rich and robust learning, encouraging critical thinking, and personal faith growth, all critical elements of a Christian university education. But making quick, concise posts forces an institution to do the opposite. Rather than the discussion, listening and reflection that should characterize the learning space, institutional statements eliminate nuance and promote uniform thinking and narratives.

“I don’t think [social media] allows for extended, thoughtful and nuanced engagement with matters of social justice,” says Dr. Ben Faber, associate professor of English. He agrees that administration, faculty and staff at Redeemer may not be unified in their views on social issues. “Who represents Redeemer on delicate, difficult and potentially divisive issues?”

There are many timely matters of immense importance happening all around us. These matters may bring considerable pain and remind us that the world is still broken by sin and not as God designed it. There can often be quick and wide agreement among Christians about the gravity or morality of an event or issue, and at the same time, there can be a wide diversity of opinions about the causes and solutions. Some will tackle them through political action or public advocacy while others will choose a career in a different field, volunteer, pray, give money or serve in other ways. While social media can help raise awareness, change perceptions and mobilize the masses around an important cause, in the end, we still need to take action apart from it – in the “real” world – in order to affect actual change.

A Faithful Response

So what is an institution like Redeemer to do with all this? We live in an increasingly digital world and Redeemer’s purpose is to provide a relevant, Christ-centred education to students entering this digital culture. How can Redeemer faithfully respond to this complex reality?

“Redeemer should try to facilitate conversation within Redeemer around these issues,” said another Media Ethics class student. “They are big issues. Even if Redeemer doesn’t comment on social media, if they had a way to facilitate these conversations, that would be good. As Christians how do we show we care?”

It’s through exposure to conversation, discussion and learning both in the classroom and beyond that many in the Redeemer community act on a passion for justice that goes far beyond even the most genuine sentiments posted on social media.

“Redeemer should definitely lead by example,” says Bill Fledderus, adjunct lecturer in English and senior editor at Faith Today regarding its justice-seeking activities. “There are a lot of passionate and wise people at Redeemer who have a diverse set of ideas about social justice, and some are acting on those ideas and beliefs. Redeemer can use its social media to highlight what faculty, students, administrators and others are saying and doing on social justice issues, and especially how they might articulate a biblical rationale in support of that.”

There are a lot of passionate and wise people at Redeemer who have a diverse set of ideas about social justice, and some are acting on those ideas and beliefs.

“It’s true that Redeemer uses media of all kinds, including social, to present a brand or identity like everyone else. But there is not one way to engage the world for Christ, and Christianity does not map neatly onto any one political system or party,” says Sieders. “Being aware of that, we have to be careful about wandering into other identities with different objectives. Our mission is often upstream of culture. Redeemer is investing in faculty research to examine every discipline from a kingdom perspective. We are educating and shaping students to think from that biblical perspective so that they will go out and grapple with media and injustice and many other things. Redeemer’s social presence then is most authentic when it shares the stories of faculty, students and alumni living out the mission in diverse ways, rather than taking centre stage in the public square ourselves.”

The ultimate goal is to see God glorified through Redeemer’s graduates, reflecting his love in their workplaces, communities, churches and homes wherever God calls them. Promotion of Redeemer is not for the institution’s own glory, but to invite others to participate in God’s amazing story of redemption through his people. May the character of the university’s marketing and media reflect that always.

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