In a pluralistic society, it is imperative that we understand each other, and not simply project our own preconceptions onto people.
Even where we vehemently disagree, we need to listen to what the other person is actually saying, and not what we think they’re saying.
Too often, we already assume we know what people believe. We then attribute malicious intentions, and lying lips, to groups whom we oppose.
It’s therefore important we learn to impute positive motivations to those who are our political, social, ideological, or religious opponents.
As in personal matters, disagreements can become heated, and we end up falling out, due to misunderstandings, arising from trivial matters.
But if we do, it may result in a permanent rift, and prevent reconciliation, or coming together at a later date.
Sometimes we may find we agree about some things, and disagree about others. So, if we label a particular group as ‘evil’ it may stop us from cooperating on issues we agree on.
This means disagreeing without demonising the ‘other’. The point is illustrated well by the present series of the prestigious Reith Lectures on BBC Radio.
Margaret MacMillan, Professor of History at Oxford University, is delivering this year’s series of lectures, about the history of warfare, entitled The mark of Cain.
One of the points she makes is that wars are often preceded by a ramping up of political language, which excludes dialogue and refuses to see the reasonableness of the other side’s point of view.
The lack of understanding which went before, and led to the, First World War (whose end we remember this year) is an exemplary case.
Another, is the present anti-immigrant rhetoric exercised by the US government against South American migrants, exploiting the prejudice and nativism of US Nationalism.
This is so dangerous that the Senior British Rabbi in Reform Judaism, Laura Janner-Klausner, has issued a stark warning.
The current dehumanisation and decline in respect for human beings is, she claims, reminiscent of conditions which often lead to genocide.
We might say the same for Europe, as attitudes harden towards immigrants, thus providing support for fascist and right-wing populist parties.
But we also have to look within. The fault-lines are internal to us all. How often do we simply adopt opinions because the social, political or religious group we belong to believes them?
We should ask ourselves the question: is there any belief we hold which does not fit in with the consistent worldview of our particular coterie?
If we are always in agreement with our own in-group, then we may not be thinking independently, but siphoning our thoughts from the collective and conformist group-think.
This applies whether we identify as Right or Left. Does every single political position we hold fit neatly within the respectable spectrum of our faction? Or are there some outliers?
Consistency may be the worst enemy of thinking. Perhaps our best gesture towards independent thought is to hold a viewpoint which is angular, ill-fitting, standing out, even from our friends.