One of the pathways to human cruelty is the fact that we understand others largely through conceptual means. Human beings possess a great power to understand through abstract reasoning, which goes far beyond the narrow bounds of our typical experience and sensory perception. Yet, unfortunately, the same power that we have to do good out of abstract reasoning can go horribly awry and lead us into grave trouble. Our empathy can be enhanced when we can reason out how we would feel in someone’s place because of shared circumstances and suffering, which can make us a more humane person. Yet just as easily, we can conceptualize people as others, and deny them the same sort of dignity and honor that we would give ourselves, or those we consider like us. If we simply refuse to see some segment of humanity as being inhuman, we feel justice in acting as inhumane as we wish. Given the immense tendency people have for suffering wrongs through perceptions and fears, this is a very dangerous pathway indeed for humankind, and one that leads regularly and predictably to trouble.
One of the initial stages in this problem is refusing to listen to other people. One of the ways that people escape from unpleasant realities around them is to turn up the volume of their chosen entertainment of perspective until they can no longer hear any other. To be sure, this is something that all of us do in one way or another, filtering out sources of news and communication that are of no interest to us, or that we view with extreme negativity. Consequently, it is extremely common to be able to judge someone’s religious and political worldview simply by looking at the links they share in social media, the sources they cite in their writing, or from their own testimony about what they heard or read recently. Out of the innumerable options that exist for news, we choose for ourselves that which we wish to learn from or give access to our mind, and we simultaneously choose to ignore or reject other sources because of worldview commitments or perspectives. As a result, two people who have different belief systems and different perspectives will gather their facts from which they base their judgements from different and often contradictory sources.
In such an environment, it is an easy thing to stop listening to others simply because they speak a different language or focus on different elements or possess a different perspective, even where they are not necessarily hostile to us, but merely different. This is especially true to the extent that there is conflict or disagreement about what course to take, and where listening to the strident and heated words of opposition may inspire anger within us, so it is easier not to listen or pay attention at all, even if it means that we have less of an ability to understand where someone else is actually coming from, and whether in fact they can be understood as the same sort of beings as we are, with different sets of assumptions, and different perspectives borne out of different perceptions as well as different experiences. We may have to interact with such people, but if we do we will seek to keep the interactions as superficial as possible, so as not to threaten the shallow basis for goodwill that exists between two people who know little of each other, and who do not like what they happen to know, but who wish to at least act in concert in some fashion despite their partisan divides. As a result the amount of people we are able to work well with is often limited to those who agree with us to a great extent, and we lose the value of those who come at problems from a different angle, simply because we do not have any basis of mutual respect in the absence of respect and communication.
We can see the signs of this in our present society and in our present world, and it comes with tragic circumstances. Whenever you see a people who by all rights ought to work together in a place where they get their news from different sources and treat the worldview and perspective of the other with withering scorn, and I have seen and participated in this process enough to recognize it, a serious conflict is on the way. It is such a mindset that leads to schisms and divorces and civil wars and other threats to unity and harmony either on the scale of friends and families, or communities and congregations, or larger-scale institutions like churches and states. How do we turn down the volume enough so that we can hear enough from someone to see them as a people, and not see them as an “other,” someone to be ignored whose input and perspective is to be entirely rejected and marginalized? For we are all people, imperfect ones at that, with our own personalities and proclivities, our own perspectives and partisan commitments borne out of where we stand and where we sit. How are we to all get along, seeing as the world we live in requires the aid and assistance of all in order to make anything better than the mess we have been given?