On a day dedicated to liberty, equality, and fraternity, France reeled against yet another terrorist attack.
It was a bitter reminder that violent extremism is an unfortunate fixture. To counter it, society should focus on cultivating understanding and empathy – not peace. Peace is elusive because peace is unlikely.
The exclusionary rhetoric
Conflicts around the world arise from the perception of differences. They may be political in practice, but they relate to something far more intrinsic in nature.
Finding differences, rather than similarities, is a window into the evolutionary strategies that allowed early humans to identify potential dangers and ensure their survival.
It would be an effective strategy if humans still encountered sabre-tooth tigers. But they don’t; they encounter each other.
The exclusionary rhetoric of debates on immigration, which will surely ensue in the wake of the Bastille Day attack, is evidence enough of growing social divisions.
The polarity stems from an “us” versus “them” binary that allows individuals to cast judgments while maintaining a sense of superiority and entitlement. And it is this polarity and the tension it generates that staves off peace.
Dehumanisation is a choice. Calling a police officer a 'pig' or reducing any population to a 'threat' not only perpetuates stereotypes, it does nothing to temper discontent.
In a talk at Oxford University entitled “Encountering Others” anthropologist Henrietta Moore offered a simple but pragmatic solution to the discord around the world today.
She urged that amid a desire to find differences, people must use their “ethical imagination” – the very human capacity to empathise and envision one’s self in another’s place.
An ethical imagination allows people to objectively understand human beings and, above all, being human.
In the impetus to classify and label people, it is worth a pause to think about what happens when we suspend bias and judgment: we begin to understand the other. We begin to perceive similarities that define human universals. We begin to see a reflection of ourselves.
Negating our dynamic nature
Too often, politicians and policymakers conceptualise world events as parts of processes and systems that are divorced from the human component.
Humans are considered in attempts to predict behaviour and pre-empt threats; an approach that negates the dynamic nature of human societies.
Disciplines such as the social sciences, however, inspire approaches to problems that remain faithful to people – the one constant amid a variety of social, political, and environmental issues.
When investigating the draw of violent extremism, for example, governments tend to focus on the processes that enable recruitment.
What they overlook is that “violent extremism” is not a thing in and of itself – it is a choice enacted by human beings. It is not the act of extremism or the medium of radicalisation, but the individual that begs understanding.
Dehumanisation is a choice. Calling a police officer a “pig” or reducing any population to a “threat” not only perpetuates stereotypes, it does nothing to temper discontent.
Seeking comfort in the insularity of bias and hearsay makes it easier to treat others with indifference – specifically people with whom we would like to believe we do not share similarities in values and dignity.
Faulty assumptions override good judgment, just as fear disables the courage to do the right thing.
Fearmongering, as a result, has become an effective tactic for governments and organisations to constitute complacent subjects.
Donald Trump has preyed upon the fears of Americans, who believe that United States’ national security hangs by a thread – one under assault from “others” who are not American-born, English-speaking, Christian Caucasians.
Urging the unity of communities based on exclusion rather than inclusion will have lasting adverse effects.
Such politics instigate suspicions that stifle the ethical imagination. The more people are judged, forced out, and dehumanised, the more they become embittered and unfeeling.
The pressure to conform
Take, for instance, Omar Mateen – the gunman who targeted the homosexual community at a gay nightclub in Florida last month.
Born to a socially conservative, religious family, Mateen repressed his homosexuality for fear of being alienated for deviating from the norm.
Compound his issues with the fact that he was part of the Afghan diaspora in the US, where tight community networks and the pretence of keeping up appearances often define self-presentation.
Particularly where perceptions of class matter, one’s values and comportment are reflections of his/her upbringing and a commentary on the status of the household.
For Mateen, the pressure to conform to conservative social norms for his family’s sake in conjunction with the Afghan community’s reticence about sexuality – and general homophobia – contributed to his anger, sense of inadequacy, and ultimately, a tragic end for the 49 people killed and 53 people wounded.
Although he most likely suffered from some sort of pathological psychological disorder, his cold-blooded mass murdering is a reminder of what people are capable when they lack understanding, support, and a sense of community – in Mateen’s case, he attempted to secure the latter by pledging support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The roots of some of the problems countenanced by the world today are complex, but not all that complicated.
Individuals and states can avoid falling into a Hobbesian trap by suspending fear and judgment, and creating a basis of trust and understanding through sincere interactions.
However, especially in the realm of domestic and international politics, people would rather be insular and paranoid than being objective, sincere, and risk being wrong.
The basic principle of having an ethical imagination is an honest pursuit of understanding and tolerance; of recognising and mitigating personal biases, and simply but sincerely being kind.
It may sound terrifically facile. But it is humanity’s one legitimate hope against bloodshed over differences by people who bleed the same.
Morwari Zafar is an international security consultant and a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Oxford.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.