There are times in the history of every nation when its character is tested and defined. Too often it happens with war, natural disasters or economic collapse. Then the shouting gets our attention.

But there are also our quieter moments – the ones that reveal solid truths about who we are and what we stand for. We are in one of those moments right now.

How should we recognise Indigenous Australians? Can our economy be repaired in an even-handed manner? How will we choose if forced to decide between China and the United States? How do we create safe ways for people seeking asylum? Can we grow our economy and protect our people and environments? These are just some of the questions we face.

And here’s another question. Do we have the capacity to talk about these things without tearing ourselves and each other apart? There are some safe places for open conversation about difficult questions. Twenty five years ago I began work at The Ethics Centre, a not-for-profit dedicated to creating such questions.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is one such place. This weekend, 1400 Sydneysiders will gather at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas – in a brand new home on Cockatoo Island – to explore different views and perspectives on issues surrounding truth, trust and the battle of polarities in our society.

Why host a festival to explore dangerous ideas? 

Sadly, there is a growing ‘fragility’ across Australian society. The demand for crystalline ideological purity (you’re completely ‘with us’ or ‘against us’) puts us at risk of a fractured and stuffy world of absolutes.

Too often, I see conversations shut down before they have even begun. People with a contrary point of view are faced with outrage, shouted down or silenced by others driven by the certainty of righteous indignation. In such a world, there is no nuance, no seeking to understand the grey areas or subtleties of argument.

“Attempts to prove to people that they are wrong just leads to stalemate. Barricades go up and each side lobs verbal ‘grenades’. There is another way. “

This phenomenon crosses the political spectrum – embracing ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ alike. In my opinion, it is the product of a self-fulfilling fear that our society’s ‘ethical skin’ is too thin to survive the prick of controversy and debate. This is a poisonous belief that drains the life from a liberal democracy.

Fortunately, the antidote is easily at hand. In essence we need to spend less time trying to change other people’s minds and more in trying to understand their point of view – by taking them entirely seriously.

Why make this change? Because attempts to prove to people that they are wrong just leads to stalemate. Barricades go up and each side lobs verbal ‘grenades’. There is another way. We could allow people to work out what the boundaries are for their own beliefs. Working out the lines we cannot cross is often the first step towards others and can only happen constructively when people feel safe. Giving people the space to fall on just the right side of such lines can make a world of difference.

So I wonder, might we pause for a moment, climb down from our battle stations and call a cease-fire in the wars of ideas? Might we recognise the person on the other side of an issue may not be unprincipled? Perhaps they’re just differently principled. Can we see in the face of our ideological opponent another person of good will? What then might we discover about each other; what unites and what divides? What then might we understand about the issues that will define us as a people?

Let’s rediscover the art of difficult discussions in which success is measured in the combination of passion and respect. Let’s banish the bullies – even those who claim to be ‘well-intentioned’. They have no place in the conversations we now need to have.

Follow the #FODI conversation on Twitter, and keep an eye on our Instagram for on the ground action at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas.