Hereâ€™s the sort of thing that gets my attention:Â
- A born-again Christian telling me she has no problem with evolution
- The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supporting a repeal of â€œdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€
- George W. Bush proposing a moderate immigration policy
- The head of a regional hospital advocating single-payer healthcare
- Leaders from the Tea Party movement and MoveOn.org saying how much they crave dialogue
- Catholic leaders advocating for the poor (a â€œliberal positionâ€) and against abortion (a â€œconservative positionâ€)
You see the common thread here? All these statements strike a dissonant chord. They make us think, â€œHow can those people take that position when they also believe this?â€
I find these voices terribly important.
To understand why, first consider the voices we usually hear. Spend any time with the news media, and youâ€™ll find yourself hearing, on any given issue, the same things from the same peopleâ€”over and over and over. If a news segment covers abortion, for instance, it will most likely feature a pro-choice advocate touting a â€œwomanâ€™s right to chooseâ€ and a pro-lifer promoting â€œthe rights of the unborn.â€
Now the positions behind those sound bites may have merit. But the endless repetition of the same catchphrases by the same people obscures whatever nuance these positions may have. â€œOf course heâ€™d say that,â€ we think. â€œHeâ€™s a [insert political party or special interest group here].â€
But then someone zags when we expect her to zig. Or she holds two positions that weâ€™ve been led to believe are contradictory. Thereâ€™s your dissonant voice.
These are important, I think, for two reasons. First, when people express a belief contrary to their historical position or perceived self-interest, it implies that they find the belief itself compelling. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a slam-dunk that a hospital CEO would support a single-payer system. So when James Barba of Albany Medical Center does, itâ€™s an opportunity for us to see single-payer differently. If heâ€™s for it, the thinking goes, maybe itâ€™s worth another look.
Second, these dissonant voices can explode our stereotypes. Over the years, Iâ€™ve been guilty of painting the born-again Christian community with too broad a brush. Like many people, I could see them as uniformly literalist, creationist, and overly focused on abortion and gay marriage. So when a priestâ€™s wife touts the beauty of evolution as the means of Godâ€™s creation, or I see born-agains advocating for the environment and social justice, it forces me to rethink my image. More accurately, it forces me to discard the imageâ€”and listen to each unique person with his own unique voice.
Dissonant voices can point out areas of truth. Dissonant voices can help us see our â€œopponentsâ€ more clearlyâ€”and thus treat them more respectfully. See how many of these voices you can hear in the public square.