Here’s the sort of thing that gets my attention:
- A born-again Christian telling me she has no problem with evolution
- The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supporting a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”
- 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 “liberal position”) and against abortion (a “conservative position”)
You see the common thread here? All these statements strike a dissonant chord. They make us think, “How can those people take that position when they also believe this?”
I find these voices terribly important.
To understand why, first consider the voices we usually hear. Spend any time with the news media, and you’ll find yourself hearing, on any given issue, the same things from the same people—over and over and over. If a news segment covers abortion, for instance, it will most likely feature a pro-choice advocate touting a “woman’s right to choose” and a pro-lifer promoting “the rights of the unborn.”
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. “Of course he’d say that,” we think. “He’s a [insert political party or special interest group here].”
But then someone zags when we expect her to zig. Or she holds two positions that we’ve been led to believe are contradictory. There’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 don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that a hospital CEO would support a single-payer system. So when James Barba of Albany Medical Center does, it’s an opportunity for us to see single-payer differently. If he’s for it, the thinking goes, maybe it’s worth another look.
Second, these dissonant voices can explode our stereotypes. Over the years, I’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 priest’s wife touts the beauty of evolution as the means of God’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 image—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 “opponents” more clearly—and thus treat them more respectfully. See how many of these voices you can hear in the public square.