Yes, I admit it. The question in the title isn’t terribly nice. It usually precedes a dismissive statement: “Why should I listen to you? You got us lost last time.” “Why should I listen to you? You don’t know anything.”

Our ironic postmodern culture is very good at dismissive. We’re always scoping out the credentials behind the statement—and the hidden agenda behind the credentials. “Why should I listen to you? You’re a [liberal/atheist/fundamentalist/Wall Street trader/Tea Partier/socialist/wingnut].”

But is there something to the question? Why should I listen to you (or read your book, or visit your blog, etc.)? Is it legitimate to pay more attention to one person’s opinions than another’s?

Sure it is. But we can take it too far.

First, a review of the reasons why some opinions are more equal than others:

  • Expertise. If I can’t grasp the potential hazards of offshore oil drilling, I’ll give more credence to a mechanical engineer than to a U.S. senator or my Green Party friend who doesn’t understand the technical side.
  • Vested interests. Yes, agendas do play a role. If that mechanical engineer depends on ExxonMobil for her livelihood, I’ll take that into account when weighing her words.
  • Track record. Over the years I have found David Brooks and Thomas Friedman to be thoughtful, incisive analysts who approach each new issue free of rigid party-line bias. So when they write about the next big issue I’m more inclined to trust them.
  • Time. I haven’t read any books by Richard Dawkins, the prominent thinker who often writes against the concepts of God and religion. I might gain a lot by reading Dawkins, and I’d certainly sit down with his articles or blog. But I only have so much time—and given what I know, I’ve decided that reading an entire book like his God Delusion is not the best use of it.

So. All we do is use this set of filters to decide whom to hear and whom to dismiss, right?

Not so fast. There’s an important distinction to be made here.  We can certainly dismiss ideas. We should never dismiss people.

Two reasons why. First, people are always surprising us. Perhaps my Green Party friend has done extensive research on drilling technology. Maybe Richard Dawkins has a message I need to consider. If we dismiss these folks entirely from our consciousness, we cut ourselves off from any opportunity to hear a perspective that could broaden our own. Those opportunities—and the wisdom they may engender—are too valuable to pass up.

The second reason has to do with intrinsic human worth. Nearly all faith traditions (not to mention other worldviews) find inestimable value in human beings. By paying attention to people, we affirm that value. We honor the person behind the opinion. And we fulfill the imperative toward compassion that springs from the heart of the Divine.

What about you? To whom do you pay attention? Are there some people whose opinions you can barely tolerate? How do you deal with that?