Dissonance

Author: Adrian Williams
June 17, 2020

In this past month, I have spent a good amount of time talking with people who are struggling with feelings of discomfort. In many cases this discomfort comes from having their understanding of their place in the world disrupted. This causes a dissonance between experience and understanding, a feeling that is new and uncomfortable for many of us. Yet it is in dissonance that we can move to decentralize our own experience and begin to recreate and recirculate truly faithful ideals in the world.

Dissonance is often defined in musical terms; a jarring, harsh, disagreeing discord. When dissonance happens, something has inserted itself unceremoniously into the comforting narrative and we recognize it as out of place and in need of removal. Yet dissonance is essential if we want to grow and move towards God’s intent for the world. The root of the word dissonance more literally means to sound in different directions, and this is essential to decentralizing the norms of our world and creating space where all experiences have equal value and footing.

Decentralizing is a particularly uncomfortable thought, and one fraught with dissonance, for those of us who in various forms have had our experience centralized and circulated in discourse as normative. We have to remember that decentralizing does not erase significance, it highlights how we need to negotiate our particular framework of knowledge. We must see ourselves as “subjects in process,” as Juana Maria Rodriguez and Norma Alcaron point out we are in the process of becoming, being, and doing. It is particularly true in times like these that we embrace the doing, particularly through the dissonance and disruption. 

The current dissonance we are experiencing is related to our understanding of the idea of “human.” To be human in the Christian ethic is to be made in the image of God, and by that nature we are likely to assign God values and understandings that are in line with our own experiences. This view of God then becomes centralized in worship and study as well as through our lived experiences. It is here that disruptive experiences begin to feel like dissonance. They challenge that which has been centralized and normalized, pushing not just an understanding of self out into a light to be examined, but the very ideas that allow us to feel we understand the human experience. 

Here, relationality takes center stage. As we relate to others, we must ask ourselves: Under what circumstances was our understanding of certain traits constructed and whose interests do those understandings serve? This means not just looking at the individual, but how certain pieces of identity are viewed by us and by larger society. This is not just though looking at another, but also beginning to look at ourselves through others lenses, seeing how pieces of our own identity have been formed and used to maintain systems and to construct narratives of normalcy. As we begin to look at ourselves from outside our own center, we are more able to destabilize the societal ideals of being “human” and begin to see what traits and structures have been centralized unfairly.

"Intersectionality" is a word that gets thrown around a lot currently. Intersectionality is being able to see people and systems beyond singular “defining” characteristics. It is taking into account many different pieces of the individual (class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) and recognizing that equalizing a single part without equalizing the whole is a failure of justice and equity. This is the other place where relationality takes center stage. In efforts to bring equity to all, we must work to understand how the various normative and dissonant pieces of ourselves relate to one another, not only for us personally but also at a systemic level. This allows us to better see how the centralized normal renders ourselves and others more vulnerable in life and society.

The hardest piece of this for most of us is that it is “not pretty.” Dissonance feels jarring to those who only know the centralized narrative. This is particularly true when dissonance brings emotions and feelings to the forefront. When things are solely academic or theoretical, it is easy to remove the dissonance or to blend it back into the centralized narrative. When we begin to bring emotions and feelings to the forefront, we realize the dissonance is bound up in the sticky relation between experience and bodies and this materializes as the surfaces and boundaries of our lived experience. That is to say we begin to truly see how the centralized narrative and how enmeshed it is in our systems produce heightened vulnerability, illegibility, and detrimental psychological tolls on minoritarian and dissonant identities. 

Dissonance thus is something to embrace. It is deeply affective and relational, and thus offers some of our best looks at the material stakes of our own perspectives and of the systems of the centralized narrative. It allows us to stop looking at individual cases as simply a failure to comply with expectations, but rather as an issue with the centralized narrative itself. Dissonance brings to light how relations get formed and constructed, how roles are performed and solidified, and how systems attempt to remove things that destabilize that narrative and in that process obscure the dissonance and any non-centralized narrative. If we are to truly analyze the performance and structure of our faith, we must recognize that God never intended the centralized narrative we live in, but rather intended for dissonance to be the norm. That is to say that the most God-like way we can live is in mystery, in the ever discerning work of undoing power and seeking new voices and narratives to be in the center while removing the things we have placed there to truly make space for all the voices to challenge us and move us forward. Amen.



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