The term via media originated in the nineteenth century to describe the middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism, first charted centuries earlier by Queen Elizabeth I navigating her bloody family feud. It is attributed to John Henry Newman who wrote that via media is “neither the one nor the other, but with something of each, cutting between them, and trifling with them both.”
This isn’t unlike the story of America herself, as perhaps our founders most profound insight was to see our diversity as a creative force. Madison called this “factionalism” which he thought promoted deliberation and moderation. A devotion to what Alexander Hamilton referred to as “the constant clashing of opinion” is a fundamental principle of American democracy and I’d argue no small part of our having become a light in the world.
But mature and respectful struggle is hard given human nature, particularly in the age of uber-individualization of everything from I Tune playlists to news programming, and we’re increasingly avoiding the difficulties that come with disagreement. With the rise of a million choices, many of us choose to lead our lives never hearing a peep from people who don’t see it our way. As a result, the marketplace of ideas is ailing, replaced by a growing “tribal” hatred that has written far too many chapters in human history before America came along.
The psychology of like-minded groups is well documented over a hundred years of social psychology experiments: They grow more extreme in the direction of the majority opinion – to the point of actually denying facts in favor of a shared view of reality. We think that describes our current political environment, with two diametrically opposed sets of views and sets of facts.
Enter The Village Square, created by Tallahassee leaders with enduring across-the-aisle friendships and a commitment to revive the central role of jostling of ideas in solving real problems. Our nervy goal is to revive the uniquely American marketplace of ideas, where people stay connected despite their disagreements. We think that has to be done one relationship at a time – one community at a time – beginning in Tallahassee.
Our quarterly “Dinner at the Square” series takes on the most contentious issues of our day and our project “We the People” – winning a highly nationally competitive Knight Community Information Challenge grant through the Community Foundation of North Florida – will offer programming on hot local and state topics along with a groundbreaking project to civilize a tiny part of the internet.
The Village Square will complete its third dinner season this summer on June 22 with “Here I am, Stuck in the Culture Wars with You.” In the fall we will launch the Knight Foundation project, trying to involve as many community organizations and individuals as partners in the project. After building a strong foundation in Tallahassee, we hope The Village Square will grow to new communities.
The early Anglican Church ultimately agreed that – through the Book of Common Prayer – Catholics and Protestants could hit their knees in prayer together even while they disagree.
The Village Square thinks we can find common humanity at the dinner table while we “trifle with them both.”
That’s no small thing. Great countries have been built on it.
(This article was prepared for St. John’s Episcopal Church (The Village Square’s host church) newsletter called Logos.)