Similar to words like bipartisan, common ground, collaborative and agreement, these words are often embraced as obviously positive things. The argument goes, “After all, if we could just ‘come together’ and unite around this kind of common ground or agreement...if we could just find this unity, wouldn’t things start to improve?”  

Yes - say some. No - say others. Some who say “yes” argue that any opinion that is in the “middle” between two extremes is probably the best because often moderate behavior is best (e.g. when it comes to how much food one should eat: not too much, and not too little). Others says yes on the grounds that the middle view is best because it’s a compromise, and compromise is in general a virtue.

Phil Neisser, author of United We Fall,  is one of those who says “no,” unity is not what is needed, that what societies need instead is a robust and productivedisagreement practice that welcomes extreme ideas into the mix. He also argues that those ideas should, like all ideas, be considered with a critical eye. After all, being extreme does not in itself make an idea better. On the other hand, says Neisser, neither does it make them worse. After all, weren’t most moderate or widely accepted ideas at one time considered extreme? Opposition to slavery, for example, used to be a widely considered and excessively radical notion. Wasn’t it, even back then, actually the right idea?

Obviously a move to include extreme ideas could add simply more name-calling and anger to public discourse, while failing to add any new listening and learning. Today’s dialogue movement , on the other hand, is based on the idea that there are peaceful, productive ways to communicate whereby all points of view engage each other, listening and learning take place, bad ideas gradually get countered by good ones, and those who continue to disagree nonetheless come to see each other as fellow human beings. From this point of view, then, a good community is one that includes a great deal of difference and disagreement, but does so in a way that enriches the lives of all.  

Is there, then, a “middle ground” position on the subject of whether the middle is best? If so, maybe it’s this: Maybe, rather than idealizing unity or disagreement, people should welcome tension between agreement and disagreement, or between unity and separation, and even look at it as healthy. Maybe, rather than each person or group trying to stake out a position on one part of the political spectrum and leaving it at that, each of us should try to appreciate difference and make an effort to reach agreement as best we can. Granted, sometimes that will only clarify our differences, perhaps thereby making some disagreements more severe. On the other hand, even in that case we would at least know better where we each stand.