Monitor Board of Contributors: Compromise is a heroic (and lost) art
Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
It’s the courage of a bully, the arrogance of ego, yet it’s been turned into something admirable. In fact, it has crippled us, and if not called out, will be our undoing.
We see it as a point of pride not to compromise. “Stand your ground.” “Never give in.” “Refuse to back down.” All seen as virtuous. Even the word “compromise” comes with negative connotations of moral failure, weakness, a lack of structural integrity.
And yet there is nothing so absolutely necessary for successful human interactions.
Give and take, negotiation, flexibility, are how we all get along with one another, whether we are putting together the town budget or getting through a traffic jam. In those instances where we are trying to get something accomplished, even if it’s just our shopping, the guy in the way who refuses to move, who insists on getting what he wants without budging an inch, isn’t a hero. He’s a jerk.
Of course, if it’s someone representing us, a lawyer or a senator, we want them to stand firm for our interests. Get the case won for us, get that spending for our district, get that law passed, and the devil take the opposition. It’s just fine if the jerk is our jerk.
You can see how well that works when you begin looking at it on the grand scale. Representatives in Congress so pig-headedly determined not to give an inch that absolutely nothing gets done. World leaders so obsessed with advancing their own national (or factional) interests that they are willing to let hundreds of thousands of people suffer and die for it. And instead of seeing the stupidity of this blind idealism, they use all that suffering to whip up support, insisting that they must win, so all that misery will not have been in vain.
Ireland, the Middle East, Sudan, Rwanda, North Korea, China, and yes, the United States, the list goes on and on. People picking a side and standing firm, fighting for it, refusing to give up, never backing down. Never compromise! That’s a sign of weakness.
Well, no it’s not. It’s how we get things done. It’s how we resolve conflicts and settle differences. It’s how we move forward. The hero is not the one who stands firm and refuses to budge. The hero is the one who manages to reach out, to talk calmly, to put aside prejudice and grudges and figure out a way for each side to understand the other and reach an agreement.
Politicians go in terror of being accused of compromising, when actually that’s 90 percent of their job. Ideally, they take the interests of their constituency and weigh them against the interests of the state or nation as a whole, seeking a balance. In the long run, this benefits everybody. Today’s climate of self-interested competition has a representative stubbornly considering only those who elected him, and to hell with everybody else. His supporters expect him to get what they want, never mind what that does to the country as a whole. In the long run that bogs the entire parade down in the mud, and nobody gets anything.
In reality, politics is a team sport and we are all on the same team. In this shrinking world, blind nationalism is a distinct liability. We grandstand and spout righteous rhetoric about our particular cause while the house burns down around us. Nobody grabs the bucket of water because we are too busy fighting over who has the right to it.
This has got to stop. This year, as we go about town business, try a different attitude. Stop accusing, threatening litigation, planting your heels stubbornly and refusing to budge an inch on the budget. Listen carefully to the other side. Make suggestions about what seems most important. See how each can get some of what it needs, and choose what will benefit the whole. If someone accuses you of compromising, don’t accept that as an insult, smile and take it as a compliment. You did the heroic thing. You weren’t a jerk.
And maybe, just maybe, if we start doing this at home, we can get our elected officials to see the sense of it. Don’t vote for the jerk who promises to fight for what you want. Vote for the candidate who demonstrates an ability to work and play well with others, who has mastered the art of compromise, who can sort through competing interests and figure out what will benefit the most people in the long term.
It might mean pulling your head out of the echo chamber of your entertainment, news sources and social media circles, and that can be unsettling. We all want to think that we are right, and what we want is worth fighting for. But if we stop posturing and shouting at each other and take the time to listen, to really listen, we may find that we actually have much more in common than we thought. We might be able to figure a way to pass the water bucket and put out the fire. With cooperation. Understanding.
(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)