Grab your bunting and your stars-and-stripes tank top, friends, because we’re nearing our favorite American holiday and we’re sizzling hot with patriotism.
Although, that smoldering isn’t just our love of country. We’re in a heat wave & drought combo that — and I don’t mean this hyperbolically — threatens our democracy.
So this year, instead of fireworks (you know I’m not a big fan), I’ve got just the thing for us all to ignite: our willingness to compromise. If that doesn’t sound like a party to you, remember that neither was the Revolutionary War, so cool it and stay with me.
I recently spoke about effective change-making to the Women’s Democratic Club and figured if the idea of glorifying compromise is going to take hold, it needs a broader audience. It takes two to tangotiate.
Now, I’m no scholar on the ethics of compromise, so take this with a grain of salt. I am just someone who has studied the history of protests and movements, worked for the last 15 years helping materialize greater equity and justice for marginalized communities, and I’m the daughter of educators — one who’s an attorney and mediator.
I’m a practicing compromiser.
And I started early because my parents, despite their skill, wouldn’t arbitrate conflicts between my sister and me. My mom was famous for saying, “I trust you two to figure this out. …” And we’d stomp off and say in reluctant unison, “We know, Mom: share, take turns or make a deal.”
I’ve been surprised to learn, though, that compromise is not always (Paul) revered, even though our great nation was established with painstaking attention to maintaining a distribution of power that keeps some from imposing their will on everyone else (with some *ahem* sizable exceptions that we’re still working to fix).
On one hand, we laud compromise when it’s employed among our family and friends. We see it as the noble way of protecting and nurturing our relationships, because when we like those on the other side, victory isn’t about “winning” — it’s about making it through something together.
But that’s not necessarily true in politics, where we associate compromise with the abandonment of our values and principles. We stand tall on our pedestals of moral purity and balk at the idea of making choices that would move us even one centimeter from our truth and goodness.
I know the feeling, and Carrie Menkel-Meadow describes it well in her piece “Ethics of Compromise,” where she writes, “The classic ethical objection to compromise is that it is a foregoing of principle — that which is philosophically, politically, morally, or personally ‘right’ and ‘true.’ We say that one should not compromise one’s principles, those things we believe in, because it is those moral and political beliefs that are constitutive of who “we” (nation, organization, group, team, or person) are — how we define ourselves and our ‘reasoned” integrity.’”
We’re Americans, for goodness’ sake; we don’t want to even slightly abandon our principles!
And perhaps that’s why we celebrate compromise with our loved ones and give it the side-eye with political opponents: When we value the other person or group, we’re willing to adjust. When we don’t, we’re not.
But in our moments of hyperpolarization, if both we and our opponents each take immovable stances, we all actively choose the status quo over progress — and just because it feels better to us not to budge.
I get that. Except, I think it’s actually antithetical to the American Dream, which is that we see all humans as worthy of protection, inclusion and respect so each of us has the chance to rise up and succeed.
This means that if we want to successfully advocate for and center those who we’ve historically marginalized, we have to seek the humanity of our opponents in order to find sanity in compromise. We may want to focus less on our idea of an immediate utopia and more on ensuring we can get work — even if incremental and even if uncomfortable — done.
And that requires some humility.
Menkel-Meadow writes that she and other legal scholars, historians and political scientists suggest that in addition to assessing when we shouldn’t compromise, we also have to think about “when we should compromise as a matter of human humility, fallibility, and the possibility that we may not be the only one who is morally, politically, or socially right.”
Really, how right can any of us be if so many people disagree with us? And how stable is our moral high ground if it’s predicated on the notion that people who disagree with us aren’t worthy of our consideration and respect?
Now, I understand that compromise isn’t always possible. If we genuinely seek our opponents’ humanity and it’s not there, walk away (bye, Hitler). And sometimes, it isn’t even necessary. When we have an ideological majority, we can just strong-arm our agenda. But the sustainability of change made that way is questionable. Shifts made through force will likely be undone by force when the pendulum of power ultimately swings back in the other direction.
This, though, is why compromise is the American way. It’s how the Affordable Care Act was passed. The Civil Rights Act. Women’s suffrage (which was an imperfect compromise but one nevertheless) and Utah’s very own historic SB296, the anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQ Utahns in housing and employment.
Some prominent legal scholars advocate that compromise actually helps us realize more precise justice. That is, when both sides are willing to concede something, the result can be the manifestation of solutions that don’t leave some with everything and others with nothing.
So while we may feel like making concessions deteriorates our integrity, perhaps we can shift our thinking to realize that a commitment to productivity and progress is, in fact, our most ethically sound choice. While we’re not always great at navigating the gray areas of life, it’s something we have to embrace if we don’t want to implode from the tension of our righteous disagreement.
In order for us to avoid the long-term suffering of many, we have to choose to withstand the short-term discomfort of compromise. And even though that’s hard, I know that Amer-we-can!
So, let’s put the lighters down and celebrate our history by choosing compromise over combustion. (OK, OK, if you live where they haven’t been banned, you can do one as long as it’s before 10 p.m., not aerial and is fully extinguished immediately after.)
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at email@example.com.