In 2013, the federal government was on the verge of shutdown due to the lack of an approved budget. As budget bills were drafted and proposed, the topic of funding Obamacare came under fierce debate.
In response to this encroaching crisis, our elected officials convened, and Ted Cruz decided to read Green Eggs and Ham to the Senate floor. I’m guessing that most of the other Senators were already familiar with the story, but for anyone that wasn’t, they no doubt appreciated the opportunity to expand their literary boundaries.
Cruz decided that he’d rather make a show of his unwillingness to compromise instead of working with the opposition. He decided that his constituents would rather see him waste everyone’s time than work on solving the very real problem of responsibly funding the government.
He’d liken his struggles in trying to prevent families’ access to health care to those who struggled against the Nazis. A ridiculously delusional comparison if there ever was one.
Shortly afterwards, the Congressional approval rating dropped to an all-time low of 9%. Nine percent. It seems like you’d have to be actively trying to get it that low.
And while 2013 may have been the last time that the rhymes of Dr. Seuss graced our Congressional floor, last month’s Congressional approval rating was still only 18%. Because while the antics have changed, the mentality – and the results – have not.
A mentality that also seems to be creeping into the rest of our lives.
When Did Compromise Start Meaning Weakness?
“What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is,” poet Anaïs Nin wrote in a letter to Henry Miller. And yet, how frequently do we find ourselves stubbornly unwilling to consider the compromises that come with accepting the differences of others?
At some point the word “compromise” became synonymous with weakness. We started seeing those willing to compromise as those who were admitting defeat.
Anne Truitt describes this tendency – and its caustic impact on our relationships – well in one series of journal entries, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist,
“We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be.”
We glorify the hero who sacrifices everything in an unwillingness to compromise. We laud hard-line negotiators for refusing to budge an inch on a deal. And we celebrate debates in which changing your mind is a failure.
Through it all, we become more closed-minded and less open to new ideas. And when compromise isn’t an option, there’s no real point in listening to new perspectives. There’s no real point in understanding new ideas.
After which it stops being principled integrity. And just becomes self-righteousness. And willful ignorance.
Everyone Has Their Own Justification
“I shall argue that strong men, conversely, know when to compromise and that all principles can be compromised to serve a greater principle.” – Andrew Carnegie
We often attribute the idea of holding strong to our principles as maintaining our morality. Yet this behavior of self-righteousness refuses to allow the constructive discussion of new ideas. Examining this paradox of behavior, Joan Didion wrote the essay, On Morality, asking,
“‘I followed my own conscience.’ ‘I did what I thought was right.’ How many madmen have said it and meant it?”
As we refuse to entertain the concept of compromising our positions, we further push ourselves into the certainty of our own righteousness. In Didion’s words,
“When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something … but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen.”
How often do we find ourselves unwilling to challenge our existing positions and unwilling to consider the validity of our opposition’s views? All within the guise of refusing to compromise?
As the walls of our filter bubbles become increasingly opaque and our echo chamber volume’s turned up, our unwillingness to compromise quickly becomes closed-mindedness. Which transitions nicely into the self-righteousness of madmen.
A Surprising Champion of Compromise
“Never lose sight of the need to reach out and talk to other people who don’t share your view. Listen to them and see if you can find a way to compromise.” – Colin Powell
In his upcoming book, The Restless Wave, Senator John McCain warns against this specific behavior, self-proclaiming himself a “champion of compromise,” and considers it the only way to effectively govern a society of 325 million unique individuals.
“Principled compromises aren’t unicorns. They can be found when we put political advantage slightly second to the problem we’re trying to solve. Muddling through, hashing out policy agreements that thrill no one but are acceptable to most, is a useful achievement in a republic.”
McCain, a man with whose politics I frequently disagree, still has my utmost respect. A man whose story we’ve heard enough times that we’ve become desensitized to it, understands better than most that there are areas in which we cannot and should never compromise.
As a prisoner at the Hoa Lo prison – the infamous Hanoi Hilton – weighing 100 pounds with untreated fractures and bayonet wounds to the groin (yeah, imagine an untreated bayonet wound to the groin…) and in a condition where the other POWs fully expected him to die, he was offered a release by his captors as a PR stunt.
Yet the Military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured. And others had been in Hoa Lo for much longer. McCain refused to violate the Code.
In response, the prison commandant had guards break McCain’s ribs, re-break his arm, and knock his teeth out. He still refused to leave without the other POWs.
You’ve probably heard this before. But consider what that would have been like to have every natural urge within you screaming for that release. Would you have turned it down? Could you have?
I don’t know. But the point is this. John McCain chose to spend the next four years of his life in that prison, often in a dark box, retaining his sanity by tapping messages on the walls to others rather than compromise a Code.
So if there’s any doubt as to whether he recognizes the importance of holding strong to principles in the face of adversity, those should be banished right now.
But even with this internal fortitude, he also knows the importance of working to reduce self-righteousness and collaborate towards shared objectives. As he wrote,
“Paradoxically, voters who detest Washington because all we do is argue and never get anything done frequently vote for candidates who are the most adamant in their assurances that they will never ever compromise with those bastards in the other party. Instead they complain about Senate rules that don’t let them command obedience from the opposition; or the court that ruled some foolish executive order unconstitutional; or any handy entity they can blame for their failure to get anything done despite the moral superiority of their my-way-or-the-highway approach. When they eventually quit or lose an election and return from whence they came, they leave little behind. Yes, I’d rather have a few more problem solvers than purists in Washington. Their zeal may be commendable, but not, as it usually happens, terribly productive.”
McCain goes on to suggest that our solution to this polarized trend must come through humility. He suggests that without the humility to recognize that none of us has a monopoly on morality, we’ll continue to close ourselves off to both collaboration and common solutions.
“There is a scarcity of humility in politics these days. I suspect it’s never been in abundant supply in most human enterprises. And I don’t mean modesty. Any politician worth a damn can fake modesty. Humility is the self-knowledge that you possess as much inherent dignity as anyone else, and not one bit more. Among its other virtues, humility makes for more productive politics. If it vanishes entirely, we will tear our society apart.”
A solution echoed by Anne Truitt, in her journal entries on the topic, she reminds us that given a different set of circumstances, we could all easily find ourselves on the other side of history.
“I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another. Feeling as righteous as Christ chastising the money-changers in the temple, they cast their fellows into the outer darkness of their disapproval. This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.”
Consider the last time you were truly influential. Was it by blindly sticking to your convictions and refusing to consider new perspectives? Or was it when you took the time to understand counter ideas?
Which path led to real progress? Which one led to real growth?
Open Yourself to Compromise
“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her ode to writing, The Humane Art.
While compromise and humility are needed to push ourselves beyond the trap of self-righteousness, they’re also necessary components for everyone looking to continuously improve.
What is self-improvement without the humility to recognize that we don’t have all the answers? What is development without the willingness to consider different perspectives and evaluate our options? As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said,
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
As the world becomes more polarizing, our response cannot be disdain for the opposition. It cannot be a blind refusal to compromise. Because the only solution available to us is to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. We rarely know every reason. And everyone has a different set of values and experiences that frame their perspectives.
Seek out those dissenting opinions. Invite constructive conflict. Because as Malcolm Gladwell offered in an interview with the New York Public Library,
“That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”
Open yourself to compromise. Be willing to contradict yourself. Start thinking.
The alternative is to recite Dr. Seuss to a 9% approval rating.