The debate and fallout from the Federal NDP convention in Edmonton, specifically around the motion to study and discuss the Leap Manifesto, was dismaying. If a group of people who subscribe to the same general political philosophy get into such a polarized debate and cannot find room for mutual accommodation, what does that say about the larger society? This led me to consider the whole role of compromise in our society.
On the one hand, compromise is essential for a functioning democracy. Our nation is composed of people with wide ranging values and political beliefs and if we are to avoid continual civil strife, or just paralysis of action, we all have to compromise at some point in time, sometimes on issues we believe in fervently.
On the other hand, unless people live by their principles we will tend be all over the map with our choices. As David Lapakko puts it “Rationality could be replaced by rationalization.” Also some issues seem so dire and in need of action, like climate change, that compromising on actions seems like doing nothing at all. For some folks, the people taking a different stance from them are so repugnant and wrong-headed that they won’t even sit in the same room, let alone work towards a resolution which will probably require some compromises.
One definition of compromise “is a kind of agreement you get through negotiations and a compromise proposal means you accept a trade-off between your longings and your possibilities” according to Rafael Cejudo in a paper on J.S. Mills and the Art of Compromise. He goes on to say, “Compromising looms large in politics because it brings out the discipline of reality, and the conflict between ideas and facts.”
It is not only in politics that compromise looms large. As a shop steward I often had newer members of our union come up to me with our Collective Agreement and ask why we didn’t have provisions for night workers leave, for instance? My answer was that the Collective Agreement is a negotiated document. We did not dictate it or it would be a very different document indeed. Negotiations require compromise. Our goal over time, through a series of negotiations, was to improve it substantially and have better and better provisions for night workers.
Raphael Cohen-Almagor, who teaches ethics at the Centre for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa states, “A favourable condition of compromise is mutual respect. In compromises interests are accommodated rather than regulated and the accommodation should be inspired by the respect we feel for the autonomy of the other. When we are sensitive to the rights of the other, then we will prefer settlement to coercion, and we will be more willing to acknowledge the need for concessions in order to reach an agreement.”
I believe another condition is that compromise really works best in a society where power imbalances between different groups in society are minimized or non -existent. Because of the violent history of racism against Afro-Americans in the U.S. and the fact it continues to this day, it makes it very difficult for many black organizations to willingly accept incremental changes that would lead to the elimination of racism. As Nina Simone sang in ‘Mississippi Goddamn, “I don’t trust you no more, You keep on saying ‘Go slow, go slow’ But that’s just the trouble ”.
Today we have a very unequal society so it is not surprising we have, at least under the previous Harper government, a very polarized society. In the U.S., with the rise of the Republicans’ Tea Party and Christian fundamentalist base that proudly proclaims their unwillingness to compromise, the situation is even more dire. In a polarized society it is very difficult to find solutions through negotiations and compromise.
One contributing factor in that power imbalance is our limited access to communicating with fellow citizens. With the media so concentrated and money playing such an influential role in whose voices are heard and whose aren’t heard, it is difficult to have discussions that can lead to understanding our different points of view.
One of the infamous examples cited around the issue of compromise is British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” where, in order to avoid war with Hitler’s Germany , the British and the French threw the Czechs under the Nazi bus. However this was not a compromise, it was appeasement as Germany basically made no concessions.
Compromise does not mean appeasement or surrender or abandoning one’s principles. In fact the robust debate and willingness to engage in all manner of actions in a nonviolent manner often leads to the best of compromises. Martin Luther King, a man of principle and a firm negotiator, understood that. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” he wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish creative tension that a community that has refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” While I am sure Dr. King was dissatisfied with the civil rights legislation passed under the Johnson presidency, he recognized that the legislation was both a solution to short term problems such as housing, and, with voting rights, was a step on the way to solving the crisis of racism.
The example of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s brings up another aspect of compromise. To quote Rafael Cejuda again, “ There is a distinction between strategic and ethical compromises…the political agent must not betray their moral commitments nor commit any reprehensible action. It is just a question of postponing their preferred goals because obstacles always present in the political arena.”
It is a lot to ask of humans to not only to respect the autonomy of another, but to also actually sit down and talk with people who seem so utterly different than us is even harder. I can’t imagine trying to work out solutions with members of the KKK for instance, but they are human beings and have rights as I do. Maybe my inability to do that is human too. Maybe some bridges are too far. However I do know that if we don’t try to communicate and negotiate, if we give up on compromise, we give up on our future.