Remember when it was considered a mostly positive thing? A way to resolve differences without coming to blows, a recognition that the universe is imperfect and you’re probably not going to be able to have everything you want all at once. That other people have things they want, too.
These days, it seems like any compromise is universally bad. I hear radio advertisements beginning “I hate compromise”, like that’s a positive trait to be proud of. We associate compromise with political double-dealing, with selling out your people or principles, with some sort of hypocrisy. “I don’t compromise”, we proudly proclaim, meaning “I’m going all out for this”, whatever it is. Black and white. All or nothing. My way or the highway.
I think we Christians began it. I remember from my growing up how “no compromise” became a rallying-call among the evangelical, Bible-believing community to say “There are some things that aren’t negotiable”. We believed ourselves under threat from the theologically liberal, secularising, politically-correct world, and the entire evangelical movement was a response to that sense of pressure. A way to say, in effect, “we understand that sometimes you have to go along to get along, but there are some non-negotiables, beginning with the value of Scripture and the place of faith in our lives.”
These days, that list of non-negotiables seems to have become longer and longer. My faith. My interpretation of Scripture, even the questionable, tricky parts that we used to agree to disagree on. My values. My political beliefs. My hopes for the future. My way, my style, my fashion, my stuff, to the point where “No compromise” is being used to sell underwear to men.
Oh, it sounds rugged and manly to say “no compromise”, I’ll grant you. A way to stick two fingers up to the world, prove your independence of spirit and general masculinity. No-one tells me what to do. Hooah! I suppose that’s the point, if you’re an advertiser, but it seems to be rather missing it if you ask me.
The point is not that there aren’t non-negotiables. We are human beings, and there really are things we value enough to say “no, I cannot bend on this point.” That’s good and right; the basis of the ability to resist evil and stand up for what’s right. In its best incarnation, it energises the true Christian martyr to be able to stare death in the face and refuse to deny the Lord no matter what kind of pressure is piled on. We remember stories coming out from behind the Iron Curtain, and there are other stories today from places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea. Some things really are worth dying for.
It also energises the Godly resister, the agent of change in society. All the William Wilberforces and Harriet Tubmans and others of that kidney, people who refused to bow to the majority when they knew the majority was wrong about an important issue.
The problem is that we keep adding things to the list of non-negotiable stuff. If we’re at the point now that the selection of men’s underwear is on the list of things that we cannot compromise, then we are at the point of social anarchy because no-one can get along with anyone any more.
Non-negotiabiliy is a hierarchy. At the top there are the true non-negotiables; the things it really is better to die than give up. I don’t think anyone is seriously placing underwear in that category, but it’s symptomatic of the urge to keep enlarging the list. Then we come down the list to the group of things that aren’t quite as important, but we really don’t want to give them up. I’ll put myself through the inconvenience of a long commute in order to live somewhere that my children can get a good education, that sort of thing. It’s not a single category, it’s a ranked scale. How much inconvenience are we prepared to put ourselves through for this thing?
It’s here that the advertisers part company with reality. To them, and I’m beginning to suspect to a lot of political activists on both sides of the great divide between parties, it’s not a case of putting yourself through inconvenience for something so much as a rigid determination to make other people bend around what you personally want. Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this; it’s the reason politics is such a mess right now. We all have a tendency to see everything in black and white, absolute evil or absolute good, “he who is not for us is against us”. And while there are things that are like that, the reality is that sometimes “no compromise” is just code for “I want what I want and if I don’t get it I will sulk. Or get angry.”
Either way, it’s a little… petulant, sometimes. Depending on what we’re currently claiming as being of such vital importance that any attempt to meet the other side halfway is wrong and evil, it might be good or it might be a two-year-old’s temper tantrum.
I’m not going to tell you what your core value non-negotiables ought to be. I recognise that there are issues of black-and-white ethical division, things it’s worth dying for and things it’s worth self-sacrifice for. I’m also aware that the lists aren’t going to be precisely the same for everyone. Justice is a big deal for me; situations in which justice cannot be done for some reason anger me. But I have friends who aren’t quite so hot on the subject of justice but who will spend themselves to the last penny for mercy. Different values, but both of us valuing good things.
This is why we have different political parties to begin with. Not everyone values every good thing equally, and sometimes the reality of the world is that to get one thing right you have to accept getting other things less right. Parties are by nature a compromise, a collaboration of multiple people with a whole gamut of functioning core values, but who unify around a specific set of ideals. Most people aren’t going to hold all of those ideals equally; indeed, in the monochromatic US political landscape there are probably a huge majority of people who vote for one or the other party for a short list of reasons and can’t stand other aspects of the party platform.
We make that sort of compromise all the time, but then we go into black-and-white, non-negotiable mode when it comes to the other party. Many of whom may very well not like aspects of their party’s stated platform, but who feel like certain other aspects of which are sufficiently important to them that they are prepared to put up with the junk. I suspect that if we actually listened to people on the other side, we might find that we have more in common than we thought.
And by “listen”, I don’t mean “listen while maintaining a checklist of points on which they are wrong so we can argue with them”. I mean actually listen. Assume that there is a valid reason for why they support what they do; it’s not “because I’m eeeeeviiiiiiil!!!!!!!!!!!” It’s not “I’m just retarded and believe something I ought to know isn’t true”. We need to rediscover the art of withholding judgement in order to dig a little. Discover the why. What’s important about that thing you’re supporting? What value led you to support something I have problems with? Not listening to condemn, but listening to understand.
Compromise. There really are still things that we don’t actually need to get our own way on. Oh, it’s nice when we can, but we should not use “no compromise” as an excuse to pout when things don’t go the way we want.
And I’m looking at both liberals and conservatives when I say that. You’re both as bad as each other at this. You conservatives think you understand why liberals believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening. You liberals think you understand why conservatives believe what they believe, so you’ve mostly stopped listening. Neither of you are going to get everything you want, because the reality of the situation is more complex than can be encapsulated in a single sentence. Nor even a paragraph. We really do have to decide that we can flex on some things; rigid inability to compromise on a single iota isn’t doing anyone any good.
Enough tearing ourselves apart, enough using “no compromise” as an excuse to try and force the other guy to give in to your demands. This isn’t a hostage situation, and you aren’t the kidnapper.
We’ve just come through the Christmas season, and I should point out that even my five-year-old understands the difference between a wish list and a demand list. It seems that sometimes, as we grow up, we lose that simple wisdom.
Maybe it’d be a good idea to try and regain it.