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The Challenge of Compromise

Compromise is really hard. Trust me, my entire summer has been spent studying how to better facilitate it, even when it is a moralized issue. When a position becomes connected to one’s fundamental sense of right and wrong, a moralized issue is created. This can lead to a rejection of all negotiations, or even the unwillingness to listen to an opposing position.

I have been researching with Wheaton College’s Center for Faith, Politics, and Economics this summer, studying how to facilitate compromise on moralized economic issues. I did not intend to structure my summer around facilitating interactions between people with deep disagreements, but applied for Dr. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism class because I had heard really good things about Dr. Inazu himself. It was only the week before the class started when I made the connection between the topic of the class and my research.

I showed up to the class with little hope for the future. After all, everyone says they like compromise and bipartisan cooperation, but approval numbers show this is not actually true. The fundamental problem comes down to this: irrational people cannot interact with rational arguments. The solution? Make the people rational by suppressing their emotional instincts and informing them of their own irrationality. Or, make the argument irrational—trick people into thinking about the argument from a moral perspective, or make a compromise based upon irrational trade-offs. Even with these solutions, I know there are issues I cannot compromise on, but the cultural extreme seeks compromise on everything, which removes the space for absolute truth and leaves us spiraling into relativism.

To these challenges, Dr. Inazu proposes the term tolerance. The difference with his tolerance is that it does not eventually demand reverence for all viewpoints, but comes out of a bold humility and love for one’s neighbor.

Humility has a very different connotation outside of Christian circles. In the research world, it carries implications of insecurity and self-doubt. Yet for Christians, humility is a powerful. Our Lord and Savior came to Earth born as a baby, yet also with the confidence to throw the money-changers out of the temple.

In the beginning of Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow, telling us to be like her when we pray. Her consistent petition to the unrighteous judge eventually leads to justice for her, as the judge gets tired of her nagging and decides to grant justice for her against her enemies. A paradox seems to surround the widow, as she is confident enough to continue to ask again and again, but humble enough to seem foolish as she begs for justice. We are called to this same bold humility in our relationships. Bold humility translated into the political arena becomes Dr. Inazu’s confident tolerance. We must have the confidence to know what we believe is true, but still listen to others out of a love for them.

It is this perspective of love for neighbor that is often missing when we try and address pluralism. I learned this in Dr. Inazu’s class when we looked at campus speech policies. It is impossible to write a policy that perfectly creates a safe enough space to keep anyone from feeling attacked, but also open enough to facilitate open discussion of ideas. During our class discussions on protests and censorship, I realized that what made my experience unique from the other students in my Summer Honors class is that there is self-censorship that occurs at Wheaton. Students at Wheaton are constantly nuancing their statements, not motivated by a speech policy, but because of a desire to make sure everyone around who may be hearing their words feels loved. They want to ensure everyone feels like their voice has a space to be heard. Love of neighbors matters more than love of the argument.

This is what is missing from the modern thinking about compromise. Our modern post-Enlightenment brains, focused on reason and argument, yet driven by our own passions and impulses, does not focus on other people. The first step in starting to compromise is to stop equating ideas with the people who make them. We are never going to be able to think of all ideas as complete equals without descending into relativism. We as Christians know there is absolute truth, but that does not keep us from thinking of all people as equals.

I still do not have much hope that our society will be able to reduce our tendency to polarize easily. It will probably take a war or Great Depression-level economic crisis. I highly doubt that any of us will fully be able to realize the ways we unconsciously commit partisan discrimination or idea-human associations. I may not have found large-scale solutions for the problem, but I did learn at AEI that I was looking at the problem all wrong. Instead of trying to fix how irrational people deal with rational arguments, we need to be thinking about how irrational people deal with irrational people. Once we can solve that problem, free discussion of ideas can occur on a personal level facilitated by tolerance.