The Art of Un-Compromise
Compromise: a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.–from Dictionary.com
In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.–Ayn Rand
First off, this is not an article about politics. But politics offers a great example of how compromise on the wrong things is problematic. Often called the art of compromise, politics, particularly at the federal level, has created a fantastic mess of disjointed, contradictory, short-sighted, self-serving, corrupt laws and policies that have grown into an economic and bureaucratic leviathan. The “art of compromise” has resulted in a pathological system rife with moral ambiguity in which values are just another commodity to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Ron Paul, a representative from Texas and 2012 presidential candidate, is an exception to the standard way of doing business in Washington. Dr. Paul is that rare commodity, a values-based politician. In nearly three decades, he has been a force of consistency, integrity, and values-based decision making. Because of this, he is hated, ridiculed, ignored, and painted as an eccentric fool by the Washington establishment and much of the media. His unwillingness to compromise his values has earned him the reputation of being hard to deal with and unwilling to live by “Washington values” (which, really, seems to mean no values at all). Despite his many years in office, he is considered an outsider, and unless something drastically changes, I’m sure he always will be.
Sadly, this is, I think, the prevailing attitude towards values. The adjective “uncompromising” tends to conjure images of someone difficult, selfish, and maybe even antisocial. Sometimes, this is true. But it is not always a bad thing, even if it’s inconvenient for the people having to deal with it.
Most of us get a lot of mixed messages about compromise throughout childhood. We’re taught that we have to share and we have to make concessions to get along with people. We’re given messages like go with the flow. Don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. Don’t make waves. In other words, you must learn to compromise in life, or you’re in for a hard road.
On the other hand, when a kid does something stupid, like drinking and driving or dying his hair blue, his parents will challenge him with something like, “If the other kids were jumping off a bridge, would you do it, too?” Usually, these conversations between kid and adult are situational–they address specific behavior and incidents without addressing the underlying principles (all too often because the parents have not thought them through very well). This does not equip children to understand when compromise is alright and when it is not.
What’s missing, of course, is a discussion about values. If going with the flow means sharing a toy or studying instead of goofing off, that’s one thing. But if going with the flow means picking on an unpopular classmate or vandalizing property, that’s something else entirely. Kids know this intuitively–but if they aren’t explicitly taught the importance of values, of what it is they intuit and why, then they won’t be equipped to make value-based decisions.
Let’s look at just a few implications of this. First of all, life is one long series of decisions, and everybody needs a system to help them make these decisions to the best of their ability. This system is called values. If people do not develop their own internal value system, their own moral compass, so to speak, then they must look to external authorities to provide a value system for them. And the way most external authorities influence behavior is through force and fear. You need only look around you to grasp the truth of this, I think (cradle-to-grave government intervention in its citizens lives, for example). Many, maybe most, people are content to trade their personal autonomy for the illusion of being taken care of. In a nutshell, this means that kids will, indeed, jump off a bridge (figuratively or literally) if their peers are doing it because they haven’t the capacity to discern why it would be a bad idea.
And it means that authoritarianism, which is really just a system of externally imposed values, is the accepted and comfortable norm.
I don’t think this is anything new. Self-reliance is harder, and it means you are a free agent and that you must take responsibility for your behavior. As I’ve said many times, it’s easier to be intellectually lazy just as it is easier to be physically lazy–and the middle of that bell curve is where many people settle. So as much as I’d like to rant about what’s wrong with the world today, I think it is more a matter of scale than of true moral deterioration. A hundred and fifty years ago, most people had to go to sleep when it got dark out. They had to labor just to get enough to eat. Communication with the “outside world” could take months, and the primary social activity was usually church. Today, we are inundated with media, much of it appealing to our banal and superficial impulses. Communication is instantaneous. And the average person, even a poor one, has a lot more free time. It is wayyyyy easier to distract ourselves from, well, ourselves, than it once was.
My point is that developing an internal value system takes work, and it always has; because of all the distractions, it may take more work in the modern world. And the payoff is a greater sense of personal responsibility, the obligation to think for yourself, and a sense of separation from the “herd.” At first glance, none of this seems very appealing. But the flip side is that if you don’t develop your own value system, you will also never have true self-confidence, which is little more than faith in your own capacity to think. Lacking this, you will forever be at the mercy of every prevailing trend and changing fashion, every charlatan and politician promising bliss, and forever clinging to the illusory idea that there is a Big Brother–be it government, church, parents, or spouse–that can do for you what you can really only do for yourself.
And while I touched on the political ramifications of this–authoritarianism–I won’t go into this in more detail, except to say that it is an alarming realization, and that there is an excellent book on the subject called Escape from Freedom that describes the dilemma in fascinating detail.
Because values have such a low priority in our culture, much of what passes for them is a confusing mix of hunch, emotion, desire for approval, and fear, all disconnected from underlying issues and big-picture awareness. But knowing what we believe in and why is important. One of the most loving things a parent can do for a child is help her develop a moral compass and thus, the ability to think for herself. If a child has this capacity, the dilemma of when and when not to compromise would just work itself out. And if we weren’t taught this as children, we ought teach it to ourselves as adults. Because if we don’t know what we value and why, then we can’t really believe in much of anything, least of all ourselves.