Why Compromise on Tough Issues is (Nearly) Impossible
As a former school teacher, I’ve thought a lot about how we think through the tough issues. For several years, I assigned a “social issues” essay to my students. And I always began this assignment the same way, by saying, “Students, you should know that good and intelligent people will disagree on difficult issues.” I wanted my students to consider that people with a differing opinion aren’t necessarily evil or stupid, and their reasoning may be perfectly valid.
Little did I know how difficult this assignment would be.
We’d spend the entire class listing controversial issues on the board. I’d fill the chalkboard from one end to the other. (Yes, I was hardcore old school. I loved my chalkboard.) Then we’d select a few of the issues, and try our best to break them down further. Mostly, they wanted to talk about abortion, weed, and dress code. So, we’d jump into it. What are the related issues? What are the common viewpoints? What are the typical refutations to those viewpoints? I’d give examples of illogical thinking. I’d give examples of solid rational arguments, on all sides. I was extremely careful to hide my bias. I’d ask my student what they thought my perspective was. Most students assumed I just agreed with their point of view.
When Not Giving an Inch Becomes Absurd
My goal was to help students understand the nuance of tough issues. And still, after days and days of discussion and research at the library, a veritable crash course into informal logic, I would still get essays that opened like this:
“I am against abortion because pro-choice people want to kill all the babies.”
I’d walk over to that student’s desk.
“Do they really want to kill all the babies?”
“All the babies?”
“So, if a pro-choice person saw a two-year old toddling by, they’d think, ‘Darn it. Missed one?’”
All the babies.
This conversation actually happened. And I’ve had similar conversations with students on various sides of every imaginable issue (but mostly abortion, weed, and dress code). With my students, there was this sense that — in order to win — I must not give an inch to the other side. I must not concede even the smallest point. If this were a competition, anything short of an absolute blowout was a loss. I wanted my students to see that by yielding some ground they actually opened up themselves to making arguments that are better received by all sides.
Recently, online, I was engaged in a debate about abortion. Specifically, it was a debate about the debate itself. How do we talk about the topic in order to find common ground? Not on an ideological level, but on finding policy we could agree on. I doubt I could convince any pro-life person to abandon their beliefs about when life begins, nor would I expect a pro-choice person to surrender on the issue of a woman’s autonomy.
The reply came back: “Abortion is murder. That is scientifically proven, and murder is wrong. Therefore abortion should be illegal.” And suddenly, I’m back in the classroom.
I pressed further — not wanting to take the bait on the well-worn murder analogy — trying to find that elusive common ground.
I replied with a hypothetical scenario: “Right now, roughly 1 in 3 women will have an abortion. That’s rather high, isn’t it? But what if we could reduce the abortion rate to 1 in 100 without making abortion illegal or restricting its access. 1 in 100 is much better than in 1 in 3. This is good, yes? What if — through comprehensive sex education, affordable and accessible birth control, and better financial safety nets for parents — it worked so well that only 1 in 100 women had abortions; would you still want to make abortions illegal? And let’s say, if we could agree, we could make it happen. But instead of working toward this goal, we’re fighting over an issue where compromise simply isn’t an option.”
She never responded.
When Seeing the Other Side Doesn’t Work
My prediction is this idealistic line of reasoning wouldn’t work anyway.
For her, I imagine no abortion would be acceptable, however rare. We know there were abortions, extremely dangerous ones, before Roe v. Wade (pro-lifer: “Every abortion is dangerous for the baby”). If we both grant that making abortion illegal would not eliminate abortions, can we agree on things that we know would reduce unwanted pregnancies and unwanted abortions? For example, birth control and financial support for single mothers. We know this line of reasoning rarely resolves any disagreements. Why?
I have two friends, one pro-life and one pro-choice, who have dedicated their lives to this issue as professional, street-level activists. They know this issue in all its complexity. They know the stakes. And I’m sure they are collectively rolling their eyes at my how-can-we-get-along rhetoric. This issue has become a part of their identity — and when the issues are an extension of who we are, we have nowhere else to move. We can convince the undecided. We can urge the apathetic. We can threaten our opposition or troll them with clever one-liners. One side prays that God will move hearts of stone. The other side hopes the old opposition dies off with a younger, more enlightened replacement.
None of it feels like progress.
I wish the answer was as simple as researching and understanding the opposition. But a study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that on social issues, people across the political spectrum were most likely to avoid hearing each other’s opinions. And researchers from Duke, NYU, and Princeton discovered that encouraging people from opposing sides to read Twitter posts from the opposition only further polarized them. Republicans grew more conservative. Democrats became slightly more liberal. From Vox News: “Whenever we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed.” In other words, we’re not making the case that we think we’re making.
On top of that, we’re not all getting the same information. Websites auto-curate their content based on what you’ve liked, read, and searched for. You see a world that largely agrees with you. All the corner cases and the exceptions are ignored. The competing data is swept under the rug. The misleading narratives make us think, “How could they be so stupid and cruel? It’s all so obvious.”
I’m not so idealistic to believe that everyone can change. There are books, seminars, entire conferences devoted to critical thinking and exploring how we talk about important issues. They haven’t helped either. But here are my humble suggestions at finding compromise.
1. Embrace Causes, Not Ideologies
We have to let go of the never-ending outrage. I have taped next to my computer, these words by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” I read this quote every single day, and it helps me better navigate the world I witness through my web browser.
I embrace causes because I believe in helping people. I believe in standing up for justice, and I believe in doing what’s right. But I try not to make my reasoning based on an ideology. I’m not pro-immigrant because I’m a Democrat; I believe in caring for people who are suffering because I can’t do otherwise. You can argue with a Democrat, but it’s much harder to argue with a person’s sense of compassion.
By all means, be passionate about what moves you, fight for what is right, but keep focus on the cause, not the clubhouse where the like-minded gather.
2. Not Every Argument Is an Invitation
When I read an argument online that piques my interest, I’ve come to realize I don’t have to jump into it every time. I can read and move on with my day. It allows me some peace, knowing that it’s not my job to fight and fight and fight, just because someone is wrong on the internet. I don’t have to take the bait every time a coworker or family member says something I disagree with. I don’t have to undertake a quest for the perfect comeback.
To some, this mentality sounds like surrender. I find that it preserves my sanity for those moments when I do need to take a stand. It also makes me more mindful of right timing for such engagement, and I don’t come across as an asshole, which helps.
3. Stop Preparing Your Perfect Response
I used to get anxious when someone disagreed with me. Not because their argumentation was so earth shattering. In truth, I was only half listening. I was busy preparing what I wanted to say and waiting for my golden moment to interrupt. This type of communication is stressful and nothing good comes from it. Why do we play this game? Maybe because it feels like a game. We’re manipulating words to see who can craft the best response.
We have to let go of that deep-seeded thrill we get when our side sends a good zinger over to the other side. Late night TV talk shows have launched careers on the one-sided take down. It’s entertaining, certainly, but I don’t know if it’s gotten us anywhere.
Instead, I’m trying to listen without an agenda. While they are rambling, I’m asking myself, “Who is this person? Why do they feel this way?” I try to compose an accepting and inviting posture and facial features. (No eye rolls. I’m still working on this.)
And when they are done talking, I try to agree with them on something they said, or acknowledge a good point that they made. Then, I craft my response in honest terms. “I don’t agree with the point that…” “I’m still not sure how I feel about…” “I used to think this, but I’m now leaning more toward…” “I still have a lot to learn about this, but I do think…”
It’s a best-case scenario for a civil disagreement.
4. Acknowledge Common Humanity
It’s liberating, during a disagreement, to say, “I know we disagree.” Let’s put out there that disagreement is natural. We should allow ourselves to be shaped by disagreement and consensus without cruel judgment. Good and intelligent people will disagree on difficult issues — abortion, weed, and dress code. Maybe we can get through a debate without comparing someone to Hitler (see Godwin’s Law)?
Yes, this approach can be exhausting. And yes, some people will take advantage of your attempt to fight fair. And no, I’m entirely sure what to do about anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers, where to even acknowledge their argument gives them a win, and a false sense of equivalence. But we have to reclaim our ability to discuss important ideas with intelligence and civility because the alternative does not look great.
We have to erase the chalkboard, along with all our assumptions and institutions, and start over — to plot out a way forward.