The Texas Faith blog of The Dallas Morning News regularly poses ethical, moral and political questions to area religious leaders and publishes their responses. The July 19, 2011, edition, noting some of the current debates engulfing the nation, asked what "value we should place on compromise. In some ways, it really is a dirty word. But without some compromise, society can't function. How do we deal with this conundrum?" Among those responding was SMU Professor William Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology.
When the governor and the Legislature in Minnesota recently reached an agreement settling the dispute that had caused a shutdown of the state government, one of the key players indicated that they had achieved a real "compromise" and therefore everybody was unhappy. That is both a tragic outcome and a regrettable misuse of the word "compromise." Nevertheless, it is typical for the way we apply the word nowadays.
In current parlance, the word "compromise" is applied to circumstances where two incompatible positions are placed in opposition to each other. Then some middle term becomes a way to resolve the incompatibility. Thus, for example, on a hot summer day, an ice cream vendor offers to sell a cone of butter pecan for $2.00. In response, a potential buyer wants a cone but offers $1.00. They compromise on $1.50.
It sounds reasonable. After all, each party gave a little and both parties got what they wanted -- the vendor sold another cone of butter pecan, and the buyer enjoyed a cool taste of refreshment.
However, the compromise is only reasonable if one accepts the premise that the two starting positions were themselves reasonable. If the vendor really believes that the value of an ice cream cone on a summer day is $2.00 and is met by a person who only wants to offer $1.00, then the vendor will set the initial price at $3.00. The "compromise" is neither reasonable for both parties nor fair. By mischievously manipulating one of the options, the vendor managed to get what was sought in the first place.
Everything depends not on the conclusion that was reached but on the ways that the parties framed their opening bids.
But why does a "compromise" have to be the middle term in a dispute between the two positions that adversaries have identified as their positions? Perhaps a "compromise" can be a creative alternative that surpasses either of the options named by the disputing parties. When the Supreme Court prepared to decide the case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the new Chief Justice Earl Warren kept working with the other justices until all nine unanimously declared that "separate" is "inherently unequal."
It was not a compromise. It still left a number of Americans unhappy. But it was a creative act of justice and a landmark achievement for the nation.