Case Study #1: Taking My Marbles
I took a break from my Care of Words series to move houses. But words didn’t take a break while I was unpacking, and as far as I can tell, they haven’t received better care either. So today, I am back and applying the principle of definition to one particular word. This word has two main definitions and it occurred to me while I was reading the other day that the two meanings might hold one key to the toxic polarization of our politics.
That word is Compromise.
Christians and other People of the Book tend to be strict about the evil of compromising. Virtue once lost, and all that. But religions are just one variety of belief system, and orthodoxy of a different color weighs the same. In the modern stew, we can choose our ideology or our strain of relativism, but whichever frame we hang on the world, we probably subscribe to it with surprising staunchness. We elevate our pet values (usually the ones we are scoring well in). And everyone has something they just think is plain wrong.
This is actually a necessary thing, because though we don’t always agree on the contours of what’s right and wrong, ethical codes function as a safeguard against degeneracy. Of course, I would argue that the ubiquity of these codes, even in their diversity, point to an external reality. But that’s for another day. For now, what’s important is that integrity means consistency within your stated code.
But there’s a different kind of compromise. It’s the kind that kids have to do when they play together.
When I was little, I had a new Skipper doll. She was Barbie’s prepubescent sister. My bossy neighbor always took my new doll while I played with her old, tangled up Barbies because she “didn’t like the boobs.” I was sad. But usually, we encourage kids to share somewhat more evenly. The idea here is that
So what happens when we conflate personal and functional compromise? Within each fold, breaches in orthodoxy lead to shunning. Or, as the kids say, canceling. The functional compromise of playing well with others is smeared as a personal compromise of values. We fail to make the appropriate distinctions, and people get blacklisted.And when that conflation becomes the primary driver of politics? Well, here’s my reductionist timeline of a democratic meltdown:
1. Parties hold closed primaries, which encourage extremism. Politicians use language that entrenches the Us-vs.-Them mentality of suspicion.
2. Candidates end up sidling back to the center they just demonized in order to win in general elections, but the damage to the mentality of the electorate is done.
3. Elected politicians head to the playground, marbles and Barbies in pockets.
4. Now comes trouble. To keep the game alive, the kids need to share. But now that their constituents have been radicalized, giving an inch means Mommy will call you in early to set the table for dinner. You won’t get to play outside anymore. The parent role has warped; the public has failed to differentiate between personal compromise (what you actually believe, or your personal integrity) and political compromise (trying to get some of what your constituents want while also doing the actual job of legislating).
5. So the politicians toe the party lines. Surprise! THIS is where the moral compromise actually takes place, under the guise of orthodoxy. Giving a little at the negotiating table isn’t moral compromise. It’s how our country was meant to work: we don’t all agree, and we don’t ever get everything, but we all get something. And if we really want to sway things, we work on the ground to change the actual culture so that it wants better, higher things. But toeing the party line to keep your seat subordinates the nation’s need of governance to the personal enjoyment of political power. That is a moral compromise. For the record, that’s the bad kind of compromise.
6. Here’s the step that you won’t see happen. You’ll recall that polarizing rhetoric has made the environment inhospitable to politicians who want to act with integrity and make political compromises to accomplish their goal of legislating. That means that if change were to happen (in a magical, rational fantasy world), you’d need politicians to speak like gentle parents to children who want to eat candy for dinner, or to explain that, sweetie, we aren’t going to be able to get everything you want at the fair. It can be popcorn or it can be a pony ride, but it won’t be both. We never see this step because the day that we did, we’d see all of those noble politicians go down, tarred and feathered by their own, for doing their jobs properly and trying to vivify the mob with wiser words. But maybe one magical day.
Polarization means that the candidates with the least integrity survive, because they are willing to do what it takes to keep power, instead of what it takes to govern (which is far riskier, personally). And all of the rhetorical trickery of divisive language would be less convincing to regular people if we would differentiate the compromise of a good negotiation, which we should expect, from the compromise of personal ethics, which we should never tolerate.