You have to listen to the other side

Ah compromise. When did you become such a dirty word? Without you, there would be no America. Our Founding Fathers all had to give a little to get a little as they created the world’s first experiment in democracy.

Clearly not all compromises are good. The Missouri Compromise didn’t solve the slavery issue. Cutting Vietnam into a north and south after the fall of Dien Bien Phu may have ended the first Indochina War but it led directly to the disaster we call the Vietnam War. And drawing an artificial line in Korea has led one of the more bizarre ruling families the world has ever known in North Korea.

The real question is why compromise has fallen into such disfavor that Americans seem unwilling to ever tolerate it as a means of governance again. Why have people become so blind and narrow that they cannot see any path forward except their own?

I signed up years ago to a variety of survey companies that operate online. I get surveys a few times a week.  I’m always happy to blow a few minutes answering questions about topics I frequently have little to no interest in because I get entered in a sweepstakes or some such prize winning event for every survey I complete. The fact that in over ten years I have never won anything in no way discourages me. Optimism is an unforgiving mistress.

One of the questions routinely asked in these surveys is about the targeting of our interests and whether I think this is a good thing. The survey is referring to the ever expanding practice of collecting all the information possible about you based on your Internet activity and then using that information to target you with specific websites, online stores and news outlets. I always answer that I do not think it’s a good thing. In fact, I think it’s a horrible thing. I think it is contributing to the breakdown of our society as a functional entity.

I don’t agree with every columnist that appears on these pages anymore than everyone agrees with me. But I make a point of trying to read all the opinions from all ends of the political spectrum so that I am not merely re-enforcing what I already believe, but also growing and learning. I am a devoted listener to public broadcasting. Given a choice, I will always listen to NPR first. But I also tune in to Fox occasionally, and CNN and CNBC and any number of other alphabetized groups in order to get all takes on any given issue.

This is called educating yourself. And occasionally, if you are smart enough to know that you don’t know everything, you even get to understand, if not agree with, the other point of view. Being able to understand a different view does two things. One, it enables you to strengthen your arguments. Two, it gives you a basis for give and take when the time for compromise arises. And that time will always arise in a democracy. It’s only in autocracies and theocracies that dissent is neither heard nor tolerated.

In America today we all seem to be retreating to our own corners and refusing to meet anyone in the middle. We listen only to those whose opinions mirror our own and we read only those who write what we already know to be true. There are people who will flatly state that they never listen to anything other than Fox News and others who swear they will never turn that channel on. But if you don’t do these things, then you’ll never really understand what the other person is saying or feeling. And if you don’t understand even that much, what chance do you have of ever coming to an agreement on how to proceed.

In our civic life, this has led to the travesty that is our Congress today. Extremists from both parties have retreated to their corners and refuse to have – and please pardon the pun – congress with the other side. So we see gridlock and deadlock and simple idiocy consuming what had once been viewed as a deliberative body that actually managed to pass budgets and laws that moved our country forward.

I have to wonder if that time is not now gone forever.