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Compromise is Not Always Good


A new study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, titled Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization suggests that the biggest reason for partisanship in America today is ideology. No longer are race, gender, and religion the prime drivers of partisan divisiveness.

Haidt asserts that “This is extremely bad news for America because it is very hard to have an effective democracy without compromise.

The implication of Haidt’s statement seems to be that compromise is always a virtue.  It’s not true.      

The scientific method, the search for truth, and the development of knowledge all require that we follow the evidence wherever it leads and apply critical thinking to our analysis of it.  Many times throughout human history one person with one new idea, if that idea is supported by facts, evidence, and sound reasoning, has turned science completely on its head and brought to humankind a whole new way of seeing and understanding the world.  The idea that truth can be found or that knowledge can be developed via compromise or consensus is itself anti-science, anti-truth, and anti-knowledge.     

I’m not saying that compromise is NEVER good.  I’m only saying that it’s not automatically and unquestionably ALWAYS good.  One gets the impressions from statements like the one quoted above that compromise is a sacred value.  Any student of Haidt knows that the first things thrown under the bus in defense of a sacred value are truth, evidence, and critical thinking. 

The fact that people on both sides of an argument believe equally strongly that the other side is wrong does not mean that both sides actually are equally right or wrong.  Haidt’s claim that people from one moral matrix see things that people from another matrix do not does not mean that both matrices are equally right but in different areas.  By that logic a broken clock and an operational clock deserve equal consideration.  In both of these examples a 50/50 compromise between the two viewpoints would result in a drift AWAY from accuracy.   

If the evidence of social science research shows that one ideology is more attuned to human nature than the other then the danger of 50/50 compromise is that it could net out to LESS reality-based policy.  It could mean that policy is based LESS on knowledge and truth than it otherwise could be.  If one side is more in sync with human nature and the other more in denial of it then who should “compromise” more?  

Policy that’s LESS reality-based and therefore MORE in denial of science and human nature is arguably one of, if not THE, biggest reasons for many of the world’s current problems.  THAT is what’s “bad for America.”

Compromise, rightly understood, is a tool that can be used for good AND for harm, depending on how it’s applied.  It’s wrong to assume that compromise is always good and that therefore the lack of it is “bad for America.”  

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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