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What is the true meaning of compromise?

Published on 02 January 2023
Updated on 30 January 2024

‘Your account has been compromised.’ This was how I was informed that my Twitter account had been hacked and that somebody had started sending messages on my behalf. I changed the password and solved the problem, but this incident made me think of using the word ‘compromise’.

If linguistic unfairness exists, it could be applied to the word ‘compromise’. Through compromise, wars have been stopped, lives have been saved, and people have kept their dignity. Yet, compromise is now used with suspicion or, in the case of Internet security, in a negative context.

Before we discuss this linguistic unfairness, let us check the etymology. Compromise is a Latin word consisting of com (together) and promittere (to promise). In its original meaning, it meant the joint promise of two sides to solve problems, usually through arbitration. I did not make a joint promise with those hackers or cybercriminals who hacked into my Twitter account.

Since the beginning of time, compromise has been the main way for people, groups, and countries to work out their differences. It is the main tool of diplomacy.

At the core of compromise is empathy, if not sympathy, for others. We have the capacity to first understand the emotions of others and, second, to respond emotionally to those emotions. This is one of the most important human characteristics, one that is frequently overlooked in the modern era mantra of maximizing self-interest regardless of others.

By being willing to compromise, we can understand the thoughts, needs, and feelings of others, and we try to meet their needs by changing our approach or, in some cases, by giving up some of our claims.

Compromise is not a naïve and utopian approach, as it tends to be perceived in modern utilitarian thinking. Compromise is very pragmatic, and one can argue that it is the main constituent of maintaining social fabric and trust, both within countries and between them. Much has been written recently about trust (or, more precisely, the lack of it). But very little has been written on the importance of compromise (and empathy) in achieving that trust.

The high relevance of compromise for human society is in opposite proportion to the low ranking of the relevance of it in the public perception. Language is a good detector of public unconsciousness. This text was triggered by the linguistic use of the term ‘compromised’ for the hacking of my account. In the former communist countries, one stigma was to be declared a compromiser. In many societies, compromise is perceived with suspicion.

Compromise particularly suffers in the clash of one truth, whether ideological and religious. One truth, one leader, one whatever… this cannot tolerate compromise. Faced with the reality and complexity of human society, even the strictest ideologies and religions have to compromise. While we discuss the high relevance of compromise in society, we should keep in mind that it is not always good. There are rotten compromises, such as the Munich compromise with Hitler. Compromises that cannot support humanity and human dignity must be avoided.

So how do we close this gap between the importance of and appreciation for political compromise in modern society? Any progress will take time. Philosophers should think more about justifying the high ethical relevance of compromise. We should try to preserve our trait of empathy in this fast-changing world. Empathy is the first step towards compromise.

In the meantime, make sure that your Twitter or Facebook account is not compromised.

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