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There's just one place where this is a dirty word

Rochester Business Journal
April 12, 2013

I wish I could remember with any certainty when I first heard and understood the word "compromise." It could well have been at the schoolyard, where baseball was played each day until dusk throughout the summer.
The bases were movable objects and the foul lines were unseen but understood. There were no umpires. The players had to apply the rules of the schoolyard to settle any disputes.
Nobody was there to call balls and strikes, so there were just three primary areas of dispute: Did the batter swing or didn't he? Was the ball fair or foul? Was the player out or safe? Although those issues may seem simple when reduced to words on paper, they were difficult to resolve in the schoolyard. Arguments frequently ensued, since there were no video replays. The participants had to rely on their own powers of observation and advocacy.
You may remember how it goes: Depending on your point of view, you are likely to see things differently. It didn't happen on every play, but in such instances the players could either stand around shouting and bickering or they could negotiate a settlement that was satisfactory to both sides.
Most of them probably couldn't even spell "negotiate" or "compromise," but they instinctively understood that the game would come to a standstill unless they could find an agreeable middle ground. So they did, and the game continued.
They reached a compromise. Life is filled with compromises. I do it all the time on matters large and small, mostly small. If you give the matter a little thought, I'm sure you could make a list of the compromises you made last week. The process is central in our lives. Bargaining resulting in compromise takes place in every human endeavor, and long ago it was legitimized, right? Wrong.
Many political officials, who in their early careers in public life must have embraced compromise, now reject it. They would rather fight than seek an acceptable alternative. Consider the famous interview that House Speaker John Boehner gave to Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" soon after Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives. Boehner said the Republicans were ready to govern, and the interviewer said, "Governing means compromising."
"It means working together," he replied.
"It also means compromising," Stahl said.
"It means finding common ground," Boehner answered.
As the interview continued, she persisted, suggesting that Boehner was unwilling to use the term "compromise."
"I reject the word," he finally admitted.
So it goes. These are elected men and women who shun compromise. It is maddening to see the governing game brought to a standstill by those who know better, especially in Washington, where the hazards of divided government are now apparent. Some of the players must be tempted to take the kind of action that occasionally occurred in the schoolyard: take their bats and gloves and go home. In the Congress and the White House, "compromise" has become a dirty word.
Consider the dominant role that compromise plays in business. It is primary in the collective bargaining process, essential in labor-management relations. Each side understands that to achieve a workable agreement it will have to surrender on certain demands.
Even more critical in many businesses are the intramural relations between those in different departments who are single-minded: The salespeople sell, and the operations people produce. They do their jobs without regard to the big picture, a common scenario. Chaos can result when they approach their work without considering the consequences. The most typical example is the situation in which the sales manager is so determined to increase volume that he encourages his staff to cut prices or make delivery promises that the production department is unable to achieve. Success requires compromise.
As I am sure you must realize, the editorial policy of this newspaper prohibits the use of the standard dirty words, the common ones with the Anglo-Saxon heritage, the ones everyone knows by fourth grade. It is still possible to use "compromise," even though, without fanfare, it has apparently been added to the dirty word glossary of elected officials at every level of government.
We are currently seeing proof that effective governing is impossible without compromise. As Edmund Burke said in a famous speech before the British Parliament in 1775: "All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act is founded on compromise." Does that still apply in the 21st century?

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.4/12/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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