President Obama came to prominence in 2004 with a speech in which he argued that there isn’t a red America and a blue America but rather a single United States of America. Looking back twelve years later, this may seem like a rather odd notion in a country riven by intense political polarization.
President Obama has a history of seeking understanding and compromise by people with different perspectives. This was particularly illustrated by his speech, A More Perfect Union, in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 campaign. In that speech, he sympathetically described frustrations of many black and white people in our country.
Recently, he gave the commencement address at Howard Universityand appealed for people to listen to those we disagree with and seek compromise. Addressing “African-American youths who have fueled a new civil rights protest movement during his presidency, Mr. Obama urged them to adopt a more disciplined form of activism that goes beyond indignant rhetoric and uncompromising demands.”
He argued that activists must develop strategies that “include listening to those with whom they disagree and compromising when necessary to achieve their goals.”
“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” the president said, adding that such an approach leads to “a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair, and that’s never been the source of our progress.”
Although the President addressed his remarks to one particular group, I think that this message generally is relevant to all.
“Compromise” is a dirty word to people who interpret it to mean sacrificing important values or merely accepting zero-sum resolutions without addressing each party’s interests.
However, sometimes it is appropriate to “bargain with the devil,” as Bob Mnookin argues. And sometimes zero-sum exchanges are better than each side’s MLATNA. But by carefully listening to others, as the President advocates, it is possible to create value and make social progress.
This post was based on an article in the New York Times. The White House just released the full text of the President’s speech, which I think is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of it. Below are more excerpts of his speech. (I should also note that Robert Benjamin, a prolific writer for mediate.com, has written a lot about American cultural attitudes about negotiation and how dispute resolution theory can be applied to American politics.)
“And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. When I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinois’s first racial profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement. I didn’t say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to do something. I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve.
“And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the good cops with the best of intentions — including, by the way, African American police officers — might have unconscious biases, as we all do. So we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus. And because we took the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the police — because it improved the trust and cooperation of the community — and it was good for the communities, who were less likely to be treated unfairly. And I can say this unequivocally: Without at least the acceptance of the police organizations in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed. Very simple. They would have blocked them.
. . .
“We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those two seminal bills were not perfect — just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time. I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.
. . .
“So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.) I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.”