The Greek Crisis Digs Up the Art of Compromise

Merkel says a compromise is possible. Tsipras seeks an "honest compromise." Obama urges Germany and Greece to compromise.

The word compromise is echoing throughout the Greek debt crisis. In the battle for public opinion, all sides are trying to portray themselves as being ready to compromise. Is this a shift from the prevailing negative perception of compromise as a "dirty word" and a sign of weakness?

There are many practical and ethical reasons why compromise warrants better treatment. Practically, compromise is often the only effective way to solve conflicts in this highly interdependent world of ours. Ethically, compromise relies on respect for other human beings and societies.

This week, negotiators in Brussels will try to compromise, or as the original Latin meaning would have it, to make a joint (com) promise (promittere) to solve the debt crisis.

Compromise is as old as humanity. It can be traced back to the moment when our far predecessors realized that it was better to hear the message than to eat the messenger. Since the survival of this first diplomat, compromise has suffered numerous ups and downs throughout history, thriving in times of peace and waning in the eras of wars.

Today, in many societies, compromise is regarded with suspicion. It particularly suffers under "one truth", be it ideological or religious. In former Communist countries, to be declared a compromiser was a stigma no one wanted. One truth, one leader, one whatever. This type of thinking cannot tolerate compromise. But, when faced with the reality and complexity of human society, even the strictest ideologies and religions have to compromise.

However, compromise is not always good. For example, the 1938 Munich agreement with Hitler was a "rotten compromise". While compromise depends on the context, it should always aim at promoting core values of humanity and human dignity.

Compromise is not a naïve and utopian approach. It is, in fact, very pragmatic. As Andy Warhol put it, compromise is the core of social fabric: "Human beings are born solitary, but everywhere they are in chains -- daisy chains -- of interactivity. Social actions are makeshift forms, often courageous, sometimes ridiculous, always strange. And in a way, every social action is a negotiation, a compromise between 'his,' 'her' or 'their' wish and yours."

So how do we close this gap between the high importance of compromise and its low appreciation?

From diplomatic venues, we have some encouraging news. In spite of all difficulties, the Iran nuclear negotiations are progressing in Vienna. Cuba and the USA have re-established diplomatic relations after 60 years. In the Greek debt crisis, the search for compromise intensifies in Brussels this week.

Apart from diplomatic meeting where compromise is a practical tool, modern society needs to promote a culture of compromise. At the core of compromise, there is empathy, if not sympathy, for others. We have the capacity first, to understand the emotions and views of others, and, second, to respond accordingly. This is a defining human trait, but one very often neglected in the modern era of maximizing self-interest at the expense of the interests of others.

New appreciation of compromise will take time. Philosophers should reflect more on the ethical relevance of compromise. Religions should reconcile the idea of compromise with core religious values. All of us should try to replenish our 'empathy deficit' in this fast-changing world.

Ultimately, compromise requires courage. Often, it requires painful convincing of fellow countryman that their truth is not the only one.

Hopefully, this week will bring not only a solution to the Greek debt crisis, but also new appreciation of the relevance of compromise for humanity.

Follow Dr. Jovan Kurbalija on Twitter: @jovankurbalija | Visit DiploFoundation and Geneva Internet Platform