Recently, I was listening to an NPR report on Jimmy Carter’s meeting with leaders of the Palestinian militant Hamas party. The reporter had two experts on to debate the merits of Carter’s action. One argued that Carter sent the wrong message. Diplomatic engagement only encourages Hamas leaders to stand irrationally firm. The other said Carter sent the right message. Diplomatic disengagement never encourages people to compromise.

Neither acknowledged the very real and extremely common question underlying this particular case: When should you compromise and when should you demand compromise?

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that opening communication with someone dangerous is a compromise that sometimes helps and sometimes hurts. Sometimes reaching out encourages them to compromise. Sometimes it reduces their incentives to compromise.

Since sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t, the question is what will result this time. The answer isn’t obvious up front. Yes, with hindsight, we will likely be able to look back and say whether Carter’s action softened or hardened Hamas. At present, though, we can only speculate.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Which is not the same as saying “who knows?” as though there’s no knowing so why bother to try to guess. No, the stakes are high. It does pay to speculate and speculate carefully. But we’re unlikely to speculate carefully if we pretend that opening communication has an obvious one-sided effect. It’s a dilemma, a tough judgment call, something to wonder about.

And a generic one at that. From big stand-offs to small ones, every one of us has dealt with this tough judgment call at least a dozen times within the last month. When to compromise and when to demand compromise? When to be yin (receptive) and when to be yang (assertive)?

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Tonight on the phone, a friend asked me how I’m doing. I answered upbeat, content with all I’ve got going on just now. When I asked how she was doing, she said not so well. She described some compromises she is making these days and said that she should learn from my example to be more accepting, so she too could feel happier with her circumstances.

I insisted that that is not the take-away from my current state of contentment. Especially my current contentment – this time it’s more a product of my being uncompromising, discontent enough to do something about the things in my life that weren’t working optimally. Sure, some of my contentment is a product of my willingness to compromise, but it’s absurd to think, as many do, that the answer is always to accept your circumstances.

My father used to quote an ancient Hebrew text:

Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion.

And sometimes, with this modification:

Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his Porche.

He understood that sometimes you should be happy with your portion and sometimes you should insist on your Porche.

The generic tough judgment call, the one we deal with over and over, is about when to do which. Or as my father would also say, “Having decided to love humankind, we are forever burdened with the question ‘how much?'”

I wish we had a word for this dilemma, a word that evoked its long and illustrious history and indeed natural history (it goes way back in evolution), but that also evoked the great balance of lore we have about this dilemma, the ways people argue from oversimplified principle (don’t cave in; accept your fate), and the kinds of considerations that should go into deciding how to deal with it.

If we’d had the word, the NPR reporter could have called the Carter question a “yinyang” (or whatever) and everyone would have known what she was talking about. The debaters wouldn’t be able to pretend the outcome was knowable in advance. Each debater would have to acknowledge the possibility that his opponent could prove right in the end.

I’m amazed how rarely debaters acknowledge the iffy-ness of their positions and the universality of the dilemmas.

One more example, in the last primary debate a few weeks ago Clinton and Obama were grilled on their integrity. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. In the modern political environment, asking candidates whether they’re being totally honest is like threatening to fire a prostitute you hired if she admits she dresses alluringly to seduce you.

Like all political candidates, both Obama and Clinton accuse each other of manipulating the public while denying that they manipulate. Obama gets above the fray momentarily to acknowledge that campaigning demands that candidates manipulate the public but tucks right back into the fray immediately, saying that “What the American people want is not distractions,” as though he and America aren’t interested in manipulation but Hillary is.

America is actually as ambivalent about distractions as a john might be about hiring a seductive prostitute, but just suppose we really didn’t want distractions. The only way to eliminate them, both the manipulations and meta-manipulations (“Hey, I’m above manipulating, but my opponent isn’t”) is by naming and taming the generic dilemma we all face every day but for which we have no name.

We manipulate each other and ourselves, we focus on some and ignore other evidence; we make up unlikely scenarios for how things will go. None of us live a pure unadulterated fact-based existence. Hope, optimism, pessimism, dreaming and denial, rhetoric, spin, persuasion, encouragement – they’re all forms of manipulation.

Sometimes manipulation does more harm than good. Sometimes it does more good than harm. So why do we pretend manipulations are either all bad or all good, and why do we pretend we can easily tell with certainty which manipulations will be which in advance?

The difference, for example, between white lies and evil lies is ultimately in their outcomes. In retrospect, yes, we can tell which lies turned out well and which turned out badly. Up front we are forced to guess. Sometimes the guessing seems easy but sometimes it’s hard, for example, when trying to run as clean a political campaign as possible in our unclean political arena.

No, if we wanted to reduce manipulation we’d need a name for the generic tough judgment call regarding whether to manipulate or not. When should you compromise high principles in order to make someone else compromise? And when should you comply with high principles even if it makes you weaker and forces you to compromise?

If we had a name for the dilemma and everyone knew the name, then we could eliminate that first hour of wasted questions that amount to “Tell us true, are you a manipulator?” And wasted answers that amount to “I wouldn’t manipulate! Manipulation is wrong. But my opponent is manipulating.”

I think there are many reasons we don’t name these generic tough judgment calls, but none that couldn’t be overcome with some effort. They take thought to understand. They’re abstract. Naming them would require that we admit that we sometimes demand compromise and sometimes manipulate and that sometimes we’re glad and sometimes we’re sorry we did. We’d have to admit that sometimes in the gray middle ground, we find it difficult to figure out whether a particular manipulation will turn out well, and so there’s no simple distinction to be made in advance between good and bad manipulations.

The payoffs for naming these dilemmas would be huge, however, and well worth the trouble. I’ve begun trying to do so and in two weeks I’ll deliver a first pass – fourteen generic tough judgment calls that show up at all scales in all lives in all arenas of life from the personal to the political. I call them the seven wonderings of the ancient and modern world. Next week I’ll deliver a tidy little definition of a tough judgment call so we know what we’re talking about.