On any given day, a Google search finds the word “intransigent” deployed as though it automatically destroyed an opponent’s position. Charles Blow of the New York Times and Jacob Weisberg (no relation to the present writer) of Slate are only two of many, especially on the political left, who label Republicans “intransigent” and thereby assume they have won the argument against them.
The first intransigents, however, were on the extreme left. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage “intransigent” to 1873, when an extreme left party in the Spanish Cortes called themselves “los intransigentes.” Interestingly, the Spaniards did not think their self-description worked any harm to their political positions, which they felt deserved to be stated forthrightly, without compromise, and passionately.
By the early 1880s, Democrats in the United States reversed the political origins of the word when they pinned “intransigence” (as a noun) on “an uncompromising republican”. Since then, the left more than the right has mapped “intransigence” onto “extremism,” often assuming without substantive analysis that an unwillingness to compromise a position makes it not only untenable but also bizarre.
Of course, we live in a world that unhesitatingly accepts flexibility and compromise as basically good and even as a goal unto itself. However, a willingness – too often made into a norm – to compromise strongly held viewpoints has repetitively brought on destruction and death. Wouldn’t the outcome have been better if Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 had dealt obstinately and inflexibly with Adolf Hitler? Shouldn’t post 9/11 Americans have been less elastic in their willingness to negotiate away our country’s prior taboo on torture?
So it turns out that intransigence is not always bad and should not be used as a pejorative until the writer defines substantively the position he is attacking. Holding firm is sometimes good and sometimes bad, exactly as being flexible can be terribly wrong if what we give away to prove we are flexible is actually something that was good.
I define intransigence as “a resistance to the urge to shift malleably from positions thought to be sound.” This definition is neutral as to the merits or demerits of the deeply held viewpoint. That part is up to all of us, who should think through what is vitally important to us individually, stick to it, fight for it, and abandon the fallacy that even those whose positions we detest are clearly wrong because they, too, are intransigent. If we are right and they are wrong, the matter will be decided because of the position we take and not our inflexibility in propounding it.
President Obama has just publicly recognized that we should not have collectively caved in on the practice of torture. Those few people who adamantly refused from 9/12 onwards to compromise that taboo deserve to be called both correct and intransigent.
Headline image: Fist. Photo by George Hodan. Public domain via PublicDomainPictures.net.