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America Needs To Let Go of Zero-Sum Thinking

Humanity isn’t a collection of teams. Humanity is the team.

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By Craig Axford | United States

If only the world could be neatly divided between winners and losers, and complex issues reduced to arithmetic that can quickly be done on the back of a napkin. But, alas, our problems are rarely that simple, and not solvable with zero-sum thinking.

Zero-sum thinking is a theory that suggests that one person’s gain is another person’s loss. It is a pitiful philosophy that casts aside human collaboration and compassion. Zero-sum thinking implies a finite amount of resources in the world, and an antagonistic nature to social relations. In many ways, society has moved beyond this primitive way of thought.

Donald Trump, however, sees the planet in just those terms. He’s convinced millions of Americans that anyone who thinks global challenges can’t be addressed in 280 characters or less is needlessly complicating things in an effort to bamboozle everyone else. Through this purely additive and subtractive lens, immigrants are merely sucking scarce resources from the wallets of one group so that they can be added to their own. Likewise, trade is only beneficial when the words balance or surplus are attached to it. The presence of a trade deficit signals Americans are being taken advantage of, so government intervention in the form of tariffs is necessary to initiate an adjustment.

This zero-sum thinking is taken directly from the traditional playbook of nationalists and racists. If you don’t think so, it shouldn’t take more than a day or two on Twitter reading white nationalists’ responses to critics of the zero-tolerance policy Trump imposed at the US/Mexico border to convince you. One unapologetic white supremacist just kept stating over and over again in broken record fashion that my opposition to the policy necessarily meant I wanted to “displace white people,” or worse, “hated” them. By the time I finally blocked him it was clear he thought I was a traitor to my race.

In his mind, any decline in America’s white majority meant whites were losing. My suggestion that the only race we needed to worry about was the human race went nowhere. He, like too many others, had used zero-sum thinking to separate humanity into separate locks that only allowed boats to rise by drawing precious water away from others that needed it to keep their own floating high.

Astronauts consistently wax poetic when they speak of viewing our home from space. Sooner or later they all mention the profound change in perspective that they get from seeing the world without artificial lines. Our capacity for abstraction, like our fondness for forming strong group identities, casts a shadow over our minds. No other species has so far come up with the idea of creating so many obstacles to inhibit their own movement. Eventually, I’m convinced, we’ll see the wisdom of taking down our walls and opening up our checkpoints, but, it seems that day is somewhere beyond 2020.

For now, we must begin to reacquaint ourselves with ideas like reciprocity. Human relations are best when they are a game in which all the players are striving to make sure everyone wins rather than a scramble for scarce resources that can only be fully enjoyed by a precious few. There is no one on this planet that does not have something to share. There is no one from whom we cannot learn something we do not know. When that wisdom is shared, the one offering it does not lose it so that we might have it. It becomes the property of even more people than was the case before. Knowledge multiplies. The more it does so the more likely we are to find solutions that work to the benefit of everybody.

Seen in this light, the question we should be asking ourselves is not what those crossing into the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children will cost us, but what they have to offer that we have not yet identified. Cultures only clash when minds are closed. They are better suited for blending. Contact creates richer more dynamic experiences for those willing to overcome their fear of the unknown. No culture will last forever no matter how fiercely we defend it, but culture itself will be around as long as people still walk the earth. It describes a process rather than a destination.

Eventually, the current crisis will pass, hopefully without bloodshed. Regardless, we already have a pretty good idea who the winners will ultimately be. Those individuals and societies that are open to new experiences and fully embrace the ideal of reciprocity will be the ones that gain the most. Those who recognize that every newcomer comes with a gift and do not cling excessively to a particular identity are the ones best positioned to enrich their own lives and the lives of others in return. It’s not that life isn’t a struggle. It is. But in the struggle to survive cooperation has consistently proven itself to be the best strategy. The wider the circle of cooperation the better. That’s how our species got this far.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on 71Republic.com

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