“In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants.”
I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of zero sum games. The idea that our winning is tied up with another person losing. It comes up for me most frequently when looking at social media posts and during political or religious discussions. It worries me that some have trouble expressing their opinions without simultaneously expressing disdain for others.
Strangely, I don’t think it’s the idea of outright criticism or humor against a group or topic. I find these memes and concepts funny. And while I like the concept of “punching up” when it comes to humor—that humor is more appropriate when it is done against those who have a higher standing or sense of privilege rather than towards those who are marginalized or discriminated against, I don’t think everyone understands this concept. Well, maybe they understand and they just don’t care. Rather, they get defensive and say “well, those two black people called each other the n-word, why can’t I use it?” or “well, I’ve heard gay people call each other queer, I don’t see the problem when I do it.”
I’m sure some of this is the modernity of social media and the times in which we live. Some of it is reactionary, a tit-for-tat, and some lacking a deeper sense of empathy for others. I can imagine where these tendencies come from, whether it be expressing their position without a deeper understanding for other points for view, unexamined privilege or punching down to another group to make one feel superior. It’s a schoolyard fact, if someone picks on someone else then they aren’t picking on you.
But as I’ve noticed this more lately, I’ve wondered some about what to do with it. Do I confront people and try to share with them my perspective that their perspective is overly critical, insensitive or, the biggest concern for me, just down-right cruel? Do I become the language police or do I de-friend them or avoid contact with them? I feel torn between these choices. Both seem like a lot of work and hold the risk of me being seen like a jerk, or some kind of politically correct sensitive monitor of their speech.
For me, this reflection becomes a little less about what personal action to choose and a little more about why we tear down other people’s points of view to make our own points stand more strongly. Why do we so often end up being cruel in our interactions and criticism? I’m sure some of it we feel as if we have been treated unfairly, so the natural order of response is to give back what we have received. This is one of the oldest and well-established behavioral loops. Someone punches us, we punch others in return. Negative behavior begets negative behavior.
The other concept at play here is the idea of privilege. When we experience something in our lives that seems unfair or unreasonable, or when we experience heightened stress, the first thing to go out the window is a sense of perspective. I teach the example in my microaggressions/harmful language presentation. Those in the front row are asked to toss a crumbled-up piece of paper into the waste bin. While this task is hard (about 10 feet away), it is doable with perseverance and multiple chances. Those one row back to do the same and the task becomes harder, more difficult. But still, given time and perseverance, it can be accomplished. Once we get to those in the back of the room, the task is still doable, but takes many more tries, much more effort and a good degree of luck.
This example underscores the idea of privilege. Our seats in the classroom can be seen as traits such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or disability. Those in the front focus on their own challenges with the task, and rarely look back to understand how the task becomes more difficult for those positioned less adventurously. In the end, those in the back become frustrated by the lack of empathy, listening and attention they receive from those in more privileged positions. Those in the front simply say “Well, it was hard, but with work and dedication, you can accomplish the task.” This is one of the larger problems in our society. The inability to look at things beyond our own perspective. This becomes more pronounced when we feel challenges, stressed, overwhelmed or when our own viewpoint is not understood.
This is also my frustrations with those who respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with comments about Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. To me, that isn’t really the point. We are back to this zero sum game argument again. When a group stands up and shares their frustration with systemic racism and disenfranchisement, I find it troubling when some respond with a counter-point about police lives or all lives mattering as well.
Perhaps this is an overly simplistic example, but if I come up to you and tell you about this amazing taco I just ate and your response is, “Yeah? I just had this really good hamburger at a place that was like the best hamburger that I ever had. It had pickles and onions and this really soft sesame seed bun….” The issue isn’t about whether you had a good hamburger. The issue is I was trying to tell you about my taco. To change the subject so quickly to something you are talking about is rude and an example of bad manners and poor empathy and conversational skills.
I’m not sure there is a conclusion here, more of a sadness around zero sum games. That our success and happiness is so often seen as a limited commodity in a race with others. When we listen more to other’s perspectives and avoid cruel language or punching down to other groups, we get closer to living in a world where we aren’t operating on a zero-sum game level, but rather a place where we can all be heard and respected.
My flask has most recently held some nice Warre’s port from the Toronto Air Canada lounge. This port was then sadly dumped into a trash can at Dulles International airport the next day.