“Zero-sum” describes a situation or game in which whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other: winner takes all. Our culture thrives on it. Take sports. Rooted in zero-sum attitudes, sports epitomize much else in our culture: politics, our judicial system, business and, of course, war.
Even sports mantras compete: “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” The alternative appears far more popular: “Winning is not the most important thing; it’s the only thing.” This defines the zero-sum mentality.
Over decades we’ve seen this zero-sum mantra applied universally to political gridlock, religious extremism and even environmental issues. Polarization is ubiquitous. Reasonable discourse is mutilated by extremists who revel in name-calling, “gotchas” and lies.
Given such intense competition, what might we do to disperse the waves of vitriol that obfuscate and pollute important issues? Might we, instead, seek collective solutions? As potential problem solvers, can we unify our objectives and methods? Can we find others interested in “playing the game well” to reach a win-win outcome?
Question our own motives.
When seeking unified solutions, we must first get past our own egos. Each needs to recognize his or her own biases, preconceptions and prejudices, then consciously put them aside. Even within a group that shares common values, egos and differing points of view contend with each other.
Ask yourself, “What do I believe and why do I believe it?”
Answering this question honestly is a great start. As you look inward, you’re on the way to recognizing and understanding other points of view. Next, are you ready to dialogue with those whose perspectives differ from yours?
Listen to others.
Ideas expressed by people of most political or religious persuasions often have merit. Not all such ideas are equal. Recognizing merit is the first step toward appreciating others’ ideas, even though you may not wish to accept or implement them. Consider ideas carefully and courteously. Seek and build on points of agreement.
Understanding the substance of what another person is saying is often not easy. Discussion sometimes escalates to argument, with accusations and name-calling. Can you look past sarcasm and slurs to find substance in another’s point of view? Can you tolerate the intolerance of others? Can you recognize your own intolerance?
As with children, modeling desired behavior often improves chances of success. We can influence listeners by following Proverbs: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” Can we soften our answers?
Altering our own behavior increases our chances of influencing that of others. If we can curb our knee-jerk response to a troll’s comment, we might be able to muster that “soft answer.”
Acrimony arises from distrust, thoughtlessness and discourtesy. In-kind responses elevate all three. Thoughtful courtesy often softens them.
We build confidence by seeking to understand facts. Ideally, we form rational opinions based on facts, rather than rumors, speculation and questionable opinions of others. The internet provides unlimited access to information, true and false. Artificial intelligence does it faster.
Both provide unprecedented means for discovering not only facts, but also misinformation, disinformation, lies, damned lies and statistics. All are at our fingertips. The hard part is making sense of it all, separating truth from fiction, and then interpreting that truth meaningfully.
When we recognize our own biases (we all have ‘em), we can filter information to avoid being unduly influenced by arguments that either support or attack those biases. Only then can we weigh impartially the merits of opposing viewpoints and maybe even integrate and synthesize diverse ideas into a unified whole, an approach that resolves an issue and allows us to proceed collectively towards a unified solution.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The Torah forbids bearing “false witness.” Similar admonitions are found in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many other religious traditions. Truth appears to be a cornerstone for social interactions.
The Baha’i faith, most recent of world religions, is unequivocal. Baha’u’llah writes:
The purpose of the one true God in manifesting Himself is to summon all mankind to truthfulness and sincerity, to piety and trustworthiness, to resignation and submissiveness to the Will of God, to forbearance and kindliness, to uprightness and wisdom. His object is to array every man with the mantle of a saintly character, and to adorn him with the ornament of holy and goodly deeds…
Have mercy on yourselves and on your fellowmen, and suffer not the Cause of God — a Cause which is immeasurably exalted above the inmost essence of sanctity — to be sullied with the stain of your idle fancies, your unseemly and corrupt imaginations.
Sounds to me as though God isn’t much of a fan of zero-sum attitudes and behavior.