Rodriguez: Zero-sum games in an interconnected world

What's wrong with this picture: Even as the world is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, we seem to be approaching conflicts more in zero-sum terms and with all-or-nothing politics.

Because digital networks and the global economy have humans more tightly bound than any time in their history, our well-being is inextricably intertwined with that of strangers from around the globe.

Our lives are affected when there's a debt crisis in Greece, an earthquake in Japan, political unrest in Pakistan. Stateside, the speed of social media and the 24-hour news cycle let Angelenos feel the spray when anyone so much as sneezes in New York or Washington.

But even as we're becoming more intimately connected with one another, we're negotiating differences with a greater degree of rigidity and intolerance.

At least that's what it looked like last week watching the news of homegrown terrorism in Norway and partisan impasse in Washington. As distinct and unrelated as those events are, they share the absurdist quality of all-or-nothing thinking.

For the record, I'm not against conflict. There are times when interests will clash, and conflict, even war, is inevitable. My thinking is akin to the old commercial that attracted donors by promising the Red Cross wasn't a fly-by-night operation: It would be around "as long as there are wars and famine." Let's just say I think the campaign was effective.

There's been a tendency among the do-gooder elite — foundations and civic activists, for example — to believe that getting people together can only create greater understanding. For this mind-set, all problems can be solved through increased communication and interaction.

But increased interaction among disparate types can also shed greater light on the differences between people. Contrasts are more glaring when placed side by side.

As writer Robert Wright explains in "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," "If two people stare at each other for more than few seconds, it means they are about to either make love or fight. Something similar might be said about human societies. If two nearby societies are in contact for any length of time, they will either trade or fight."

Right now, it seems, with so many fresh demographic and ideological changes going on in the world, we appear to be in fighting mode.

Raising the debt ceiling has been all but routine under previous administrations, Republican and Democrat. A generation ago, opposing sides in Congress would have looked at the big picture — the financial well-being of the nation — and narrowed the issues until they found a way to agree and move forward. For the last few weeks, the Republicans in particular have drawn a symbolic line in the sand and have cast the issue in broad all-or-nothing terms. They have pushed us to the brink by resisting the possibility that there is a solution that both sides can agree on.

That has something in common with the type of thinking that sent self-confessed killer Anders Behring Breivik into a rage. In his rambling 1,500-page manifesto, he consistently employs zero-sum thinking with regard to immigration and integration. Though statistics show that Norway's immigrants are adapting relatively well with little or no economic consequences for native-born Norwegians, Breivik was convinced that Muslims and ethnic Norwegians could not coexist, period. "In the clash of cultures between secular Europeans and extremist Muslims," he wrote, "there can ultimately be no compatibility or compromise." In his mind — and yes, his lawyer calls him insane, but it's unclear that he would meet that definition in a U.S. court of law — there was no gray area.

A zero-sum mentality in human affairs is more than just a trivial trend. It's clear it can have violent and, potentially, financially destabilizing consequences. So how do we fix it?

First, it helps to envision what its opposite looks like. In terms of immigration, we would allow ourselves to see a complete picture: Demographic change and cultural continuity occurring simultaneously. As for the debt-ceiling battle, politicians can unlearn the rather crude notion that someone else's loss is their victory.

Eleven years ago, outgoing-President Clinton was asked what advice he'd give to his successor. What he said, however, is good advice for us all. He pushed for a "reverse social Darwinism" that would obviate zero-sum impasses and allow us to think in terms of "win-win solutions instead of win-lose."

At some point, we'll have to move beyond fighting mode and adapt to our interconnectedness. As Clinton put it, "Because we find as our interdependence increases that, on the whole, we do better when other people do better as well — so we have to find ways that we can all win; we have to accommodate each other. And, on balance, that's a humanizing and elevating development."

Right.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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