Zero-Sum – The Root Of All Evil

Some individuals are zero-sum thinkers. That is, they insist on assuming that the universe knows only a fixed quantity of happiness. From this starting-point it follows remorselessly that whatever they see anyone else enjoying, that much less is left over for them. The welfare and enjoyment of others has therefore to be eliminated, so as to free up the finite resource for the zero-sum thinkers to consume.

Anyone in the grip of this cognitive delusion is a danger to his or her surroundings, as practically everything he does will be designed to screw others over. He might not be able to tell you exactly how depriving and frustrating them benefits himself, because he does not know. He does not bother to work it out, and does not need to. The behaviour is a simple reflex: it follows strictly from the zero-sum assumption that everyone else is your rival and enemy.

The Norwegian proverb, “One’s own happiness is best, but the misery of others comes a good second” serves both to illustrate zero-sum thinking and to raise the possibility of a whole culture being devoted to this principle. Indeed, in game theory this is called the “intuitive-defector” strategy, and is said to be now spreading everywhere from its original heartlands in Africa and the former Soviet Bloc.

A friend perhaps even more misogynistic than Hugo has wondered aloud whether there might not be a similar imperative buried within specifically female culture. Now, zero-sum thinking, being a cognitive assumption, is eminently transmissible from parent to child. It is not inherently impossible that standard mother-to-daughter transmission should include the teaching that all goods accruing to someone else mean so much the less for you. Whether it includes or does not include this teaching then becomes an empirical question. If, on the other hand, it is not in fact standard and universal mother-daughter teaching, but something transmitted merely by certain mothers – just as it is obviously transmitted by certain fathers – the question then becomes how to recognise its adult products.

Hugo’s blasphemous suggestion would then be that zero-sum thinking is highly correlated with that subspecies of feminism we call variously victim feminism or female chauvinism. Such ideologies feed upon zero-sum thinking and purport to justify it. Like its predecessor Puritanism – which according to Mencken deplored the possibility that someone, somewhere, was having fun – victim-feminism seems to be deeply upset by any male human’s enjoying the possession of some good. It is upset because it simply cannot imagine how that good could have been obtained other than by depriving some woman of it. The male in question may, of course, be enjoying it at her expense; but equally well he may not. No matter.

The zero-sum thinker is often unable to identify the poor woman who has thus been deprived of her happiness, but she does not need to – under this cognitive assumption, whatever good the man is enjoying must have been taken away from someone else. This is an axiom. That it has been taken away by another male need not be considered, any more than deprivation of one woman by another woman need be considered. Likewise, the concept that the suffering woman might be unhappy for internal reasons. Least of all need the possibility be entertained that she is unhappy precisely because she is herself a zero-sum-thinker – and is thus oppressed, affronted and outraged by every crumb of happiness accruing to anyone unlike herself. Of which there are always going to be some in the world, so that her misery is guaranteed.

What to do about these people? Well, to start with we need to realise how utterly incurable they are, because the cognitive assumption is transmitted early in life and indelibly permeates the whole person. Our only course of action is early detection and complete avoidance. If zero-sum thinking comes in a package together with some other idea, then what we need to avoid is that idea in all its permutations.

Were it really to be the case that all mother-to-daughter socialisation defaults to the zero-sum assumption, then our only solution would be male separatism. We poor boo-hisses would therefore need to create a “safe space” for ourselves, a space in which it is not assumed that each and any benefit to ourselves must necessarily have been paid for by some atrocity against some woman.

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  1. Written by The Ghost in the Machine
    on April 1, 2018 at 04:17

    What a great and memorable first paragraph!

    But I really have a problem with where you go from there. I just cannot get on board with what then supplants it as the core idea.

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