Beware the zero-sum worldview

Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.
                                                                Steven Pinker

A little more than a year ago I wrote a short post about viewing life as transformative as opposed to transactional. Those who embrace transformation use experience and social interaction to build something new. Transactional personalities focus on maintaining the present.

I came across this contrast in terms of personal worldview and the potential for self-improvement. Its main context is business, with the idea that traditional leadership is transactional while new, better leadership is transformative. However, since that original post I’ve come to see these two ways of interacting with the larger world as important. Not because I think it divides people into good or bad; instead, it helps show the difference between static and dynamic personalities.

If you think of a transactional individual as viewing social life in the way an accountant views her ledger, all movement and apparent growth is an illusion. Give money to a friend, and they must always pay it back. Suffer an insult or damage, it must be compensated for by the other party. In the end, it all zeros out.

This leads to my main point: the biggest and most negative creation of a petty or tit-for-tat worldview is revenge.

Revenge (n.) – Any form of personal retaliatory action against an individual, institution, or group for some perceived harm or injustice. (source)

Revenge is a counter. If it isn’t in response to some prior wrong, it’s aggression. Historically, and persisting in some societies, blood feuds are an endless series of retaliations. One family or clan suffers an initial wrong, and a long line of kin suffer the reverberating consequences. In these feuds, there is no zeroing out. The ledger can never be perfectly balanced, because those killed and injured have a value that can never be fully replaced or countered.

The split between transformation and transaction may inform policy debates like capital punishment. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is one of the oldest written legal codes, and it sees the ultimate justice as being a retaliation. Though this appeals to many, some view great crimes as a chance to grow and change. To learn empathy and love for our enemies is to transform ourselves and the world. There is no learning in revenge, it is a base, short-term solution to a problem that may persist long after the crime committed, the sentence paid.

Syrian carnage: If it stops hurting, we are all lost [explicit photograph]

UNICEF has announced their photo of the year, part of a set by Niclas Hammarström about Syrian children caught in a warzone. Hammarström quit news photography for a decade- his return as a freelancer matched the breakout of civil war in Syria. It is good to have him be able to bring such haunting portraits to us.

Syrien: Das vergessene Leid der Kinder. © Niclas Hammarström/Kontinent
Syrian child after an attack in Aleppo

Not that long ago I made a post- “Regarding Syria: Be horrified, continue to be horrified“. I wrote:

All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.

It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed.

Few Americans have to directly confront the horrors of war. Soldiers, charity workers, contractors. The scars follow these people back, as we see so many soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and commit suicide at an alarming rate. Most of us have the luxury, the fantasy of detachment. How many people have truly thought about and comprehended the civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many treat that number as an essential concern?

Syrien: Das vergessene Leid der Kinder. © Niclas Hammarström/Kontinent

This is what a photographer helps. They photograph people, and through them their stories. The first photo in this story- that girl has a name. Dania Kilsi.  People love her. Or they once did- before they died. Her injuries were not severe but they were preventable. And for every Dania Kilsi that lived there are those that died- and they had names and lives too. The hospital she and hundreds of others were treated at that day was later destroyed. This picture cannot be replicated, because the reality now is even worse.

I am not a pie-in-the-sky pacifist. And I know that this civil war- this senseless, stagnant butchery- is not just about the factions of the Levant and the innocent people who were dragged into slaughter by their hatred. It’s about all of us. The reason Bashar al-Assad gained power, stayed in power, was able to use heavy arms and chemical weapons- this comes back to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. There is seldom a conflict that does not at some point lead up to the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Part of the same international organization as UNICEF, who selected these pictures to show to the world. “It’s not my fight” is just wishful thinking. That doesn’t mean arming the various rebel groups to the teeth. But if war came to where we live, the places we travel, where friends we keep from all over the world live- we’d be appalled if those with the power to help said it wasn’t their fight.

Syria and similar conflicts should rip out a piece of our soul and make us hurt. Because that kind of hurt can only be stopped by getting that piece back- by regaining the empathy and compassion we need.

How we are tested

I believe we are ultimately tested most not by how we love our families, our friends. I don’t believe we are ultimately tested by how we love our enemies.

I think all we value, or say we value, is tested by how we love those we do not know, nor will we ever know. The greatest statement of principle is to help someone you have no connection to. You are not motivated by natural protectiveness, a sense of vengeance, nothing like that. It is simply to see how far we will go to back up what we say.

Maximillian Kolbe is the 20th century example. When the fascists invaded Poland, he valued service when he could have fled to safety. And when he ended up in a concentration camp, he volunteered to take the place of a condemned prisoner who had escaped. He did not know anything about this man- what religion he held, his character, what he had done for others. But Kolbe decided to make the greatest sacrifice.

It’s easy to talk big then chicken out in a real life scenario. How many people say they’ll protect the victimized, yet are too scared to stop a mugging? With strangers, there is no sentimental attachment. There is not the boiling hatred you have for those who wrong you.

Do you believe all people deserve love and empathy?

Are you willing to fight and die for justice or freedom?

These are tested when it is presented in a scenario devoid of prior feeling.

And how we answer the call tells us what we are really made of.