Today I read chapter 12 (Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?), the chapter I have been most excited about since picking up this book a few weeks ago. To me, the problem posed in the book’s subheading, ‘Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’, is inextricably linked to the question of why can’t we approach our differences from a rational perspective, as opposed to an emotional one?
Why is the goal so often to convince others that you are correct and they are wrong, instead of mutual understanding and finding common ground?
Jonathan Haidt opens this discussion with a poster from the Chamomile Tea Party:
I’d never heard of this organization before today, so I went to their website (chamomileteaparty.com) and skimmed through about 80 other posters their artists made. Some I found to be much cleverer than others, but all had to do with this issue: Why have US Politics suddenly become a zero-sum game?
In my economics classes at UMass-Dartmouth, we often discuss social issues with the help of game theory—the study of strategic interaction between individuals or groups. A zero-sum game means that one player’s gain is another player’s loss. The size of the pie is perceived to be fixed, so there is no choice but to fight against others if you want to improve your own condition.
But not all games are zero-sum games. There are many win-win situations in life: a baseball trade which fills in key missing pieces on both teams, or a partnership where people bring their fields of expertise together to kick-start a successful new business.
Our US Congress also used to be a good example, as the two parties would frequently cooperate; giving a little here in exchange for a little there in order to help the US economy as a whole. Since strong economies greatly help incumbents get reelected, this collaboration became even more of a win-win.
Now, however, it seems like the true merits of any new bill are pushed aside by the perceived zero-sum ramifications to each party’s reputation. A well-crafted bill aimed at creating long-term job growth, for example, might find itself blocked by every member of one political party simply because they believe it would be perceived as a win for the other party.
I feel that US politics have always been a ‘game’, by the strategic/mathematical definition, only now everything seems to have become a zero-sum game.
So what do you think about Haidt’s question of why can’t people disagree more constructively? Whether or not you’ve made it to chapter 12 yet, let me know if you’ve seen anything in this book which relates to this question for you. Feel free to use US politics or any other example, but if you post something like ‘It’s all the ______ party’s fault!’, are you disagreeing any more constructively than the zero-summers? We have four exciting years just ahead at UMass-Dartmouth. The more we can disagree constructively, the more win-wins we’ll all discover.
-Randy Hall, UMass-Dartmouth Economics Dept.