The very morning after the attacks in Paris, I was in Barcelona, sitting in the audience of the 15th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates where enlightened leaders, both female and male, representing various nationalities, addressed the audience. Their expressions conveyed the enormous gravity pulling on their hearts; their verbal reactions were profoundly compassionate towards all citizens of the world affected by the tragic acts; their calls to action were deeply moving; and they improbably overcame the initial emotional aftermath of the events with immeasurable hope and inspiration.
It is obvious that one’s perspective is influenced by living in a different country, but for me, living in Spain has made certain recent events even more thought-provoking. While living in a country with its own unique situation and challenges, I have the advantage of witnessing more sides to the analysis, debates, and reactions about what is going on with the global problems presented by the refugee crisis, ISIS, and terrorism, more generally. Meanwhile, I’m still aware of the issues back home, which include mass shootings, and a group of students who are pushing for a white student union at my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill.
Unfortunately, what has stood out to me is that fear is driving brutal actions, as well as a large share of the socio-political retaliations. This fear seems to be predicated by the doctrine that politics, economics, and global society is a zero-sum game; that one winning hinges upon others losing; and that one’s gain is proportional to others’ loss. This false creed has become widely accepted among many of world’s political powers, and is craftily used to justify short-run self-interests.
Regarding the movement to establish a white student union at UNC, whites have “won” in America since the beginning. The fear that this “superior” identity may become threatened is the product of principles of racial competition and dominance, much like Hitler’s. This group has cited demographic shifts as rationale for action. Even if whites were to immediately become a minority in American society, institutions are sticky, and the rules of the game influence outcomes. It has been structured such that those who began with the largest endowments experience little difficulty preserving financial prowess and easily extend the fissures between themselves and the rest through indirect exploitation of others. Therefore, this fear is not even justified, it is absurdity.
In terms of economic utility, even if it were a zero-sum game, why should whites deserve to win? In general, whites have so many advantages, yet, there are still so many among the majority who perpetrate and perpetuate violence, who could be reasonably classified as terrorists, or who at bare minimum are lazy and socially counterproductive.
All of these issues are exasperated by social inequities, which create a framework where one’s future is largely predicted by one’s starting position. Inequality leads to uneducated median voters, which leads to bad politicians, garbage media, confirmation biases, voids of- and even harmful social learning and interaction, and in turn back to under-provision of education, thus completing this negative cycle. Meanwhile, power to manipulate the institutions lies more strongly in the hands of private interests, than in democracy. Thomas Piketty has returned to the spotlight with an analysis pointing to economic deprivation and severe inequality as the key catalysts of terrorism in the Middle East; inequality that was largely created by the short-sighted private interests of Western powers. These destructive competitive interests manifest at an individual scale in our own homes and communities, and on the global stage. Sadly, at the moment, fears and division appear to be resulting in a negative-sum game, where the gains of the “winners” are offset by disproportionately large losses (and numbers) of losers; at least when one considers the value of our future and the aforementioned negative cycles.
This does not have to be so, but we must start to view our world and the preservation and nourishment of everything good that is within it, as a collective action problem, rather than a competition. The industrial revolution is over, colonialism is over, and the physical world is now known, and all of the people in it seem to want life’s basics, more or less. Can we try to solve the most basic problems, and by solving them generate net gains, and a promise of a better way and a better future?
Many people realize this, and are sewing these seeds the can generate net gains. With their recent announcement, the Zuckerberg’s have joined other major wealthy donors to the social good such as the Gates’ and Warren Buffet (each of them have signed the Giving Pledge). The Zuckerberg’s initiative aims to address some of the roots of the problems, including equality and human potential, based on the enlightened premise that all lives, including those of future generations, are of equal value. This contribution could potentially lead to major net gains, as long as the private interests of the organizations align with social welfare, and the organizations are held publicly accountable. Unfortunately, this is often not the case; however, this is where we are all accountable – to participate civically, become part of a cause, to use our voices to lead, and in some way to act! Every positive act is a signal. Among us are many unplanted and unfertilized seeds, and much latent potential to drive out fear, and build dominant virtuous cycles. Leaders help to propel change, but any movement is ultimately made up of individuals.
Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here. But right now, we don’t always collectively direct our resources at the biggest opportunities and problems your generation will face.
– Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg
(Image © Benjamin Anderson 2015)