America’s Zero-Sum Culture, and How It’s Tearing the Nation Apart

Bill Evans head shot

In a host of public controversies we see the outworking of what can meaningfully described as a zero-sum culture. A zero-sum game, of course, is a situation where there is a finite amount of capital or benefits to be gotten—there are only so many pieces of the pie, so to speak—and thus if one person or group gains, another loses. And that is precisely the logic that seems to be playing out. And with this has come an ever increasingly level of public unpleasantness—a perfect storm of incivility, if you will.

Take two of the most prominent public squabbles—race relations and homosexual marriage—for example. Recent debates over the behavior of an increasingly militarized police presence in this country and especially of its treatment of minorities in violence-prone urban contexts has not, by and large, meaningfully addressed the bureaucratic systems and structures that may have contributed to the problem. Instead, attention has tended to shift over to the much more amorphous but über-fashionable notion of “white privilege.” In a recent article, columnist Cathy Young writes:

At the core of social justice dogma is fixation on identity and “privilege.” Some of this discourse touches on real and clear inequities: for instance, the widespread tendency of police and others to treat African-Americans, especially young and male, as potential lawbreakers. Yet even here, the rhetoric of privilege generates far more heat than light. University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Bolash-Goza, who accepts the “social justice” left’s view of pervasive structural racism in America, points out that the term “white privilege” turns what should be the norm for all—not being harassed by cops or eyed suspiciously by shop owners—into a special advantage unfairly enjoyed by whites. (Indeed, in its dictionary meaning, “privilege” refers to rights or benefits possessed by the select, not by the majority.) This language speaks not to black betterment but to white guilt. It also erases the fact that the “privilege” extends to many nonwhite groups, such as Asians.

In other words, while racism continues to be a problem that must not be minimized or ignored, the idea of “white privilege” as it is often deployed in these discussions is pretty incoherent and contrived. Nevertheless, the conviction seems to be that there must be winners and losers. If African-Americans are to win, whites must lose.

The same zero-sum cultural patterns are evident in debates over same-sex marriage. Now that a majority of Americans are apparently okay with SSM, some proponents loudly proclaim that those who disagree with the new regime are bad people—no better than racists and slaveholders—who must be punished for their benighted views. Last year tech industry genius Brendan Eich was hounded from his job at Mozilla because he gave a donation back in 2008 to an organization that lobbied for traditional marriage, and the Obama administration’s Solicitor General Richard Verilli conceded during oral arguments for the Obergefell case that the tax exempt status of religiously affiliated schools and organizations who oppose homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage is “certainly going to be an issue.”

Never mind that there is no evidence that many of these new personae non grata are motivated by anti-homosexual animus, never mind that they stand with the overwhelming consensus of human civilization until today’s progressives decided to think otherwise, and never mind that their views were until quite recently embraced by the leading politicians on the left, such people must be marginalized. After all, if there are winners there must also be losers.

But questions also emerge. Why has this zero-sum culture—with its historical amnesia, hubris, vindictiveness, and incivility—become so pervasive today? Here are six reasons.

First, there is the tradition of American individualism, and especially our penchant for framing everything in terms of individual rights. Of course, such rights language goes back to the Declaration of Independence and even before: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The difference between then and now is that such rights were formerly understood to be functions of something higher and greater than the individual—the natural law established by a benevolent creator which defined the character and goals of human flourishing. When that transcendent framework of meaning and the societal consensus regarding what is just and good and right that resulted from it was lost—as it now has been almost entirely—there is little room for reasonable discourse about such issues (for reasons that will be evident in the next paragraph).

Second, there is the emotivism that characterizes much moral discourse today. Although there have been some valiant (and in my judgment unsuccessful) efforts to establish public moral discourse in the absence of a theistic worldview (here we think especially of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice), the prevailing approach now is what Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory terms “emotivism”—the belief that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (After Virtue, 12). But when moral judgments are no more than expressions of individual sentiment at least two things take place. Because the locus of moral authority is the self rather than larger principle, disagreements are often personalized, and there is less room for agreements to disagree regarding matters over which good people may differ. In addition, because on emotivist grounds there is little room for rational discourse, moral issues ultimately reduce to power—either the informal power of public opinion or the iron fist of the state.

Third, in part because of this reduction of moral issues to questions of power, there is the politicization of everything, or what sociologist James Davison Hunter calls “the conflation of the public with the political,” in which “all of public life tends to be reduced to the political” (Hunter, To Change the World, 105). Hunter argues that in the absence of a societal consensus over basic issues of right and wrong, the state becomes the arbiter of these issues, and so we have seen the expansion of state power into many areas that were formerly the domain of the family, local associations, and local governments.   Thus, it is no great surprise that the federal government has now even taken it upon itself to define the nature of marriage.

Fourth, this politicization has been abetted by academic approaches, often traveling under the label “critical theory,” that focus on the analysis of power relationships. This sort of thing is pervasive in academia these days (especially in the humanities), and two key intellectual influences may be mentioned here, though there are many more. Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism reduced social reality to issues of economic power, and his notion of the “critique of ideology” encouraged the dismissal of arguments by people deemed to be economically advantaged as mere justifications of that power. Marx’s insistent focus on economics is now generally regarded as inadequate, but he put the topic of power on the table for discussion. More recently, the late French critical social theorist Michel Foucault sought to explore the relationship of power and discourse and to analyze the structure of power relationships more broadly. All this has had the effects of reducing the complexity of world and social relationship to issues of power, of imposing a binary logic that divides human society into the oppressors and the oppressed, and of providing a ready rationale for the ignoring or silencing of people thought to be tainted in some way by oppressive ideology.

I’m certainly not suggesting here that power relationships don’t exist or that they do not often function invidiously. They do, but when the rich complexity of human society and motivation is viewed exclusively through the lens of power analysis a lot is missed.

These trendy intellectual currents, in turn, have provided both an academic idiom and the appearance of academic respectability for what Hunter calls a political psychology of “ressentiment.” According to Hunter, “this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action.” Hunter adds:

Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. . . . In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable (Hunter, To Change the World, 107-8).

Fifth, there is the impact of the secular, materialistic, naturalistic, immanentistic worldview, which, in fact, underlies much of what we have already described. On this way of thinking, which is now deeply imbedded in western culture, there is nothing but this world. There is no realm of supernature, no God who serves as the creator and guarantor of human rights and dignity, and there can be no public appeals to transcendent sources of truth. This material world is all there is. Not surprisingly, as theologians John Milbank, Hans Boersma, and others have insistently pointed out, this leads to a “flattening” of reality. Marcelo Souza (in dependence upon Milbank) rightly notes that on this way of thinking “all reality is flattened; all social, political and cultural aspects become reducible to the mere human and humanistic level, all ethics are reducible to preference and power games, all language reducible to mere signs, and all men reducible to chemical/biological machines.”

It should be easy to discern at this point how this materialistic worldview facilitates the zero-sum culture we have described. Appeals to enduring principles become more difficult, and public discussions more often than not reduce to power struggles with the attending winners and losers. At the same time, the distinctly modern conceit that the world is at least implicitly comprehensible by human reason and that we as human beings are the ultimate arbiters of what we take to be truth can lead to insufferable hubris. Complexity and nuance are lost, and public discourse degenerates into Manichaen politics.

Sixth, there is the myth of progress as it informs contemporary sensibilities. In light of what we’ve said thus far, one might think that contemporary American culture would be nihilistic—that it denies any reality to the moral. But that is not the case. Most people do not have the stomach for such consistency, and so they need some larger teleological framework of meaning to buttress their concerns for individual rights and personal autonomy. As sociologists such as Robert Wuthnow of Princeton have argued, the notion of progress (reinforced as it is by ongoing technological achievement) provides this framework for legitimizing the institutions, beliefs, and policies of late modernity. It also provides a ready tool for distinguishing the winners and losers—those who object are simply, as Barack Obama incessantly says, “on the wrong side of history.”

But this contemporary zero-sum culture of winners and losers stands in sharp contrast to earlier political discourse as it was informed by religiously derived notions of divine providence, sin, tragic brokenness, grace, and humility in the face of a world that we do not fully understand. Witness Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which, while not shying away from moral judgment also recognized that the simplistic and harsh binary logic of winners and losers was inadequate to the tragic situation then facing the nation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Even more compelling is the recent example of forgiveness demonstrated by the families of those murdered in Charleston at the Emanuel AME Church. While not excusing the inexcusable, those Christians also realized that the binary logic of winners and losers is inadequate. If history is any indication, the way forward will not come from the secular elites of our country. Rather, it will come from people of faith.