Part of an ongoing set of posts from my upcoming book subtitled A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. For close readers of this blog, some of this material may be familiar, but I welcome comments and suggestions. This is, after all, for publication. Footnotes not included.
The Psychology of Zero-Sum: Envy, Schadenfreude, and Mistrust
One of the most difficult aspects of honor-shame cultures for us moderns to fathom is the way in which they tend to view the world as a “limited good” and therefore all transactions and developments as a zero-sum game in which when someone else wins, I lose, and when I win, someone else must lose. While there are obviously cases in our own society where such is also the case – all competitive sports are zero-sum – there are others where the modern economy has, by making economic growth the norm, made it possible for even classic zero-sum situations – competing for a job position, for an A – not so remorselessly zero-sum. Indeed since the “positive-sum” 60s, grade inflation testifies to the strong desire to make even scholarly achievement a fully positive-sum game: everyone is “special,” everyone gets a high grade.
But in a society of scarce resources, like the Bedouins in the desert, or the Karamojong of the arid plains, the very life of the clan depends on their control of oases and pasture land. Here someone else’s gain is your loss, and the competition can get ruthless. Among the Karamajong of Africa, initiation to manhood involved killing someone from the neighboring tribe, man or woman. When the shocked Western visitor objected to killing the women, the tribesman replied: “If we don’t kill their women, they will have more children who will grow up to be warriors and defeat us.”
Zero-sum attitudes have a close relationship to envy: if someone’s success necessarily diminishes others, then any success will elicit envy, and, in many cases, mobilize forces to bring down the haughty ones. Envy, like shame, may be peculiarly human, and play a key role in our evolution. As an individual phenomenon, it is hard to track since, being an admission of inadequacy in relationship to the person envied, few people want to admit to feeling envy. As a social phenomenon – i.e. collective envy – it may play an important role in distribution of wealth by forcing those with a great deal to share. In some tribes, hunter-gatherers hide food and eat it alone at night in order not to lose the “lion’s share” to envious neighbors who demand their share.
There is a joke about a peasant who unearths a magic lamp, rubs it, and out comes a genie who offers him anything, but warns him that his neighbor will get whatever he requests twofold. His answer, “poke out one of my eyes.” Now if this were a chess move rather than a joke, you’d put two exclamation points after it. Why? Because since chess is a zero-sum game, and only the king matters, even a queen sacrifice is acceptable. Here, in one deft move, this peasant has turned a situation in which he would become half a wealthy as his neighbor (had he, say, asked for 1000 head of cattle, or 1000 acres of land) into a spectacular “win” for himself: in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king. With this dramatic queen sacrifice, he has bought his dominion at the price of his self-mutilation.
Envy is a pervasive element of the human psyche and of human societies. The issue then, is how pervasive. What do cultures do with envy – accept it? or struggle against it? The expression “crabs in the basket” refers to the way if one crab tries to escape, the others will pull him down, hence, the tendency of people in poverty to show hostility to someone who, by dint of effort, rises above the collective condition and, by implication, sheds an unflattering light on those he or she leaves behind. This is not always negative. The argument that self-help warrior tribes are egalitarian, even ‘democratic,’ comes from their strong hostility to any single person rising to a position of dominance (kingship), not in any way to our notion that every individual, including women, have equal rights to speak and vote.
The evidence suggests that cultures that take envy as an inevitable and pervasive part of their lives produce societies of “limited good,” and by contrast that cultures that resist envy, even in relatively small but significant amounts, become wealth producing nations. When envy dominates a culture, its members mobilize against success. As the saying goes, “the higher up the pole you get, the more your ass is visible.” On the contrary, when people can tolerate success by others, even rejoice in the success of others, you have conditions for economic development. One might argue that monogamy, as painful as it is for alpha males who want to (are genetically programmed to?) spread their seed, is an effort to control the terrible conflicts of envy between multiple wives, not only for their own status, but for the status of their children. Polygamy, on the other hand, gives full range to both the alpha male’s power, and to a “family life” brimming with the most ferocious competitions at every level.
Those cultures in which envy flourishes, in which hard zero-sum games dominate virtually all relationships have certain characteristics worth keeping in mind when trying to understand them.
• Blaming the other: One of the more important dimensions of honor-shame self-help justice is the negative premium it places on self-criticism. The tendency of those who have been shamed by others is to blame the other for the insult. Public self-criticism registers in all but rare cases not as courage, but as an excuse not to fight, as a sign of weakness, of cowardice. To some degree this holds for almost any culture, even allegedly modern ones. “No one in France will admit to having made a mistake,” an observer told me, a few years ago. “It means you’re weak, and it’s the beginning of the end of your political career.” Rare are the cultures in which public admission of fault redounds to the credit of the confessor. Rather, most people blame, and, in some cases, scapegoat a designated guilty victim. The “other” must be wrong in order to save face.
• Evil Eye: The notion of the evil eye, the idea that a malevolent gaze can harm the recipient, appears, developed to various degrees, in most cultures. Where the belief prevails, the members of the society take a wide variety of actions to ward off the evil eye, some magical (talismans), some preventive measures (hiding wealth, disguising good fortune, avoiding any public display of success). Much “black magic” aims at harming others invisibly, and the notion that some people can cast an “evil eye” on another and thereby curse them is widespread. In Morocco, the saying holds, that “a third of people die from war, a third from disease, and a third from the evil eye.”
• Schadenfreude: The German term, adopted by pretentious Anglophones, designates the joy one takes in the failures and sufferings of others. This universal emotion remains, like so many aspects of envy, a kind of dirty secret that people often will not admit to themselves or others unless they can justify it with an explanation that the suffering is well deserved. Gladiatorial games, with their bloodthirsty crowds demanding death, provide just such spectacles. Nietzsche, ever vigilant to the workings of ressentiment among the weak, noted that Tertullian warned his fellow Christians not to attend gladiatorial matches because when they went to heaven, they would be allowed to view all the sufferings of those condemned (righteously) to hell – a kind of divine cable reception with thousands of stations from all the circles of hell. The public torture and execution of criminals in medieval and early modern Europe provided the spectators with a combination of Schadenfreude and cautionary object lesson.
In a sense, on might argue that Schadenfreude defines the nature of us-them mentalities: suffering by “us” inspires hatred and desire for revenge; suffering by “them” inspires joy and celebration. Again, as with all the other emotions here described, Schadenfreude is a universal phenomenon, and the operative issue is whether the culture feeds its expression, or discourages it. While we in the West consider open expressions of Schadenfreude a sign of weak character, other cultures sponsor public displays. The rejoicing around the world at 9-11 was a classic expression of such emotions. And, as the French sociologist Baudrillard put it, while “they did it, we wanted it.”
• Humiliating others: In many honor-shame cultures, public discourse is often a game of one-upsmanship, in which public exchanges are contests of humiliation. The French film Ridicule describes the situation in the court of Louis XV at Versailles as one in which verbal jousts meted out sharp humiliations to the slow of wit, before adepts of Schadenfreude who thrilled to the contests. In such a world, every public discussion becomes a potential battlefield for honor, every exchange a “power challenge” for honor. People in such cultures live in constant anxiety since “honor is easily challenged and easily lost.” As the Arab proverb runs, “at the hour of trial a man is either honored or humiliated.” Indeed, people in power can expect at any time – and especially when they show signs of weakness – challenges to their authority, attempts to blacken their face, if not with blood, then with ridicule. As Madame de Sévigné once put it: “The humiliation of inferiors is necessary to maintain social order.”
• Lying: Every human being alive, and who ever existed, lies, we all conceal. There’s good evidence that were we not able to conceal certain aspects of our thought even from those most close to us, we would go mad. In honor shame cultures, two major attitudes vary significantly from those in the modern West. First, if it is legitimate to shed blood to save face, it’s certainly legitimate to lie. This can reach even the most trivial levels of concern: asked directions to a place he does not know, some men will give wrong directions, just in order to appear knowledgeable and not lose face by admitting ignorance. As the joke runs: “Why are there female astronauts? – If they get lost in space, at least someone will ask for directions.” Lying to strangers is particularly easy, since there are no consequences.
Second, lying represents a game strategy whereby the liar both tests the intelligence of his interlocutor (how quickly does he catch on?) and a test of his interlocutor’s courage to call his interlocutor a liar and risk an escalation of verbal and even physical violence. The advantages of successfully lying are impressive: one can manipulate the unsuspecting and the cowardly, deceive him or maneuver his fear of embarrassment so that he or she takes positions that benefit me and harm their interests. An anthropologists who worked with tribal Afghanis told me his informant once said to him: “You Americans never lie.” Being the good earnest American that he was, he objected self-critically: “That’s not true, Americans lie often.” Then he realized… his Afghani friend meant it as an insult, not a compliment.
• Mistrust: I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors, all of us against the foreigner (Bedouin Proverb). In a world where zero-sum prevails, trust is a rare commodity, and generally only to be found in the confines of the family, if that. The mistrust of the “other” creates a cycle of suspicion and projection – they want to do to me what I want to do to them – that can only be broken with great difficulty. When the Athenians gave the Melians the choice between joining their side or having the men killed and women and children sold into slavery, their response was, “that’s not fair.” To which the Melians responded, ““You plead for fairness only because you are weak. Were you in our place you would be doing the same thing.” Anyone on the outside is immediately suspect of plotting zero-sum outcomes that will benefit him and harm us. On a political plane, this means that all political initiatives and conspiracies are virtually identical. As Thomas Friedman put it, “Don’t try to explain anything in the Middle East if you can’t explain it with a conspiracy story.”