Is Cancel Culture Just a Zero-Sum Game?

Updated: Aug 6

“O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” – William Shakespeare, Othello

Needing to make an important point, my econ professor took a chalk and drew a large circle on the blackboard. He then proceeded to draw lines presenting different percentages of all the wealth in the world. He drew a sliver of the pie to represent the wealth of Bill Gates, then the richest man in the world. He then erased that line and made that piece of the pie even larger. Each time, the pie representing Mr. Gates's wealth grew while the wealth held by everyone else diminished. The class fidgeted as he drove home the point that the good fortune of the extraordinary successful Mr. Gates was coming at the expense of everyone else. The professor was attempting to illustrate that the accumulation of wealth is a ‘zero-sum’ game.

As generally agreed to by most legitimate digital authorities, ‘zero-sum,’ or ‘zero-sum game,’ as it is also called, is defined as; a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it. Nearly any competitive sport is an example. One winner typically means there are many losers.

With this overly simplistic view of how wealth is accumulated, much of the classroom erupted into moral indignation. Economic injustice was just so obvious in that pie-chart, one must be blind to not see why poverty and hunger still exist. The professor appeared to be satisfied with the response (I learned later he was a socialist). One student did have the temerity to challenge the obvious flaws to the professor’s illustration by pointing that growing wealth actually enlarges the size of the pie. He rightfully pointed out that the wealth of most of the countries citizens also grew and that creates opportunities for many others.

But many of the students were having nothing to do with that bit of logic. They seemed quite satisfied with their righteous indignation with Mr. Gates. If they could not compete with his financial wealth, they could at least claim a sense of moral superiority. It was easier to believe the pie-chart than to think through the many twists and turns of various economic theories. Economics is much more complex than creating simple binary conflicts between the oppressed vs. the oppressor or the rich vs. the poor.

In another class, I was introduced to Erich Fromm because he wrote a book titled ‘Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics.’ Watching this unfold in my econ class echoed something Mr. Fromm wrote; “There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as 'moral indignation,' which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.”

From the banter of the classroom uproar, themes of envy soon became obvious. Truth be told, the majority would have willingly traded places with Mr. Gates. We too would proudly accumulate mansions and private jets if for no other reason than to show the world our superior business instincts. Until then, we buy lotto tickets, sink our eyes into social media, and preen our fragile dignity with feelings of moral superiority.

A feature of our social media world is the ability to carefully curate our public persona. Like a brochure to an exotic destination, our social media pages can easily present an image of great success. An image that others can then compare how they compete in the cosmos. Like the brochure, it is a thin representation of real-life and generally doesn’t reveal what lies at deeper levels. But even a colorful picture of success and a bio that suggests great accomplishments can draw a friend, coworker, or peer towards the impulse of envy. If I didn’t include ‘families,’ it is because it goes with out saying. Families are rot with envy. If allowed to overrun us, envy can lead to some very dark places. Just ask Cain.

Musician, author, and father, Jon Foreman (songwriter for Switchfoot) wrote this from his personal observations; “Greed, envy, sloth, pride, and gluttony: these are not vices anymore. No, these are marketing tools. Lust is our way of life. Envy is just a nudge towards another sale. Even in our relationships, we consume each other, each of us looking for what we can get out of the other. Our appetites are often satisfied at the expense of those around us. In a dog-eat-dog world, we lose part of our humanity.”

If, as Mr. Foreman suggests, life is consumed with winning in dog-eat-dog fashion, advancing via virtual signaling, and step-stoning our way to significance, is it possible that our ‘cancel culture’ is just a zero-sum game- an inverted pie-chart where a canceled individual or group means more room for you and me?’ That when one falls and gets fired or quits to actual or perceived failure, that gives another a shot at the top? Woof-woof.

I recall the saga of Evergreen College and a well respected biology professor. He, a self-proclaimed liberal and a serious tenured academic, was ousted because he refused to leave campus on ‘Only Students and Faculty of Color Day.’ Being white, he immediately saw the bigotry and overt racism in that childish ploy and refused to play the game. The students went after him with a pack-like vengeance as did many of his peers. Even the administration did little more than throw him under the kiddy bus. Did his peers see an empty coveted tenured chair available?

If envy animates our dog-eat-dog existence and leads to rotting souls, is there an antidote? Esteemed novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, thought it possible but only to those who stand up to the ‘fools bark;’ “Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it soothes their worries, and finally it rots their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues. Such people are convinced that the doors of heaven will be opened only to poor wretches like themselves who go through life without leaving any trace but their threadbare attempts to belittle others and to exclude - and destroy if possible - those who, by the simple fact of their existence, show up their own poorness of spirit, mind, and guts. Blessed be the one at whom the fools bark, because his soul will never belong to them.”

C.S. Lewis said it this way; “We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives with the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”

What weaves through the cranial crevices of these clear-headed thinkers is the power and destructive ability of one of the seven deadly sins- envy. It poisons our world and has the potential of leading to our demise. Perhaps that is the reason one of the most important stories of Biblical times involved the two eldest sons of Adam.

Is there a way to overcome envy? Maybe. It may not be easy but we should at least try. If we feel it welling up, we need to stomp it down like a whack-a-mole game. It will come back so repeat. Then, if so inclined, take time to acknowledge your blessings and name them one by one. Write them down if that helps. When done, you’ll likely never covet the likes of Mr. Gates again nor his neighbor nor his maidservant.

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