When Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy III delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address in January 2018 he chose an intriguing frame for his remarks. Not satisfied with rebutting Trump’s admittedly-minimal record on policy and legislation, JFK’s grand-nephew denounced the President for “turning American life into a zero-sum game” in which the well-being of some Americans must come at the expense of others—“as if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the day-care worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top.”
The alternative to ‘zero sum’ is ‘positive sum’ thinking—a way of reasoning that rejects the dichotomies of ‘either/or’ judgments in favor of a ‘both/and mind.’ Kennedy argued that there’s no contradiction between raising living standards for one group or another, but the same technique could be applied to any set of issues or constituencies where more than one thing can be true. Does the image above show a 6, a 9, or both, depending on your point of view? That realization provides the key to a different way of interacting with one another in activism and politics.
Positive sum thinking is much more than lowest-common-denominator compromise and negotiation. It demands new methods of navigating our way through complex problems and solutions—a different mental architecture that encourages everyone to leave their comfort zones and enter into a genuine conversation that isn’t so pre-structured. But if we can make it work the benefits could be huge: both/and thinking might provide a route out of the impasse that stymies action on the really big issues of the day. How so?
Most contemporary democracies produce alternating periods of intellectual and political superiority for one side or another. That’s because political and cultural differences go much deeper, and are much more enduring, than we might admit—they don’t disappear through education or campaigning, or through changing demographics or rising incomes. The victory of one set of ideas or values also produces a counter-reaction which usually strengthens the opposition. Over time therefore, policy changes tend to cancel each other out, making it extremely difficult to make lasting progress on issues that require permanent, cross-party constituencies like human security, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and action on global warming.
This problem is getting worse as a result of rising political polarization, religious zealotry, fake news, and filter bubbles or echo chambers on the internet, all of which reinforce the infrastructure of zero-sum, either/or thinking. It’s now almost impossible to change your mind without being treated with suspicion, or to value someone else’s point of view without being labeled as a weakling, or simply to avoid a rush to judgment when presented with ideas with which you disagree. Even within the same political tradition like the progressive left in the UK and the US, factions are hardening, positions are defended to the death, and disagreement leads to censure.
The current debate around ‘identity politics’ is a classic case in point. Promoters of an ‘intersectional’ point of view emphasize the connections that exist between class, race, gender, sexuality, geography and disability. But they’ve been criticized for abandoning the traditional concerns of the left and escaping into victimhood, classified into ever-more elaborate sub-communities of oppression. Not so say the intersectionalists, since there are no forms of politics that function independently of our identities, which continue to be different. Therefore, a single-minded focus on economic questions will inevitably lead to the resurgence of social and sexual discrimination.
Recent exchanges between these two positions have generated much heat but very little light. They typify the limitations of zero-sum thinking, which stokes up the emotions of different combatants and exaggerates the gulf that lies between them. The result is an impasse, and a weakening of the left as a whole. But what if both positions were true, or at least were seen to contain enough elements of value to produce a new level of intellectual and political integration? That’s what Kennedy was getting at, albeit in a very different context—that positive sum, both/and thinking can find commonality at a deeper level that connects different experiences of oppression and inequality to the same underlying causes.
After all, why do we have to choose between non-exclusive options? The approach we adopt to something like ‘identity politics’ will be heavily influenced by our own position in society, our experience of discrimination, and our personal reading of strategy and history. These different trajectories may lead us to emphasize some forms of oppression and inequality over others at different points in time, or at different stages of the argument; in fact it would be remarkable—even unreal—if they didn’t.
But there’s much less disagreement on the origins of oppression and the long-term goals of liberation. “I want everyone on the left to understand that we’re all fighting the same struggle—that it’s people’s material wellbeing that matters in the end. On the other hand, everyone within the Left isn’t the same,” as Sofa Gradin put it in a recent article for Transformation.
The same analysis could be applied to any other deep-rooted disagreement where arguments are polarized so much that zero-sum thinking seems permanently entrenched—like Brexit, for example, or ‘freedom of speech,’ abortion, the sex industry, or how to engage with those who voted for Donald Trump. The benefits of a both/and mind seem obvious in situations like these, but how do we train our brains and manage our emotions to act in this way when the counter-pressures are so strong?
For starters, how about: ‘don’t rush to judgment, keep an open mind, put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and remember you could be wrong.’ This may sound easy, but in fact it’s immensely challenging, since none of these things arise automatically; they require some form of deliberate and conscious preparation, whether through techniques like mindfulness or meditation or some form of centering that stops you from leaping to conclusions about others and their views. Working through something like the identity politics debate requires mental agility without losing sight of fundamental principles. It’s like walking through a maze whose walls re-arrange themselves with every step you take.
Zero sum thinking implies closure, fixed boundaries and mutually-exclusive positioning; both/and thinking implies expansiveness, creativity, and the belief that multiple versions of the same account can be valuable or true. The only way we can really understand something is by looking at it from every angle, especially when even the most independent-minded among us are socialized into particular communities over time, each with their own assumptions, no-go areas and pressures to conform.
By contrast, the ability to hold contradictory realities in your mind for long enough to consider what they have to offer is characteristic of spiritual experience, expressed in ideas like detachment and non-judgment—what the writer and activist Gregory Leffel calls “metamodern mindfulness,” the willingness to place yourself between fixed ideological positions in order to appreciate ideas that don’t belong to any one of them exclusively. Think of this process as akin to rolling a sweet around and around in your mouth as it slowly dissolves, layer by layer by layer, instead of swallowing it whole or spitting it out because you don’t like the taste.
This is why philosophers from Hannah Arendt to Michael Walzer have seen ‘moral maturity’ as a willingness to welcome diversity and seek the common good together among people whose interests, at least sometimes, stretch further than themselves and their familiars. Clearly, there are some situations where this kind of mental and emotional openness and flexibility aren’t appropriate—in encounters with violent authoritarians, for example, or extreme sexism, racism and other forms of injustice—but in most situations it’s perfectly possible to keep a ‘straight back and soft front’ as some US activists describe it, simultaneously holding fast to your fundamental principles while being open to negotiating how they manifest in practice. We need “realists of a larger reality” as the late and great author Ursula le Guin once said, people with both grounding and creativity who can see transformative solutions beyond the status quo.
There are also some institutional innovations that seem to help people exercise both/and thinking, like alternative electoral systems that re-orient incentives away from winner-take-all solutions and exaggerated conflicts, and civil society groups that mix people of different views and backgrounds together in voluntary associations. “Standing shoulder to shoulder with people across our differences and creating new understandings and visions together is where the real transformative potential lies,” say activists Peroline Ainsworth and Kiran Nihalani on the basis of their experience of women’s co-operatives in south London.
Any civil society or democracy worthy of the name needs both/and thinkers to animate its institutions. Otherwise separation will be permanent. That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on every issue, but it does require some agreement on how disagreement should be handled—as an invitation to deeper dialogue instead of a prelude to further fractures. This is exceptionally challenging because it runs counter to the realities of modern politics, media and knowledge production, but the other options are much, much worse: a slide into authoritarianism, enforced artificial unity, or permanent division.
Faced by these ‘beasts,’ there's beauty in a both/and mind.