Brexit & Zero-Sum Games

Pordenone, Italy

I recently flew through London’s Heathrow airport, and I happened to land on the first day of the UK’s official withdrawal from the European Union. I must admit, I didn’t necessarily feel like things felt any more British than usual… which isn’t surprising. But it made me think about the reality that at the heart of arguments used by many in support of Brexit is the notion that to become more British, the UK had to become less European.

That’s a great example of what is known as a “zero-sum game”. A zero-sum game is like a see-saw: when one side goes up, the other correspondingly comes down. To be more British, we have to be less European; to be awake longer, we have to sleep less; and so on.

Those who oppose Brexit would be more likely to argue that British and European identities are not mutually exclusive – you can be both British and European without the two concepts adversely effecting each other.

Many Third Culture Kids, Cross-Cultural Kids, and Expats have to work through constructing identity outside the bounds of a zero-sum game. A student with a passport from Germany who grows up in Singapore may feel attachment to both countries – one through heritage and family influence, the other through experience and familiarity. Those are difficult forces to pit against each other.

There can be great advantages to working through identity in this way, like cross-cultural skills and adaptability. But it can also cause confusion in a world still modeled on a system of exclusive national identity, leaving some TCKs to feel rootless or “fake” when compared to others with fewer international influences on their upbringing.

The argument regarding to what degree identity is zero-sum or not is actually playing out on a scale far more global than just the UK. In a recent poll of more than 20,000 people from 18 different countries, it emerged that the majority of people in developing economies saw themselves more as global citizens first and foremost, while the majority of people in richer nations felt the exact opposite: they were first and foremost national citizens. The divide between the two is only expected to grow…

Money, time, even attention are all limited resources which point to the fact that most things in life are zero-sum. The more time you spend with someone the less you have for everyone else, that’s what makes us feel special and valued. Perhaps that’s part of the reason we can so easily attach the concept of a zero-sum game to identity: it helps us feel special.

But sometimes we can do great harm by assuming everything is zero-sum.

One of the underlying causes of bullying is the assumption that for one person to have more happiness, someone else has to have less. So by picking on someone and making them feel worse, the belief is that it’ll make the bully feel better about themselves. That’s not how happiness works. We can create unlimited happiness, it is not a rare or scarce resource!

Whether in Brexit, the wider debate on global vs national identity, or even our relationships with those around us, it’s worth looking at how we see the world: do we assume everything is zero-sum – because while many things are… some things definitely aren’t, and they can easily be subconsciously overlooked. At the same time, a lot of our resources are limited and we have to make tough choices regarding them. Where does a resource like identity fall on that spectrum?

What do you think? Are you a global citizen first, or a national citizen first, or are you both? Is your identity something to be protected, or something to be shared, or a bit of both? Ultimately, how we think about concepts like identity has a real impact on the limited resources we all have to work with.

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