Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Humanitarian law and not law of the jungle must prevail at all times

Beyond Zero Sum Game and Rhetoric of Conflict as Justification for Acts of Atrocities

The logics of conflict, it is often said, can hardly be with justice adjudicated by ordinary law. The exception called for is also evident in the popular and often brazen claim that everything is fair in love and war, for in the end, presumably it is only winning that matters. Call it the law of the jungle, but quite disturbingly it is indeed a fact that the history of life itself has been a long winding tale about winners. Only the fittest have survived to tell their tales. It also has not always meant the biggest and the strongest survived. The extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, as well as the falls of invincible empires in recorded history all are testimony. Who knows, in the end, it may just be uncomplicated one-cell creatures, and viruses that prove to be the fittest. But the question is, should not, or more accurately, have not humans risen above the law of the jungle? Humans have, but residues of the past life in the jungle remains an endemic memory, hence all the senseless conflicts humans are still cursed with.

It is interesting and a humble lesson that human success in evolution has also been a matter of unexpected fortuitous circumstances. If for instance earth did not suffer a disastrous asteroid hit 65million years ago, ending the dominance of dinosaurs that lasted nearly 180 million years, the creature that ultimately evolved to become humans may have ended up on trees the size of house lizards, as Bill Bryson humorously remarks in his bestseller, A Brief History of Nearly Everything. Long after that event, about 60,000 years ago when human species was brought to the brink of extinction by the harsh Ice Age climatic condition, and reduced to just a few hundred reproduction capable couples, something fortuitous happened again, according to new findings of scientists. This was the Cognitive Revolution, an extraordinary evolutionary mutation that in the human brain circuitry, which gave them the ability to create fiction and understand symbols. Among others, the result was complex use of symbols as in human language, and the creation of fictions along which they could organise and coordinate in large numbers. The Cognitive Revolution was what brought humans on the top of life’s chart and they continue to be there unchallenged.

But in evolutionary terms, 60,000 years or even 66 million years is negligibly short. In Bill Bryson’s easy to grasp scale in for instance, if the entire history of the earth were to be represented by the length between fingertips of one hand to those of the other hand on the outstretched arms of a human of average height, then the single stroke of a medium-grain nail-file on a nail would be enough to wipe off the entire period humans came to be at the fore of life on earth.

It is rather oxymoronic, but the fact also is, this 66 million years since the disappearance of the dinosaurs, not to speak of the 60,000 years since the Cognitive Revolution, may be insignificant in evolutionary terms, but they are all the same extremely significant and long in human terms. Indeed, 66 million years or even 60,000 years is virtually unimaginable to the human mind. Forget about the 66 million years, even the last 12,000 years since the last Ice Age receded and the race of human civilizations was flagged off, has been an extremely long time. Forget also the 12,000 years, but the last century and the one we live in are from our point view extremely significant and long.

Humans have chosen to believe they are an exception. The human drama too is no longer only about the survival of the fittest genes. If this were so, there would have been no place for refined emotions such as compassion, empathy, sympathy, love etc. Consequently, as in the animal world, handicapped children would have had very little chances of survival. The phenomenon of adoption, (or the transfer of parental affection to non-offsprings) known for perhaps as long as human civilization, and now a raging benevolent fashion, thanks to celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Sushmita Sen etc and before them Paul Newman and many more, for instance, is totally contrary to the law of natural selection, where each living thing is supposedly in a perpetual competition to propagate its own genes only and at the cost of others.

Maybe in evolutionary terms, these civilized human qualities are deviants that will lower the defences of humans in the survival of species struggle. All the same, let us admit it, humans are different, and that this species has gone beyond the principles of natural selection. Call it strength or weakness, but this is also what makes humans stand out. Hence our objection to the survival of the fittest theory as an inevitability, or of the argument that war calls for exceptions in law that go against the tradition of liberal humanism.

There are obviously many who disagree, especially those who think in terms of deadly conflicts as resolutions to disagreements and disputes. They also generally think in terms of what is now popularly referred to as the “zero sum game”. From this perspective, in a competitive environment, one competitor’s gain has to be the other competitor’s loss. The offshoot of this vision is also another rather sinister war game: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Such players push their “friends” to be the enemy of their enemy as well. Maybe the “zero sum game” is unavoidable in a straight equation where there are only two players. But when there are many more players than just two, things get a lot more complicated, and the “zero sum game” often becomes unproductive. American mathematician and economics Nobel Prize winning genius, John Nash, said as much in his biography by Sylvia Nasar titled “A Beautiful Mind”, now a major Hollywood movie. Individual players in any multi-players game, do not function as isolated, independent units, but conform to a larger pattern or ethics on the acknowledgement and restraint that “I think that he thinks that I think that he thinks…” Breaking this unseen bond, even between rivals, whichever player it is that resorts to it, has never proven productive for anybody. This principle of economic rivalry can very well shed some valuable light on why the strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, so repulsively rampant in Manipur, is resulting in so much chaos and disillusionment. Anybody listening?

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