prisoner's dilemma

"The condolences high five is not a thing."

Ted Mosby to Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother

People everywhere (including me) are talking about gun control. Mental illness. The culture of violence. We're talking about the need for policy changes, regulatory enforcement, reallocation of fiscal priorities. You know you're in bad shape when you're simultaneously sobbing while strategizing about what political maneuvering would be necessary to pass various legislative measures.

I'm not an expert. I'm just another person still in shock, horrified that anyone could point a gun at a first grader and pull the trigger, over and over again. Kill the people trying to keep them safe. Someone trying to follow the shifting sands of reports about family dynamics, weapon specifics, vague allusions to altercations and evidence. Trying, really, to understand what happened, in the hope that knowledge will bring with it the power to change--not this incident, which sadly can never be erased, but to change whatever it is that led us to this point. Keep it from happening again.

There are a lot of theories, and there is a lot of anger and sadness. But there's also a widespread sense of hopelessness. We've been here before, over and over, yet nothing seems to really change. Fossilized rhetoric keeps us bouncing back and forth between two poles like a game of Pong that everybody loses.

And to me, as a non-expert, it seems that's the real problem. This horrible tragedy comes on the heels of a rather vicious and dishonest national election in which, again, one side technically won but it feels as though we all lost something important. There is a giant lack of communication happening at the national level. We have more and more channels and bandwidth and devices, but when it comes to the big issues there's less and less real connecting.

So we have yet another issue that needs to be addressed, along with all those other things. We don't trust each other as individuals, or as groups. Some people carry or stockpile guns because they don't trust those around them to refrain from violence. Others don't trust the gun-carrying people to always use them responsibly and carefully. Some are afraid the government is going to take away their ability to defend themselves with weapons; others fear that those who cling to guns are motivated primarily by hatred.

If there's a fundamental lack of trust, negotiating becomes impossible because everyone fears the others are operating in bad faith. And these incidents become more frequent, since individuals also fail to trust their neighbors, the system. There's no fabric of support, no structure for real dialogue. It all becomes a series of micro and macro prisoner's dilemmas, no one (or side) willing to run the risk that the other side will support a positive outcome. Instead of assuming that everyone is working for the common good--which means occasionally being disappointed if it turns out they're not--the guiding assumption is that no one cares about anything but self-interest. Winning. Which, in classic game theory, means that everybody loses.

That's pretty much where we're at right now.

I didn't want to write about this subject. Who would? But for now, it's the only thing I can do. I wish I knew how to fix it.