“Be Nice . . . Until It’s Time To Not Be Nice”: Surviving in the World with your Principles Intact

By nature, I am slow to anger and quick to forgive. This might make me a good Christian and a rather pleasant guy to be around, but in any kind of conflict or war I know I would be a liability–a good man but not good at being a man, as Jack Donovan would say.

The thing is, I do think we are in a war. Emotionally, I do you logically, spiritually, and increasing the physically, it is a reality, both at the national and international levels.

At least here in America, we are more divided than ever. I have tried, but I am sick of trying, to demonstrate to people that I do not hate them. Some people are going to hate you no matter what. How you deal with them is still a mystery to me, although I have my ideas.

Anyway, it seems that a sad fact of life that you were decency will always be used against you. Always.

I don’t think this used to be the case here in the United States. Cynicism is a very un-American trait, but I think we as a nation could afford to be more open, honest, and trusting if there were higher levels of trust and more social cohesion. Now, for a variety of reasons, society is breaking down. We are witnessing it in real time.

Paeans for unity are meaningless, because lots of the people who make them really want division, anger, and distrust. If there was actually unity, these people would be out of a job.

So is the only way to survive to be cynical? Distrusting?

I have a problem with this because this is not my nature. Both as an American and a Christian, I’d prefer to be decent and to treat others the way I would wish to be treated. However, given the hatred that I see and receive, I feel my basic outlook changing and I don’t necessarily like it.

With these thoughts bouncing around my head, I recently completed a two-day negotiation training course for work. In it, I had a little bit of an “Ah-ha!” moment when, in discussing game theory, I learned about Robert Axelrod‘s negotiation strategy.

How did something from the world of mediation and negotiation help with this internal dilemma? Let me explain.

Imagine you are playing a game with three other people. Each player has a card with the letter X on one side and the letter Y on the other. The game has 10 rounds, with each player showing a side of their card each round. What letter you play and what the others play affects how many points you win, and some rounds, including the last, multiply the points scored by a factor of three. The basic premise is that if everybody plays a Y, everybody scores one point. More points are to be had if you play an X and everybody else, or most everybody else, plays a Y. The successful X player gets points, and the Y players lose them. Individual as well as group scores are tracked.

Oh, and the game is called “Win As Much As You Can.” It’s set up as a reverse Prisoner’s Dilemma.


Remember: In this game, unlike the Prisoner’s Dilemma, you are not acting in a vacuum. You are also dealing with repeat players–your past behavior influences how the other players will act in the future.

Now imagine being a room full of lawyers while playing this game. We discussed the definition of “you”: Did it refer to the singular player? Or did it refer to the entire team? But this ambiguity is built in to the game’s rules.

If everybody plays a Y every round, including the last around when there would be no consequences if you defect and play a X, everybody would walk away with 16 points and the team score would be a 64, the highest possible outcome in the game. However, this doesn’t maximize your individual score, which is also a part of the game’s rules . . .

But 16 is still more than 0, and the game is called “Win as Much as You Can.” Isn’t 16 still as much as you possibly can in a game set up like this? In fact, the math guys say that playing Y every round is the “right” answer, which is interesting considering they also say that defecting is the “right” answer in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Play a Y? Trust other people in a competitive environment? But other people can’t be trusted, can they?

Axelrod’s theory helps reconcile my own ambivalence about becoming darker and harder in the world that is becoming darker and harder. It consists of four steps:

  1. Start cooperative. In other words, play a Y.
  2. Retaliate when necessary. If the other side plays along, keep playing Ys. If they play an X, play one right back. Play Xs until they see the error of their scorched-earth ways. If the other side plays a Y, you should do likewise until they play an X. It’s like trying to discipline a small child.
  3. Forgive. If, after retaliation, the other side shows a willingness to play nice, you can go back to playing metaphorical Ys. However, they are on notice that if they mess with you, you will hit them right back twice as hard.
  4. Be clear and consistent. Again, it’s like raising a child: You don’t want there to be any confusion about the rules or the consequences for breaking them.

I hate this. I hate games. I hate deception and I hate lying. But I think the times in the United States where one can be earnest, open, and honest are over. This is not a war that me and people like me started, but it’s going to be up to us to finish it.

And I don’t think this is irreconcilable with my faith. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, referring to affronts against personal dignity and tit-for-tat retaliation. But can one still survive today with this philosophy? Is Christianity . . . gulp . . . outdated?

No, and honestly I think we need it, or comparable religious or moral believes, more than ever. Religious precepts tend to run counter to human nature, after all. I see the necessity of forgiveness to be the linchpin to being in this world but not of it. I don’t see Axelrod’s strategy as one borne of a desire for, or done in the spirit of, gleeful revenge. It’s to try to work with the other side, if it can be done. In other words, it’s about survival, not personal dignity or honor, especially in the face of physical aggression.

In conclusion, I think the best way for somebody like me to survive in this world that is getting nastier and nastier is to act like Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton in the movie Roadhouse: be nice . . . until it’s time to not be nice.

But as always, be willing to forgive, and don’t do anything, including retaliate, with malice in your hearts.

I’d love to hear what everybody else thinks about this. Has the brutishness of the world made you rethink, reevaluate, and change your natures, if at all? Let me know when the comments below.

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