Michiel van der Vlist, PA0MMV


tit for TAT

Sunday 18 Januari 2009.

When a conflict between two parties is not resolved and results in persistant violence there is often the tendency to blame it on who first started it. In practice this attitude seldom leads to ending the conflict, if only because the parties concerned almost never agree on who is the aggressor. Ever so often the start of the conflict is so deeply buried in the mist of the past and the prime incident so insignificant that it is impossible to objectively establish who is the prime offender.

Some conflicts end because one of the parties totally eliminates the other. This does not happen very often as - history tells us - it is very difficult to completely eliminate an enemy. Even with overwhelming power it is nearly impossible to get them all. If even a handful remain, the conflict will surface again sooner or later when the handful of "renegades" have gained sufficient support to light the fire again in their quest for revenge.

The need for revenge is a powerful emotion, but it is not very helpful in resolving conflicts. An often heard expression is "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". On the surface it sounds reasonable, but the mathematician will point out that - unless the parties can agree who started it - the end result will be a land full of mumbling blind. Not satisfactory.

"Turning the other cheek" OTOH, is not satisfactory either. While it will not make the conflict drag on forever, it will allow the aggressor to inflict an arbitrary amount of damage without any penalty.

So how do we prevent conflicts from escalating into total warfare and/or dragging on forever? The answer lies in mathematics. Look at this equation:

T = Σ ( xn)

This is a so called exponential series. It can be used to describe how a colony of rabbits will grow in time, but it can also be used to describe a conflict where parties are caught in an endless sequence of mutual retaliation.

For rabbits X>1 is the normal situation. Each rabbit pair produces more than two offspring and the colony grows exponentially until they run out of food. it is also the situation of a conflict where each party retaliates harder than they are hit themselves. The conflict gets out of hand. Highly undesirable.

"An eye for an eye" is the situation for X=1. although the situation does not escalate, it goes on forever and the total amount of damage keeps growing. Not desirable either.

For X<1 however the situation will dampen out. If each party retaliates in such a way that less damage is inflicted on each round, then the conflict will die out. Also the total damage will be limited. The mathematician tells us that the sum of such a converging series, although having an infinite number of terms, will be finite.

So that is the advice to parties engaged in such a conflict: "you do not have to turn the other cheek, but if you retaliate, do it in such a way that the damage inflicted on the enemy is less than the damage you received yourself". Not "tit for tat", and certainly not "TIT for tat", but "tit for TAT".

While in most cases it is hard if not impossible to see who started a conflict, it is often very clearly to see who is responsible for keeping it going: the one who uses TIT for tat, instead of tit for TAT.

Michiel van der Vlist, 18 Jaunari 2009

www.fidonet.org This article was first published in FidoNews , Junuari 18th 2009.
FidoNews is the official newsletter of the FidoNet community.

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