Sunday, August 02, 2009

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 2: Play and Politics)

This is Part 2 of this post.

Political scientists have long asked the question: "Why vote?" But this question presupposes a more fundamental question: "Why do anything?" This latter question requires us to consider what kind of animal humans actually are. The ultimate (or evolutionary) causes of human behaviour have typically been ignored by political scientists who invoke rational choice theory (e.g. Downs) or focus exclusively on the proximate causes of political behaviour. Here I want to link some parallels between play and politics.

Let us start then with the obvious question- of all the behaviours one could focus on, why focus on play? Politics is serious stuff (influencing the life prospects of billions of people in the world today), so how could I compare it to play?

Much of course depends on our understanding of both play and politics. When we think of play we typically think of children playing at the park or riding their bikes down the street. “Play is for kids, and politics is for adults” the common view tells us. I believe the common view is completely wrong. It is premised on an impoverished view of play (as well as politics).

Why focus on play? Stuart Brown provides the answer:

Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play? (5)

So what, exactly, is play? Brown resists providing an all-inclusive, succinct definition. "Play is preconscious and preverbal-it arises out of ancient biological structures that existed before our consciousness or ability to speak" (15). Brown does identify some general properties typical of play. These are:

(1) play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake).
(2) voluntary
(3) inherent attraction
(4) freedom from time
(5) diminished consciousness of self
(6) improvisational potential
(7) continuation desire

My comments on play and politics will focus primarily on (1) (though 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 also come into play in important ways).

Play is apparently purposeless. And there are different kinds of play (see here): body play, object play, social play, imaginative and narrative play. And all these activities appear purposeless. We dance and sing, play soccer, read novels, forge friendships, watch scary movies, etc. because we enjoy them (not because we simply want to realize the instrumental benefits that often accompany some of them).

One reason our culture currently undervalues play is that playful activity is not perceived to promote useful activities (though it does do so). Rather than having citizens "playing" on weekends, most politicians and governments are more concerned with ensuring citizens spend their leisure time "spending and consuming" (no politicians are calling for a "play stimulus" to help our societies flourish!). Hence the epidemic of childhood and adulthood obesity and the erosion of common public spaces for physical and social play (“down with the parks, up with the malls”).

Rather than permitting their children to have the free and spontaneous time to "hang out with friends", today’s hyper-parents prefer to control and plan all aspects of their children's lives. A consequences of this is that their children may not develop the social skills needed to judge and finesse the "give-and-take" of different social groups. It is more prudent to learn how to develop and refine these skills when the stakes are relatively low (e.g. working out disagreements with a fremeny at high school) than in adulthood when the stakes involved in healthy social relations are typically much higher (e.g. at work or in a marriage).

So while play appears to serve no purpose, it actually serves many important purposes. Physical play (e.g. sports) raises our awareness of the importance of endurance and strength, as well as our physical limitations and vulnerability to injury. Playing sports can help develop balance, speed and agility. These types of play, which we find intrinsically valuable, also promote other capacities, like bodily health, thought and the senses.

Most physical play is also a form of social play. Playing helps socialize an individual, exposing them to the importance of negotiated rules, how to control their emotions and the benefits of cooperation. Social play helps build trust, communication, empathy, etc. Once a person participates as a member of a team they become psychologically connected and continuous with the team. The player’s own cognitive states track the trials and tribulations of the team. A team win can bring the individual player elation, while a loss disappointment and a determination to try even harder next time. Indeed, this phenomenon is not limited to just the direct participants of a sport. Even spectators who care passionately about a sport and team often experience similar levels and degrees of “connectedness” to a team. Play shapes our brain and stimulates many positive emotions.

This brings us to politics. What can political scientists, and political theorists in particular, learn from the study of play? A lot!

In his seminal book An Economic Theory of Democracy published in 1957, Anthony Downs argued that it was irrational to vote. And if it is irrational to vote, it must also be irrational to become informed about politics. This followed, for Downs and rational choice theorists like Downs, because voting incurs a cost on the voter but has no benefit given that one’s vote will not likely make a difference to the outcome of an election. But Downs’s account of human behaviour is an impoverished one because it fails to understand what kind of animal humans actually are (we are not Homo Economicus) and how our preferences are shaped by our evolutionary history.

I believe that much of our political behaviour, like voting, the desire to debate politics with others, etc., is a form of play behaviour. Aristotle argued that humans were political animals, and thus there is a rich tradition in political theory that permits one to integrate the insights from evolutionary biology and positive psychology with the traditional concerns of political theorists.

To help make the idea that politics is a form of play more vivid consider the following. A few friends get together for a dinner party. After enjoying some nice wine and pasta, the conversation turns, as it often does, to politics. The friends take turns highlighting what they see as the pros and cons of potential political leaders, the platforms of different political parties and the general challenges facing their society and the world at large (e.g. economic crisis, the environment, global poverty, threat of terrorism, etc.). At times the debate becomes rather heated, as opinions differ on many issues. Some feel particular politicians cannot be trusted. Others feel that certain parties lack the skills and expertise needed to meet the challenges of today. And disagreement also extends to what the most important challenges of today actually are.

Despite the sometimes heated exchanges (which included a few loud emotional outbursts and sharing of private experiences relevant to the issues under debate) and bruised egos, by the end of the evening the friends go back to their own homes still being friends. In fact, they all enjoyed the evening of debate and conversation (and wine!).

An outsider might ask- “What was the point of this experience? Little agreement was reached among the friends. Furthermore, none of them have much political clout so it does not really matter. No one is going to actually create public policies based on the opinions these folks expressed over dinner. So it was all just a waste of time!”

But this is an impoverished way of looking at what transpired that evening. What the friends engaged in is something that occurs at social gatherings, evening family meals and work places every day in a democratic society-- it was political play. Political play is both social and imaginative. It is social play in that it involves a plurality of people that are conversationally present; and it is imaginative play in that it also involves many people who are imaginatively (rather than conversationally) present. For example, the ideals and pragmatics articulated by political leaders might be invoked, or the interests of those more less advantaged, etc.

So when one asks: why engage in politics? The answer is two-fold.

One the one hand, many find the social and imaginative play typical of politics intrinsically rewarding. If we think about it we all know that, as just one person in a democracy of millions, we do not have the ability to sway the outcome of an election or determine public policy. None-the-less, we enjoy the psychological connectedness and continuity with others that we experience when we act and think that our one opinion does have such sway. We enjoy the challenge of trying to accurately perceive the emotional states and factual assumptions of others. And we enjoy learning how to respond, in a civic and yet persuasive way, to those states and assumptions.

The group of friends debating politics over wine one evening find it enjoyable to pretend they are the leaders of their political parties, or a Presidential candidate trying to win a televised debate, or even members of the G8 seeking a compromise on how to respond to the global financial crisis or climate change. We enjoy doing these things. Even if they appear, to the rational choice theorist, as “irrational”.

The second answer is to go beyond the subjective well being that participates might consciously experience when engaging in politics. Political play also helps us develop and refine skills that we need, as individuals, to flourish. In his book Play Stuart Brown tells the story of a renowned expert in animal behaviour who was asked why bears play. At first the expert responds that these things are pleasurable, and that is why bears play, birds sing and people dance. But the questioner persists. “Why, from a scientific point of view, do animals play?” The answer then given is this:

In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet. (29)

I think a similar answer can be given to Down’s challenge of “why vote?” If we understand the behaviour of voting to be simply one action in the social and imaginative play of a political life, then we really need to ask “why be political?” And my answer is:

In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, political play prepares humans for an evolving planet.

Following, participating in, and aspiring to resolve political debates helps promote the diverse skill-set (emotions, facts, etc.) needed for us to flourish in a constantly changing and unpredictable world. Listening to potential Presidential candidates debate issues of national security, the economy, education, etc., and then commenting on, re-enacting and improvising upon, their answers helps us get a better understanding of the challenges we face today and tomorrow, as well as inspire us to make the changes necessary to create a better world.

There is much more to be said here and no doubt I’ll add some more things down the road. But for now I just wanted to offer these tentative reflections on why play is an important issue for political theorists to seriously ponder. I cannot think of an more fascinating, important and yet neglected topic in the field than play.