Board Games

(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

For the last several years, my husband and I have spent Christmas Day with my cousins, joining in several traditions.  We begin our gathering with the “white elephant” gift exchange – which is really a misnomer as everyone has such creative ideas hidden in deceptive packaging, all of which recipients can gladly use.  Dinner involves an amazing spread, including delicious meats cooked perfectly by my cousin J.  As the evening shifts into an open house, it regularly features games of fun including – among others – Cards Against Humanity, leading us into laughter and deeper connection.

This human ability to connect can help to form enduring bonds with others; its absence can lead us into a more contentious social scenario.  In his TEDx Talk, Arkansas State University political scientist, Hans Hacker examines how the latter situation may be one of the indicators at base of the shortage of toilet paper during the current pandemic.  Hacker asserts that, rather than serving as another indicator of incivility, this lack of essential resources results from a growing disconnect with others.  Building on Tocqueville’s assessment of the relationship between individualism and collective efforts, Hacker offers important insights as to how we, as members of society, can more helpfully conceive of our own actions in promoting or discouraging our ties with others.

Hacker’s talk enlivens his discussion of the difference between incivility (rudeness) and disconnection (self-interestedness) with visually connective historical and contemporary examples.  Incivility has long plagued our political system – and others.  However, after clashing on important issues, people were often able to gather together – for recreation, as well as other shared activities focused on a larger good (1:56).  However, trends of social isolation resulting from more individualized forms of recreation, as well as sorting in the current party system have decreased such opportunities for collaboration and a sense of a shared larger good.

In order to think more constructively about the contemporary social environment, we can consider how something as elemental as a game makes an impact on our outlook.  Hacker looks at three types of games: collective games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which those playing “convince others not to exploit common resources and take advantage of others by acting badly or selfishly”; dissociated games, such as Monopoly, which decouple our interests into a purely competitive forum; and in-between games, such as Cards Against Humanity, which engage us somewhere in the balance of self and other in the goal of having fun (8:46-10:39).  Even more importantly, those who have become isolated simply fail to play, remaining disengaged.  In this idea, Hacker connects us in a symbolic way to Tocqueville’s discussion of “civic virtue”.

Among Tocqueville’s numerous observations in Democracy in America, he focuses on the experiences that pull us out from our individual concerns to that of the larger whole, also known as civic virtue.  Through simple examples, he reveals the opportunities that allow citizens to consider something beyond their own interests:

It is difficult to draw a man out of his own circle to interest him in the destiny of the State, because he does not clearly understand what influence the destiny of the State can have upon his own lot. But if it be proposed to make a road cross the end of his estate, he will see at a glance that there is a connection between this small public affair and his greatest private affairs; and he will discover, without its being shown to him, the close tie which unites private to general interest. Thus, far more may be done by intrusting to the citizens the administration of minor affairs than by surrendering to them the control of important ones, towards interesting them in the public welfare, and convincing them that they constantly stand in need one of the other in order to provide for it (Book 2, Section 2, Chapter IV, para 6).

Citizenship, in a general sense, allows people to have a share in their future by providing them the opportunity to participate in it.  In fact, though often pushed out in favor of attention to higher levels of government, local affairs are most accessible and relevant to us.  Not only does our individual influence extend further in a smaller sphere, with opportunities to serve on township or other local level citizen committees, but the local level of government attends to important issues that affect our daily lives (police protection, roads, education, etc.).

Repeated opportunities for people to see their own interests tied up in the good of the larger whole allows this focus to become a habit:

They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty, as well as the interest of men, to make themselves useful to their fellow-creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness. [Individuals] attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice: what was intentional becomes an instinct; and by dint of working for the good of one’s fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them is at length acquired. (Book 2, Section 2, Chapter IV, para 10).

What we do repeatedly shapes our future actions and ourselves. However, the disconnection that Hacker and other researchers have identified brings us to the important issue of with whom we connect: our tendency to cluster with those who think like us (6:25).  Clearly, it is easier to see the larger good of our family or a group of individuals who share similar ideas, but the larger challenge is how to facilitate opportunities that bring us together with those who have different beliefs and life experiences than we do.

Of course, the current crisis is complicated on the many fronts by which it impacts our lives; tending to one area (health) may be perceived as at odds with another (economy).  But each of these elements is complex in itself.  Even the toilet paper shortage may not be as simple as selfish stockpiling; rather supply-issues also exist, resulting from the challenge to ramp up production and even alter it from more commercial-sized packaging.  In short, the complexity means that large-scale solutions are neither simple to identify nor feasible to put quickly into place.

Our current times call us to read our contexts more closely, to be willing to be as reflective on our own actions and words as we are of others, recognizing that others are also part of our society.  To be sure, a society focused on collective ends still has much to discuss and debate.  Finding ways to effectively engage with others, especially those who have different life experiences, allows us a better opportunity to see their value as human beings and co-members of society, as well as to benefit from their perspectives in problem-solving. Organizations such as The People’s Supper, which brings together people from varied backgrounds, can create such “brave spaces”.  However, refocusing our frame can also start in seemingly small ways within more comfortable settings.  Thinking about the games that are stored on your shelves, as well as how they allow you to interact with others, can give you practice at building collaborative skills.  (Need some suggestions?  Check out this helpful review site.)


2 Comments so far

  1. Amy on May 15, 2020 10:06 pm

    This is the TRUTH! My favorite blog post in this series so far. Loved it!

  2. Christopher M. Colin on October 30, 2021 10:33 pm

    The question asked by Hans Hacker was just as important in 2020 as it is in 2021. Why are people hoarding toilet paper? Isn’t just an examination of the macro effects of buying cart loads of Charmin and Cottonelle at the local corner store. It speaks to a deeper question of the level of connectedness (or lack of it) people display when consuming public goods when resources are limited.

    In Democracy in America, Chapter 8: The Americans Combat Individualism by The Principle of Interest Rightly Understood Alex de Tocqueville draws a similar conclusion:
    “The principle of interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous, but it disciplines a number of citizens in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command; and, if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits.

    It can be assumed then that proper civic virtue for citizens an exercise of small acts of self-denial multiplied over the populace. So that in times of scarcity the common good of the society can be placed first.

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