There’s a game that’s mighty popular in respectable left of centre social circles right now: it’s not Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, or Cards against Humanity: but odds are that you may well play it more often than all of those three put together. It’s called “Ain’t it Awful?”.
Of course, I am being knowingly disingenuous: it’s not a game in the sense of those other games. They are actually PASTIMES, in the terminology of Eric Berne, who wrote the fascinating and groundbreaking book, Games people play, in 1964. Despite dropping some clangers in terms of giving away its half century old sexual politics, it’s a ripper of a book.
What are pastimes? They are things done to pass the time, just as RITUALS are formalised ways of marking momentous and non momentous landmarks in time. But GAMES are much, much more interesting, and it could behoove us at this point to know moderately exactly what it is that he means by the term.
I’m going to paraphrase Berne here. A game is a series of exchanges between people where the actual purpose is not the same as the advertised one, where you pretend to be doing one thing, but are doing something else. And the usual result is often that you feel vaguely shit, but are a little fuzzy as to why.
I don’t think I have to go too far into psycho-speak to explain this. The easiest game to explain is Why Don’t You-Yes, But. This is probably familiar: The protagonist seeks solutions to a problem and proceeds to dismiss all possible solutions. It’s brilliant. The point is that they are pretending to be looking for solutions, but in fact are seeking validation for their helplessness….resulting in a kind of dirty victory for them, and a vaguely frustrated feeling by the other player.
It’s important to note that if you approached someone and said “Can you just confirm for me that there’s absolutely bloody nothing I can do to save this situation?”, then it’s not a game. It’s an honest exchange.
“Ain’t it awful?” is one of the best documented games from Eric Berne’s original book. It can be played with any number of players. Any player may begin with a pessimistic statement which is then amplified and expanded upon by other players. The mechanics and detail of our upcoming doom are then explained in ever increasing detail and horror by various players, until somebody forensically details the exact reason, usually quoting an arcane expert of some kind, why we are all utterly and completely fucked. That person then “wins”, there is a dreadful silence, and everybody reaches for a drink as somebody makes a faux cheerful riposte such as “cheerful party, this one, eh? Is there any more prosecco?”
Inevitably, as before, everybody feels both frustrated and a bit grubby after such a game. That’s because it’s a game. That’s because the stated purpose is sharing important knowledge, but in reality it’s a competition to show superior knowledge and superior pessimism. You will note that cheerfulness will inevitably be discarded by the major players because it interferes with the downwards auction. You will feel frustrated because none of the knowledge is in fact of any use except for extra misery, and grubby because you may have got a kick out of how well you could spell out the ghastly details of our fate.
You need to give this game up.
We all need to give this game up, because it is both useless (in the sense that it’s of no use) and worse than useless (because it takes up good time in making you feel less good, implies paralysis as a result, and gives the false feeling that you have somehow “engaged” in a political sense).
We live in the midst of a geo-politico-enviro-socio-clusterfuck which is brilliantly ripe for the playing of this game. That’s not to say, of course that all conversations on these matters are inevitably that. There may be all kinds of important exchanges of information or opinions that could be salacious, pertinent, and usable, even amusing sometimes. But there is usually a point of deterioration, indicated by the sloped shoulders, vague shuffling and hopeless silence it portends.
The various subjects have, if you like, varying half-lives in this respect. A climate change dingdong may well take 20 minutes or longer to devolve, whereas a discussion on Mr Trump may well (after two or three quoted tweets and the universal hilarity and horror that results) arrive there in a much shorter time. But nothing can beat, in the UK, Brexit. The mere saying of the word, in respectable company there invokes instant assumption of all physical aspects of the seventh hour of waiting for a delayed Ryanair flight home at Malaga Airport.
And that demeanour is the clue as to whether you have in fact devolved. And the fact that there is always one smartarse more knowledgable and depressing than everybody else who you subtly hate precisely as much as he feels teensily validated. And the fact that a quick check reveals that everyone present is more or less knowledgable and more or less in agreement so why the dickens are we still talking about it?
Brexit is a perfect example of learned helplessness. The country is in dull lockstep towards a fate that nobody really wants, not the major political parties, not the important interest groups, and not (51-41 atlast count) the people. It would seem like the perfect environment for suddenly yelling out “BUT HE’S NOT WEARING ANY CLOTHES!”. What is stopping people is public exhaustion with the question. But sometimes we are exhausted by a question because we’re continually getting the wrong answer. (Are you an alcoholic-no!). It might require the question to be posed in a slightly different way-and that would take some creative thinking. But it’s doable.
The crushing fact is that if all of us who cared about all the things that matter had resolved to never play this game and instead devote the thus gained time to actually doing something then we would not be in the mess we are in now. The damning truth is that very many of us, beyond casting a vote, clicking on a link from time to time and going to a rally or two, don’t really do that much about these kinds of things. And I’m not saying that anybody should -unless things bother you enough to play ain’t it awful at every available chance.
If you don’t care that things are going to shit then at least your behaviour is consistent with your beliefs if you do nothing. If you do care, I wonder if it’s unreasonable to suggest this: Don’t talk about it. Do something about it.
And, good lord, that is far, far harder than it sounds. Because an unsaid thing is like an unturned stone, an uneaten cake, a stray bit of PVA glue on your hand after gluing something. “I’ll just….” yes, you will, you do. We always do, we always say the thing. We say the thing because we know the thing. But, actually, we already all know the thing.
One possible strategy is to call the bluff of the game and to deal directly with the covert intent, which is to address the elephant, in a sense, such as this kind of riposte:
“Wow, you nailed it there. That was so articulate and complete. I don’t think you missed anything, I really do feel completely hopeless. Unless anyone can do better. Can any of us do better at making me feel worse, do you think?” Could work, I don’t know.
Or maybe you can have an agreed code word, much like practiced participants in sadomasochism, a word which takes you out of the game and back to reality again. I think a good word (both for sadomasochism, and for political conversations, is “cornflakes”). It’s an unlikely word to appear randomly in a Brexit or Trump conversation and the agreed meaning would be: “Does anyone else think that conversational jollies have given way to symbolic self nailing of heads to the floor here? Let’s abort the mission!”
Or you might need to do it less artfully, and say “Just fucking stop it you twats.”
Jolly good. I hope we’re all agreed on this, and if we are, we’ve sorted out one half of the situation. Now we just need to find some actual things to do to actually fix the problems. It shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll get back to you on that one.