Playing to change the world: the time of the Jester

Just after midnight last night, I found myself in Boston’s financial district, following in the footsteps of a New Orleans-style brass band that marched along Atlantic Avenue. More than a thousand Occupiers and supporters were dancing in the streets as the city prepared to evict the Dewey Square encampment. The Mayor’s midnight deadline had passed, and the square and surrounding streets were overflowing with people singing and chanting and dancing.

A few hours earlier at the evening’s General Assembly, a proposal was made to meet the City of Boston’s eviction demand with a dance party. The proposal’s champion called for protesters to “clean up our mess entirely” and “be the first Occupy to just ‘poof!’ and be gone like a gypsy squad.”

Hours later, the proposal still hadn’t passed the G.A.’s arduous decision-making process, but no matter. People were going to dance and celebrate anyway. For the time has come to play to change the world.

I’ve been thinking about the archetype of the Jester quite a bit lately. The Jester uses the energy of play to speak truth to power. Through his jokes and antics, he transmits wisdom in a way that is non-threatening and flies “below the radar.” In this way, the Jester is brilliantly subversive.

Over the past several months, we’ve heard story after story of Occupy’s non-violent protest being met by authorities with aggression and violence. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that—in this country, at least—power is no longer deterred by non-violence alone. But play—now there’s something that’s got my attention. Play has the capacity for subversive action because power doesn’t take it seriously, doesn’t even recognize its presence. My friends at the Elos Institute in Brazil have known this for years, as they’ve crafted games that engage communities in playing to change the world—in the face of no permission or support from power and authority.

Power operates from the assumption that the answers exist out there—and only the experts have them. To get things done, you need people of power and influence to champion your cause. And nothing gets done right unless you’re in control. This is the worldview that expects Occupiers to point out their leaders, clarify their message and align their constituency.

Play offers a radically different set of assumptions. When we play, we create the space for the impossible to become possible. We set aside our resignation and our cynicism, and we engage in a constant process of discovery, experimentation, risk-taking and creation. We allow people to self-organize to follow their passions. Play invites each of us to dream and to imagine—and then to go out and build the world we dream of.

I wish the full dance party proposal had taken place. It would have been thrilling to see Occupy Boston go “Poof!” and then magically reappear in its next form—whatever that might be. Even so, it’s sufficient that last night so many people played together on the streets of Boston in service of the sobering and timely challenge that the Occupy movement raises about the degradation of citizenship and democracy in our communities.

May we continue to learn how to play to change the world.


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