Imagine two cars intentionally speeding towards each other on a head-on collision course. Some of you may know this game as Chicken, where the objective is to see who will be the ‘coward’, or chicken, and swerve out of the immanent disaster.
What could possibly be the rational outcome for this dire and foolish scenario? Well, there is a mathematical framework that can be applied to analyze situations like this. Game theory is the study of strategic decision making, where the optimal strategy for a player is mathematically deduced based on players acting in their own self-interest. In the game Chicken, there are four possible outcomes: (1) both crash, (2) player 1 swerves, and player 2 keeps going, (3) player 2 swerves, and player 1 keeps going, and (4) both players swerve. The probability of each particular outcome playing out varies and is dependent on how much information each player has about the situation. Nevertheless, what this reveals is that in order for the best outcome to be achieved, each player is highly interdependent on the other.
Game theory, and in particular Chicken as it applies to game theory, is widely used to analyze actions of more consequence than two selfish motorists. Given that most democracies tend to be dominated by two political parties, this application of game theory is quite transferable.
Bangladeshi politics is like a pendulum that predominantly swings back and forth between two parties. Over the years, these two camps have developed a ruthless rivalry that has manifested in corruption, limitations to personal and media freedoms, killings, war crimes and much more. In the latest saga that is currently unfolding, the entire country is crippled under transportation blockades and hartels (general strikes). The latest trigger for these events is the one year anniversary of an election which saw the current administration run uncontested because their opponent boycotted. Just like in Chicken, the opposition decided to swerve, but the elections continued and they now have no representation in the government. However, unlike in Chicken where the victor drives away safely, the ongoing disruptions that have resulted from the actions of both parties are causing everyone to suffer and experience the loss.
Probably the most infamous game of political Chicken was seen through the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Here the strategy deployed was to never show one’s self as a ‘coward’, and the result was a fragile equilibrium that came to be known as Mutually Assured Destruction, where the United States and Soviet Union built staggering nuclear arsenals that were capable of killing millions of people. This equilibrium was almost broken on numerous occasions, like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, the world was never plunged into a nuclear holocaust, but there was still a lot of collateral damage as a result of proxy wars and soaring military spending (which would eventual lead to widespread poverty and the collapse of the Soviet Union).
The collateral damage in Bangladesh has also been high. Economically, businesses are struggling as they are unable to fulfill orders, have to face increased operation costs (like police protection and higher costs for transportation), and decreased investor confidence. Even sadder still is that the poor are the ones that pay the highest cost as they are unable to work or unable to sell the crops they may grow, eroding their financial security and pushing them to the brink of despair.
A couple weeks ago a local newspaper tallied the incidents of violent outbreaks in January, revealing that 200 vehicles were petrol bombed, 700 people injured, and 23 people dead (and as I write this the death toll has now doubled).
This past month was Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day in the United States, a day to remember a man who saw another way in the midst of an unjust system that oppressed so many. In his articulate and prophetic Letter from Birmingham Jail, he outlined four steps to his campaign: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” (Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963).
What strikes me the most about these steps is that in the midst of injustice, it is still critical for self-purification so that one does not repay evil with evil (or as my mother would tell me to not fight fire with fire). Many during the Civil Rights Movement practiced this through ‘games’ that trained them to not respond violently if they were abused during sit-ins and rallies.
Games have the potential to play a significant role in developing one’s character. In Chicken, it works to develop arrogance and recklessness, but there are other games with much more positive outcomes.
In Bangladesh’s cooler winter months, badminton is the sport of choice. At every other corner there is a badminton court set up, often with lights siphoned from the grid to allow people to play into the late hours of the night. Here it does not matter what your age is, or how much money you earn, but rather that you play fair and enjoy the comradery with others. I have had the privilege of playing many such games after work.
Back in November when Erin’s parents visited us, her father brought some ice hockey sticks so that he could teach the boys staying at the Taize Brothers’ hostel the game. One afternoon we all got together and they had a road hockey scrimmage (where they picked up the game very quickly). As we watched the boys playing, one of the Taize Brothers pointed out that here in this small game there were people from four different ethnic groups playing together.
Games have the ability to unite people, and as part of MCC’s peacebuilding work, several playgrounds have been built in Bangladesh. These beautiful play areas are surrounded with colourful murals of portraits and quotes from influential social activists like MLK and Gandhi. The idea behind this initiative is to provide a public space for all children to learn how to interact together. It is hoped that through playing games here, a new generation will develop character traits like respect, compromise, determination, and a healthy sense of competitiveness.
A game theory analysis of Bangladeshi politics is not very encouraging. Therefore, is it too extreme to dream of a future where people set aside their egos and work towards the good of the vulnerable in society? Is it too extreme quit the disparaging game of Chicken altogether and play a new game with radically different rules? History has shown that there have been many that have tried with great cost and little to show for it. But history also shows that through the persistence and sacrifice of people like MLK and Gandhi, the vulnerable saw justice, basic human rights were finally recognized, and an entire nation was liberated.
So the question is not whether we will be an extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
(Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963).
There is another way to resolve our differences and create a society where the vulnerable are at the forefront of our concern. But this first requires us all to repent, that is to change our minds. A new game starts when we as individuals decide we want to play by radically new rules, like those outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which Gandhi would read daily as he tried to follow the example of Jesus (for more on this, see: Gandhi’s daily Scripture readings for peace).
On January 5th, 2015, we had a fire at one of the workshops on our Mymensingh office compound. We sent a quick update email that day to ask for your prayers. Although much of the inventory was destroyed and the building and equipment was damaged, there were no serious injuries.
We would like to thank you for your overwhelming response and support.
This video was taken by a colleague after the fire was tamed and almost put out. To combat the destructive fire, various sources of water were used to extinguish it, including the neighbouring pond.
PLEASE BE PRAYING THAT:
1. There will be a quick end to the senseless violence, and a long lasting desire for a better means of resolving conflict
2. We are safe as we still have to travel between cities
3. Erin stays healthy and Baby Das continues to develop healthily
Nishant (and Erin)
Check out the full album at: January 2015