The Case Against Competition

How We Lose the Race to Win

As a storyteller for the past twenty years, I have had some personal experience with the academic and scientific information provided by Campbell, Kohn, and Mead. In the early 1980s, I began working with Hmong storytellers to gather and publish cultural tales that have been told for thousands of years. Many Hmong stories show that competition does not necessarily achieve the desired end. One excellent example is the story Koog thiab liab ("The grasshoppers and the monkeys"):

Once there was a very large group of tiny grasshoppers living in the plains. These grasshoppers never bothered anyone; they just did what grasshoppers do. Not far away, in the forest, there lived a small group of very large monkeys.

One day, a group of monkeys left the forest and went into the plains to see what they could see. What they saw, of course, was all the grasshoppers hopping around. The monkeys had never seen anything like these grasshoppers, so they stared and kicked and poked at them. Then a group of these huge monkeys stood around a group of the little, tiny grasshoppers and said, "Do you want to fight?"

The grasshoppers looked up at these giant monkeys, then they talked among themselves. Finally the grasshoppers said, "All right, we will fight you, but we have to wait until grandmother brings her red blanket."

The monkeys looked at the grasshoppers, then at each other, then they laughed. "What does your grandmother have to do with this?" they asked. "Will you fight with us or not?"

"Oh, yes," said the grasshoppers, "we will fight you, but we have to wait until grandmother brings her red blanket."

The two groups went back and forth like this for a long time, until the monkeys finally decided it wasn't worth the trouble, and went back into the forest. Before they got there, the sun went down, it got dark, and the monkeys lost their way. They decided they would spend the night on the plain, sleeping on the ground, and in the morning they would go back to their trees. The monkeys tried to sleep, but the ground was cold and rocky and hard, and they tossed and turned all night.

Meanwhile, all the grasshoppers gathered together in the grass and slept peacefully through the night. First thing in the morning, the sun came up and the sky turned bright red. The first rays of the sun came and touched those grasshoppers. As they warmed up, they started to hop. First there were just a few; then there were more; then there were thousands; then there were millions of grasshoppers, all hopping right toward where those monkeys were sleeping on the ground.

When the monkeys woke up, they were stiff and tired. As they stretched, they turned and looked across the plains. All they could see was millions of grasshoppers coming right toward them. There were many more grasshoppers than they could possibly fight. All the monkeys could do was turn, run back to the forest and back up into their trees. The monkeys never went back into the plains and they never bothered the grasshoppers again.

When the monkeys were gone, the grasshoppers stopped hopping. They turned toward the sun and said, "Thank you, Grandmother, for bringing your red blanket and making the grasshoppers stronger than the monkeys."

It's interesting to note that traditional Hmong problem solving parallels this story's theme almost exactly. There is no right or wrong; no winner or loser in the process of conflict resolution. The goal is to find a way to solve the problem that neither side has thought of yet. This requires cooperation on a high level. In the study Hmong Traditional Problem Solving (Antioch University, 1995 Master's Thesis) Chu Yongyuan Wu sums up the essence and value of this process:

"The Hmong have used this problem-solving in the past and it has worked for them and it is still working now. In mediation cases, the disputants have the opportunity to work out their problems face-to-face with mediators' assistance. They get the chance to brainstorm for their own resolutions and make their own decisions. The disputants do not have to face a penalty, be thrown in jail, or have their name inscribed in criminal records. When the case is resolved, they celebrate and return to their normal lives as if the problem had never existed."

This process exists in practice beyond the confines of tradition or academic studies. As the Director of Conflict Resolution Services in St. Paul, Chu Wu and his colleagues use this cooperative type of problem-solving every day. A recent example includes the KQRS radio apology for inappropriate comments made by on-air personalities about Hmong people. In a culture that develops images of collaboration even in their folk tales, cooperation persists as a valuable skill to be developed at an early age and to be applied in situations never imagined in the villages of Laos.

As adults, we tend to think that reaching consensus is a difficult (if not impossible) task. Our form of government clearly teaches us how to use and accept majority rule and even the art of compromise. When it comes to consensus, though, most Americans draw an experiential blank: we've rarely experienced it, hardly understand it, and assume it's an ideal that can never be achieved. Consensus requires a great deal of time and energy, and there is no question that it's often difficult--painstakingly so. But perhaps the reason we consider consensus nearly impossible is that we seldom pay attention to those models of consensus that we do have available to us. As we face an uncertain future, our very survival may depend on learning and practicing these skills.

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