The 36 Stratagems — or How Low Empathy is no Real Strategy in Today’s World

Conor Zion

Conor, Spring 2018, Zion National Park

Having a bit of fun a couple of weeks ago, I came upon a classical Chinese strategy quote (can’t remember where) that I shared with my wife, who is a Taiwanese native.  It comes from a body of quotes, called the 36 Stratagemsa classic old Chinese compilation of clever pictorial word-plays that would fit well inside any MBA handbook out there.  Things like Kill with a Borrowed Knife (借刀殺人/借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)

  • Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a third party to do the deed.

are typical.  You can do your own Googling and find the various MBA types who have written about the genius of the various stratagems and how they’ll make you a “better” business person.  I don’t need to facilitate.  They’re basically all about falsely displaying empathy, and then screwing over a potential opponent.

What people will likely overlook, though, is the fact that these extremely refined strategies are all deeply seated in the Authoritarian v-Meme, and display psychopathic Chinese Authoritarian behavior at its finest.  They’re all designed around the theme that trust can’t be real, you can’t even really have friends, and that inevitably you’ll end up in conflict with your adversaries, which means you’re back to: ‘I win, you lose; You win, I lose; We both fall away exhausted — potential resolution solution set.  That’s the way Authoritarians resolve things.  There can be no true coming-together, because rational synergies are never in play.  And developed empathy? Bitch — please!

No one can question that the Chinese national political In-group/Out-group dynamics are the most refined in the world.  This has historically been made easier by population homogeneity, geographic isolation (they don’t call it ‘The Middle Kingdom’ for nothing) and the challenges of maintaining order for long time with tens of millions of citizens (the middle Tang Dynasty had over 50M people, and who even knows if you can believe census efforts from 1000 years ago?)  Once the Tang Dynasty was over, with its Confucian governmental influences, China went into its ‘stuck’ period, where one can argue they’ve only recently emerged with the ascendance of Deng Xiao Peng.  My Chinese history friends — feel free to correct me.  I’m no expert on all the back-and-forth of the following dynasties.

The 36 Stratagems are well worth a read.  My wife and I had a good laugh over them comparing them to university politics in general, but more to the point of how unsophisticated ersatz Modern Authoritarians are. Anyone from the Ming Dynasty would have beat them in a red second.

But they also show how when you enshrine in your culture the idea of loyalty only to designated In-Groups, regardless how clever you are in tricking your supposed opponents, you really screw yourself with regards to innovation.  Though I do believe this is changing, China still justifiably suffers from an ‘IP copy’ culture reputation.  Because when you can’t trust and integrate diversity, as well as give your people the space to generate their own relationships, your creativity may become very sophisticated indeed — one trip to China and the standard circuit around the shrines and temples will convince you of that.  But new ideas?   That’s just not the way the social physics shake out.  And everyone, sooner or later, gets pretty bummed out.  And THAT leaves you open to things like a small group of outsiders taking over your country, which is pretty easy when you have an opium epidemic.  Hmmm…

You might think about these types of mergings of culture and social structure facilitate  how any given organization or culture adopts to rapid change.  Not so much.  And yeah — you can create environments that make your bosses think empathy is a bad thing, and that the bosses need to weep in the C-Suite, feeling victimized that they have to make ‘tough decisions’ that screw over their lessers.  But over long time, it’s still a losing game.  Hundreds of millions of people have already participated in that experiment.  Feel free to draw whatever conclusions you want with the Russia-Facebook connection.

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