Sunday, June 25, 2006

Competition vs. co-operation

When I was active in the peace movement in the early 1980s, there was a cartoon strip in circulation which showed two ponies tethered together between two bales of hay. Each pony would pull against the other in an attempt to get to the bale of hay nearest to it, but neither could move because of the other one pulling in the opposite direction. In the final frames, the two ponies are shown sharing first one bale and then the other. The single caption beneath the strip read ‘Co-operation is better than competition’. It was an unexamined dogma of the peace movement that this was true; to question it would have almost been considered heresy. It is time to question it now.

Why is co-operation better than competition? Had you asked me at the time, I would almost certainly have told you something like the following: This is an anti-nuclear movement. We object to the nuclear arms race, and the nuclear arms race is an extreme form of competition. Nuclear war is an extreme form of war, and war in general is an extreme form of competition. Our society’s obsession with competition is part of the problem. We cannot abolish war unless we abolish competition in general.

This line of argument now seems to me to be plain silly, but it is very typical of a type of argument that characterises political rhetoric of all shades, a kind of ‘slippery slope’ argument which, in order to work, depends upon the convenient stretching of concepts and artificial blurring of boundaries.

Competition seemed more likely to produce negative outcomes, and cooperation positive ones; when we looked at the negative outcomes around us – unemployment, poverty, militarization - we discerned that competitive practices were at least partly to blame. On the other hand, if we pointed to what we valued most about family, friendship and community life, we noticed that these things seemed to be characterised by a high level of cooperation. Our thinking was also based upon opposition to the Thatcher government, which was at its height. Margaret Thatcher extolled the virtues of competition, and we were opposed to her, so if she liked something, we had to dislike it.

It was (and still is) an unexamined dogma of the feminist Left that women were naturally co-operative, and men naturally competitive, and as co-operation is better than competition, it seemed to follow that women were better than men. None of the basic premises were questioned.

I didn’t realise at the time that this kind of reasoning fed into, indeed produced, the Greenham Common school of anti-male anti-nuclear campaigning. War is one of the bad things that men do to women. War is competition, and men are competitive, so to get rid of war, you need to get rid of men.
It didn’t occur to any of us at the time that warfare is probably the most highly co-operative of all human activities. Consider any major military campaign, and the quantity of personnel and materials required, and the meticulous planning. It is not just the soldiers themselves who are involved; the whole national economy (including the female population) is geared towards producing the materiel needed. Somewhat bizarrely, in the peace movement none of that was considered. There was a general tacit acceptance of the ideological dogma that competition was destructive (and therefore male), and co-operation was constructive (and therefore female).

I intend to examine some of these assumptions now.

The view from the Left
The Left offers no clear account of the relationship between competition and co-operation, but in general it is deeply suspicious of competition in any form. There is an implicit association between competition and the pursuit of self-interest on the one hand, and cooperation and altruism on the other. The oppressor class is selfish and greedy, and encourages competition. The oppressed class, in contrast, is selfless, civic-minded, and compassionate, and encourages cooperation. The ruling class always acts out of narrow self-interest, but the oppressed act out of compassion. So goes the informal mythology of the Left.

Marx would probably happily admit that the oppressed class, the proletariat, also acts out of narrow self-interest; they are after all, going to become revolutionaries in order to improve their own circumstances.

The feminist movement has appropriated much Left-wing thought, and the dogma about competition is no exception. In feminist theory of course, men are the oppressive ruling class, and women the oppressed class. As a result, we see a gendering of concepts; competition becomes ‘male’ and cooperation becomes ‘female’. Thus, throughout feminist discourse we see a strong ideological association between maleness and competition on the one hand, and femaleness and cooperation on the other. Leftist mythology teaches that cooperation is somehow morally superior to competition, and so it follows by extension that femaleness is morally superior to maleness. It is a female chauvinist’s charter.

Oddly, this mythology contradicts the Leftist dogma of social constructionism. If gender is socially constructed, then what does it mean to say that men are competitive and women cooperative? If moral values are socially constructed, then what does it mean to say that women are morally superior to men?

The implied conclusion that women are superior to men is of course, pure ideology. Even if we accept that apples are green and bananas are yellow, and that green is better than yellow, it doesn’t logically follow that apples are better than bananas.

Sex and the single ideology
Are men always competitive? You only need to see some boys playing football in the street to see males co-operating. Look at your built environment. Almost everything that you see around you in the urban environment was designed and built by men working together in cooperation. How could men have built the World Trade Center, (or indeed destroyed it) without co-operating? The very notion is absurd.

In fact, men do compete with each other for mates, something which actually benefits women, and I will discuss this at some length later. However, the feminist Left’s implicit belief that males are exclusively competitive is downright silly.

It is worth pointing out here that feminists ascribe a high level of cooperation to men whenever it suits them; men cooperate with each other in oppressing women and maintaining the Patriarchy. Like all conspiracy theories, feminism makes the mistake of ascribing an absurdly high level of cooperation to the supposed conspirators.

By the same token, what does it mean to say that women are co-operative? Are they always co-operative? My experience certainly doesn’t bear that out. Throughout my life, women have competed with each other over their appearances, over exam grades, over men, over the success and brilliance of their children. I know of women bullying each other in private life, and doing each other down at work, and most ironically of all, I have known many women to play the game of “I’m a better feminist than you are”. Ask anyone who has worked as a teacher in a girls’ school whether girls are really the caring, nurturing angels that feminist dogma tells us they are. Again I can ask, why on earth would anyone think that women were co-operative? Even if they are, we are then faced with the need for an explanation. Why are they co-operative? Is it a part of their essential make-up? What happened to the ideological dogma that gender is socially constructed? The claim that females are co-operative is at best highly contentious, and at worst, absurd.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…
Co-operation and competition generally occur in complex mixtures. That game of football in the street involves both. It seems to be accepted among zoologists that there is no such thing in nature as true altruism; there is only long term and short-term self-interest (e.g. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Selfish Gene’). Competition and co-operation are game strategies which correspond to each of these types of self-interest. Taking this into account, the claim that women practice long-term self-interest more often than men do seems, on the face of it, a much more innocuous one, but still, I would argue, one that is essentialist and vacuous. It would require empirical justification, but none is ever offered.

Co-operation and competition are strategies which are applied, or not applied, with respect to particular problem domains. Usually, two entities which interact together use a mixture of competition and co-operation. Take commercial companies as an example. Are the big supermarket chains competing or co-operating? It depends on the problem domain. They compete against each other for market share, but they still have common interests which they will co-operate over, such as combating shoplifting, or lobbying food producers, regulatory bodies and consumer groups. The relationship between the big supermarkets is a mixture of co-operation and competition.

Let us consider banks. Do the banks in your town compete with each other, or co-operate with each other? They compete with each other for customers, but they also co-operate wherever they have mutual interests. The fact that you can use your ATM card in a competing bank’s ATM machines indicates that the banks are co-operating with each other. They also co-operate over combating armed robbery and cheque fraud.

In fact, this is how competition and co-operation interact in every sphere of life. Wherever two parties have divergent interests, they are likely to compete; wherever they have common interests, they are likely to co-operate. No group or task domain has a monopoly on either strategy.

Of course, one of the unacknowledged dogmas of feminism is that men and women have no common interests; feminism represents the relationship between men and women as an essentially antagonistic one. For all their posturing about their own peace-loving cooperativeness, feminists promote a view of the world which is highly confrontational, and a view of sexual relations as essentially competitive. Irony piles upon irony.

Le pauvre feminism
The argument discussed here typifies much of the feminist discourse that I have come across. It is vacuous and yet to the naïve it manages to convey an air of intellectual plausibility, as long a you don't start asking awkward questions. It claims to promote the good of society, but if accepted, will be socially divisive. Its reasoning shows scant regard for logical consistency or empirical evidence, but consists largely of ad hoc resemblance thinking and unexamined popular myth.

Yet ironically, the very basis of feminism presupposes that men are extraordinarily co-operative. Men have, so the theory goes, been systematically excluding women from participation in public life since the dawn of human history. This would require a truly super-human degree of co-operation between men. How exactly (and indeed why exactly) this has supposedly been achieved has always been, for me, one of the great unsolved mysteries of feminist theory.

For feminists to say that one sex has a monopoly on co-operation, and the other has a monopoly on competition is an utterly vacuous claim, and it often surprises me that intelligent adults (perhaps particularly men, because they are the ones who suffer from the negative representation) are prepared to even countenance it. It is of course also a sexist assertion; and this from a movement ostensibly set up to combat sexism. This is one of the most pertinent of all criticisms which can be levelled against feminism; that it has a profound degree of sexism built into the very structure of its arguments.

1 comment:

lee said...

I enjoyed reading your article. Great points by the way. I would like to add a little bit about the differences between men and women regarding competition and co-operation. These different qualities can be seen in the differences between a patriarchal society and a matriarchal one. So I would like to begin by highlighting the differences between these two cultural extremes.

The fundamental thing that distinguishes patriarchal societies from matriarchal societies is the regulation of the female sexuality. There are others of course – but I believe this to be the fundamental one. The matriarchal line is milions of years old. Pretty much all mammals that live in groups adopt a matriarchal lineage – like elephants for example. So evolutionary speaking this line is about 65 million years old (whereas patriarchy is an evolutionary newcomer - Sumer 5000 BC being the first known example). Matriarchy is therefore basically defined as a social system where the group which takes care of the rearing of young consists of females only. All adult males have only a superfluous role within the group – and come in only when its time for the females to mate – and only then is it the alpha male which is allowed to mate. That is the extent of the males involvement. Whats more humanoids and our ape like ancestors have also lived for milions of years under a matriarchal line – and many human cultures still do. Many indigenous tribes still live on earth today within social structures that are matriarchal.

I believe that one of the sources to our evolutionary differences as men and women lie in our biologically different and unique sexual dynamics. Males can produce 200 million sperm in one ejaculation while a female produces one egg per month for a very limited period of her life. Her egg is therefore of far more biological “value” than a mans sperm. Maybe this helps to explain why men, who could technically re-populate the planet with one ejaculation, have the tendency to care alot about abstractions and principles while females have been biologically gifted with the ability to care about one or two real individuals. I am not saying that women can`t think in abstractions or care about principles. Neither am I saying that men cannot care about real people. But women do seem to value close personal relationships more highly than men seem to, whereas men do tend to care more about abstractions and principles – generally speaking. We can easily see that men do tend to look at sex in a far more abstract way than women do. Many men could quite confortably have sex with as many beautiful women as they can get their hands on – while women on the other hand tend to be repulsed by the idea of sex with a total stranger – no matter how good looking he is. Women therefore instinctively need to be emotionally intimate with a certain man before she can feel confortable with sex. Of course this is all changing now thanks to todays social engineering. But I believe that a healthy woman who is true to herself would be quite sickened by the idea of sex with many strangers, whereas most men I imagine, would be quite confortable with such an arrangement. We dont need biologists and academics to tell us this because we can quite easily rely on our own everyday experience to point out these fundamental differences in men and womens natural sexual behaviors.

A consequence of these biologogical differences in our sexualities is that females set the sexual agenda. "Males compete and females choose" holds true to all mammals I think. It sounds on the surface like a double moral when traditionally patriarchal societies spent lots of energy regulating the female sexuality but by regulating the female sexuality, they could regulate the sexuality of the whole of society. For exampel – if a good woman didn`t have sex outside of marriage and instead chose to preserve her virtue until she found the right man to marry - and – if a married woman on the other hand remained sexually faithful to her husband then it would be impossible for mens sexuality to remain unregulated because there would be no one for him to be promiscous with – apart from with other men of course and we all know how traditional societies viewed homosexuality.So in effect by regulating females sexually the whole of society could be sexually regulated.

Feminists love to point out how men in traditional societies were allowed to have mistresses and more than one wife. But this statement has never been strictly true either because it was only ever societies rich and economically privaledged men (the minority) who were allowed this freedom for the simple reason that it was only they who could afford to support more than one woman and their offspring. This privaledge was never extended to the more ordinary men in society (the vast majority). Whats more societys poor men who couldnt afford to support a woman and child went without both. These conditions were, I believe, the carrot and stick which traditional societies employed to motivate the dynamic masculine force to create – either through ingenuity, creativity and co-operation – or through hard work and effort. The rewards were a faithful wife, legitimate offspring, family and a pivotal role within it.

It is no coincidence that the very first highly developed and civilised culture that we know of today (Sumer 5000 BC) was also the very first exampel of a patriarch society. Since then every advanced culture that has ever existed on earth have been patriarchal.

Babylon, the Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Aztecs, Incas, Greeks, Mayans, Romans as well as our own western culture – name them all.However what needs to be acknowledged is that they have all been inherently instable. Where are the Greeks now? Or the Romans???Where will our own civilisation be in a 100 years time ???
Patriarchal societies seem to be just as instable as they seem to be dynamic. (A bit like men really).
On the other hand – there exists many hunter gatherer tribes even today who still exist under a matriarchal line. The Aboriginal cullture for exampel has survived quite happily for about 60 000 years without self destructing. The problem is though that they all still remain on a hunter gatherer level. Så although they seem to be far less destructive than patriarchal societies they do also tend to be far less creative and dynamic. (A bit like women really).

This can be symbolised by the cosmic symbol of Yin/Yang. The white masculine force of Yang symbolises the masculine power of dynamism and creativity. However the shadow side to this strength is its potential for destructivity and instability. On the other hand the black feminine force of Yin represents the feminine power of indistructability and stabilty. However the shadow side to this strength is its potential for being static and undynamic. Here we see that these two forces are each others opposite. Their strengths are also their weaknesses and vice versa. But they need each other to be each other. They compliment eash other and incorpoarte each others qualities into a fundemental whole, when they are in balance, which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is important to remember that they do each contain a kernal of the others essence which is represented by the black and white spots in their respective centres. This can maybe symbolise that there is always exeptions to the rule and that nothing is black and white so to speak.

Scientific investigations in both mathematics, IQ testing and other spatial ability tests have proven that there are dicrepencies between females and males. Although the average results for both women and men in all these areas are the same scientists have nonetheless found that mens results are significantly more spread out than womens – men are far more likely to be found at either extreme.

Nobody questions this phenomena by the way, when we see that most of society`s criminals and delinquents are men (women are naturally less destructive than men) but as soon as someone points out that this phenomena goes also in the other direction they are labeled a sexist (women are absulutely NOT less industrious and creative – men have cheated thats all).

It doesnt meen that men are better than women. Nor does it mean that women are better than men. It just means that men and women have the tendency to different qualities – thats all. It doesnt have to lead to discrimination or predjudice against one gender either. It is just a guide or a model to help us understand ourselves a bit better. All models which attempt to describe or explain phenomena in the real world are nothing more than roadmaps to guide us and in the words of Allan Watts I think “one should never confuse the map with the territory”.They are not absolute axioms without exeptions – but just tools we use to help us interpret and better understand nature by trying to see patterns in the chaos.

I believe therefore that the old cliches about males tending to prefer competition while females tend to prefer co-operation holds partly true. It was patriarchal system that motivated and channeled this inherently masculine create/destructive force – and put it to good use – ironically enough through competition and co-operation. T

The matriarchal system tends to emphasine harmoni and balance as well as co-operation – rather than competion and co-operation. Both of these qualities – whether in the concept of patriarchy/matriarchy or in the concept of masculinity/femininity have their inherant advantages as well as disadvantages. Those that try to put more value on the one over the other or deny their existence have missed an important point I think.

The big mistake of our society is to try to have the best of both worlds.