Bugs Bunny, Archetypes and The Art of War for Change

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an early version of Bugs Bunny, reclining eating a carrot and reading 'Victory thru Hare Power'

When we achieve the changes we set out to make, it feels very rewarding.

Yet the process of achieving change, which I like to think of as switching the ‘frequency’, can often feel like a battle.

Metaphors of dance and music are useful to understanding how the changes you seek affect other people – for example, how can you go up to someone who is dancing a waltz and expect them to dance the salsa?

You could start a new and better dance craze they can’t resist. Or you can start waltzing with them and then begin to switch a few of the steps, then a few more. However you can only go as far and as fast as peoples’ tolerance levels for change.

In the classic 1940s Warner Brothers cartoon Long-Haired Hare, Bugs Bunny unintentionally raises the ire of an opera singer by disrupting his ‘frequency’ (opera singing practice sessions) with all kinds of different tunes played on banjo, harp and a tuba – until, inevitably, pushback occurs:

Bugs’s predicament is comical for us, but it’s not so comical when we are the ‘interruption’ to what others want to get on with, and the pushback gets directed at us.

Bugs’s line following his physical pummeling (in turn quoting Groucho Marx) ‘of course, you know, this means war…’ heralds his ultimately getting the better of the hapless opera singer by posing as revered conductor ‘Leopold’.

One cannot help but admire the approach Bugs takes in response to pushback, and this iconic character is described in Wikipedia as:

…clever and capable of outsmarting anyone who antagonizes him…Bugs almost always wins these conflicts, a plot pattern which recurs in Looney Tunes films. Bugs Bunny has some similarities to figures from mythology and folklore, such as Br’er Rabbit, and might be seen as a modern trickster. Unlike most cartoon characters, however, Bugs Bunny is rarely defeated in his own games of trickery.

In terms of archetypes (models of a person, personality, or behavior), the concept of a ‘trickster’ is not necessarily someone who deceives others into doing things – the role of tricksters in mythology and folklore includes raising consciousness, and disobeying norms and conventions. In other words, tricksters can be ‘frequency disruptors’:

The job of any trickster…is to think the thoughts and do the things that they say can’t be thought or done. He’s most likely to be found disturbing the complacency of his culture, or deflating the pompousness of its symbols…

But Bugs is not just a disruptor, he is a tactician who understands the psyche and traits of those around him – consider how effective Bugs is at achieving his ends, by contrasting his Wikipedia description to those of his fellow characters (noting that their characterisation has evolved over time):

– the self-serving and greedy Daffy Duck – ‘…the rabbit’s rival, intensely jealous and determined to steal back the spotlight, while Bugs either remained indifferent to the duck’s jealousy or used it to his advantage.’

– the antagonistic firebrand Yosemite Sam – ‘…an extremely grouchy gunslinging cowboy with a hair-trigger temper…created to be a more worthy adversary for Bugs Bunny. Until then, Bugs’ major foe had been Elmer Fudd, a mild-mannered and dim-witted man…’

– the sweet but flaky Porky Pig – ‘…his mild-mannered nature and shy demeanor made him the perfect straight man for zanier characters.’

– the deluded Pepé Le Pew – ‘…he cannot take ‘no’ for an answer, blissfully convinced that the girl is flirting with him…(she) runs away from him anyway because of his overly assertive manner.’

– the dopey and often cranky Elmer Fudd – ‘…although Bugs Bunny was called upon to outwit many more worthy opponents, Elmer somehow remained Bugs’ classic nemesis, despite (or because of) his legendary gullibility, small size, short temper, and shorter attention span.’

– the tunnel-visioned Wile E Coyote – ‘…Wile E. Coyote has unsuccessfully attempted to catch Bugs Bunny in another series of cartoons…while he is incredibly intelligent, he is limited by technology and his own short-sighted arrogance, and is thus often easily outsmarted…’

– the overly-confident and devious Sylvester – ‘…Sylvester shows a lot of pride in himself, and never gives up. Despite (or perhaps because of) his pride and persistence, Sylvester is, with rare exceptions, placed squarely on the “loser” side of the Looney Tunes winner/loser hierarchy.’

These characters don’t have the ‘smarts’ of Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales and the Road Runner, who are more akin to Bugs Bunny in terms of their personal characteristics and tactics.

Bugs is a smart strategist and, like the characters similar to him, much more aware of what’s going on around him and what dynamics are in play – so much so that one suspects he might well have studied Chinese general Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a treatise on military strategy from about 6 BC which has influenced not only military but business and legal strategy and beyond for over two thousand years.

section of the original 'Art of War' bamboo book

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This useful dot-point summary of The Art of War covers off on the thirteen chapters of the text (Strategic Assessments, Doing Battle; Planning A Siege, Formation, Force, Emptiness and Fullness, Armed Struggle , Adaptations, Manoeuvering Armies, Terrain, Nine Grounds, Fire Attack, Use of Spies).

Although change can often feel like ‘war’ at times, and it may be amusing to characterise it as such, it is not helpful or wise to approach change from a combative mindset (see: success rates of Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam).

However although some elements of The Art of War relating to physical acts of war are not relevant, and it is counterproductive to see forces opposing your efforts as ‘enemies’ or that your situation will result in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there is wisdom that can be distilled from this classic text that is useful for contemporary change strategists and tacticians.

For example, The Business Insider recast ‘Use of Spies’ (‘what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge’) in contemporary terms as ‘Information Is King’ (ie. don’t go into battle without knowing what you’re up against). This could be cultivating a network of contacts who trust you and give you honest intelligence that keeps you up to speed on the cultural pulse of your organisation, so you know where people are at, and what their tolerance level for change is. ‘Terrain’ could be viewed as the power structures of an organisation rather than valleys, rivers or deserts.

Ironically, one of the main messages of this text on warfare is how to avoid battle through meticulous preparation, planning – these quotes from The Art of War are powerful:

Therefore a victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory. Therefore the victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery. Therefore their victories in battle are not flukes. Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.

Outwitting opponents so that battle is not necessary is the most desirable course, but how you fare once in battle depends on ‘knowing thyself’ and knowing who the other players are:

If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

In your strategic approach to change, do you know which archetypes are you dealing with? Are there Daffys, Sams, Sylvesters, Elmers, Pepés and Wile E. Coyotes around you?

Which one(s) are you?

Be aware whether you are cultivating the archetype of the unflappable, disruptive trickster like Bugs Bunny – it will not serve your purpose to stray into the territory of the earnest yet irritating Pepé, or the belligerent Yosemite Sam in order to achieve your ends (a modern archetype for this would be the ‘eco-nazi’).

It is worth studying the great changemakers and strategists like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Sun Tzu to learn what made them successful and how you might incorporate elements of their approaches in your work, but also remember that tacticians and strategists can be found in unexpected places – and they might even be figments of our collective imagination.

Bugs Bunny reclining with carrot, speech bubble with Chinese characters

Image credit

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