As you may imagine, I think about violence a lot. It’s been my experience that most people in our society either embrace violence, or shy away from it, and it’s certainly the case that we are, as a culture, massively less tolerant of violence than we used to be. Physical violence, that is. The psychological violence of our culture is appalling; entire communities of perfectly decent people vilified for believing in the wrong god, or no god, or wanting to do sex differently, perhaps with the wrong sort of person, or whatever the hell else. And at the same time, despite prohibiting violence, we have boxing (aptly described in this fascinating article on martial arts and self defence here as “a brain-damage contest”), MMA, and we allow people to take part in all sorts of activities in which they might get very badly hurt. Driving cars, for instance.
In addition, we have political parties like UKIP and the “True” Finns who would send all immigrants back to whatever hell-hole they escaped from, non-violently of course (though god knows what sort of violence awaits most of them when they get there). But that’s fine (at least according to a depressingly large number of voters) because they are not advocating direct violence against these people.
So let’s take a concrete example of an act of violence.
I honestly believe that throwing a punch is not the worst thing you can do. And in some cases, it is utterly justified. I know that this is not a popular belief, but check out this video, in which Buzz Aldrin, an elderly man, is being bullied by an arrogant and entitled little shit of a conspiracy theorist, and resolves the situation by decking him.
Nice punch, Colonel Aldrin, sir!
Why do I approve? Because the person who got punched was using our culture’s restrictions on violence to get away with a different kind of violence. He had no right whatsoever to make Col. Aldrin listen to his importunate demands regarding the moon landings. He had no right to Col. Aldrin’s time, attention, or response. Yet he was aggressively invading Col. Aldrin’s personal space. Col. Aldrin tried to walk away. A hotel employee asked the entitled little prick to stop. Col. Aldrin asks him “can you please get away from me”. He finally calls Col. Aldrin a coward, a liar and a thief. And got what he entirely deserved.
I’m probably preaching to the choir here; I imagine that most of my readers, and indeed most martial artists, would see this punch as justified (as indeed local law enforcement did), and have thought a lot about things like self-defence, the right to bear arms, and so on.
But for those of you who are new to thinking about violence in anything other than black and white terms, I have a thought experiment for you, to demonstrate that any recoverable injuries sustained by violence are far less problematic than our emotional response to the violence itself. I call this “three broken legs.”
You wake up in hospital in a lot of pain. You have a broken leg.
1) You went skiing/hang-gliding/mountaineering/insert fun but dangerous activity of choice. You had an accident, and your leg is broken. It happens, you knew the risks and took them.
2) You were walking down the street one day, when somebody came up to you with a baseball bat, shouted hate into your face, and broke your leg with the bat.
3) You were walking down the same street one day, and saw a truck about to run over a child. You leap into action, you save the child, but the truck breaks your leg.
One of these injuries is neutral; one is likely to require some serious counselling and may result in long-term psychological problems, and one is a badge of honour that you will draw strength from for the rest of your life. The broken leg is the same in each case.
I suggest that your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. Deciding whether Buzz Aldrin’s punch was right or wrong requires that you take the context of it into account (I was careful to link to the version of the video that shows the build-up); and determining the damage done necessarily entails finding out how the prick (I will not call him a victim, because he was the victimiser, neither will I mention his name) responded emotionally to the violence. Did it give him nightmares? Probably not. He probably went back to his posse wearing his aching jaw as a badge of pride. Was it the best solution to the problem? Hard to say. Maybe, maybe not. But I see no reason why anyone should have to put up with behaviour like that, and I don’t see any available exit.
I do not require that my students hold one opinion or another about this sort of subject. I just require that they engage with this sort of question: “is this act of violence justified”?
And I would point out that except for extreme cases, resulting in permanent disability or death, the psychological violence we do to each other is potentially vastly more damaging than a bloody nose.