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Tag: violence

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.

I was talking to a student after class the other day, someone who has been training with me off and on since the school opened. I happened to mention that for me, one of the primary uses of the art we study is that it is a holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics. Because we are not expecting to use our skills in earnest any time soon, we are free of the constraint of knowing we must be willing to use them. (This is my core moral objection to the idea of arming teachers to defend students against those sad evil little wankers who try to compensate for their utter inadequacy by murdering the defenceless. Giving the teachers guns would not help at all, without training them to use them, which would inevitably require those teachers to train to be willing and able to take life. That is a profound and utterly life-changing moral and emotional step, and it is simply not fair to ask the average teacher to make it. My practical objection is simply that kids are great at improvising, and having more guns in schools will inevitably lead to more guns in childrens' hands, and so more likelihood of fatal shootings, accidental or otherwise.)

For us, the salle becomes a simulator, a holo-deck if you will, in which we can examine violence and degrees of violence, and pose questions such as

“Is this action ever justified?”

“In what circumstances would cutting off someone's head be ok?”

“How do I feel about the idea of fighting to the death over a point of honour?”

“What was it about this culture that made this response acceptable?”

It is moronic to suggest that violence never solved anything: for the entire history of life on earth it has solved the problem of hunger: I kill to eat. Rory Miller makes this point well in this podcast. So the question then is “in what circumstances is violence acceptable, and to what degree?” Current martial systems, such as police training, military training, and such must have clearly defined answers to all such questions. In these  circumstances, I can use a baton. In those, I must shoot. In these, I call for an airstrike, etc. Martial arts teachers and parents both must be able to teach their students/kids a moral framework in which to place violence. One interesting point of view on this, that of a mother trying to raise her son in a non-violent way, and learning that violence is not intrinsically evil but has its place, can be found here. In short, she decided on a set of rules which, if followed, would make any violence her son was a part of morally acceptable. My rules are a little different (less gender-oriented for instance), but I admire her position.

We can imagine our Art being applied in dozens of circumstances, and while many of my students use aspects of their training at the School in their work as security guards, police, etc. most will never call on their skills outside of class. But for the training to be of any moral use it should require the practitioner to engage with the fact that we are training in lethal techniques, and therefore must have a clear set of internal guidelines as to when their application is acceptable. We can create those guidelines for all sorts of modern or historical contexts, which while it is not of any immediate practical use, nonetheless has the value of making us engage with these difficult questions.

In my view, it is impossible to inflict damage on another soul without inflicting damage on your own, no matter the circumstances. But there are situations in which the better course is to inflict the physical damage and take the spiritual. Failing to act out of fear of damage, physical or spiritual, is cowardice.

Let me tell you a story:

Twenty years ago, while at University, I was walking home alone from band practice with my trumpet, through a dodgy part of Edinburgh. As I was walking I saw a man, rough looking, with a bleeding head, standing over a woman in a doorway. I was terrified, of two things. One, I would act, and get the shit kicked out of me or killed. I was under no illusions as to who wins in a fight between street-thug and pampered kid. Two, I would not act, and despise myself for the rest of my life. So I stopped, far enough away to have a running head start, and called out in my best public-school accent

“Excuse me, but can I be of any assistance?”, the subtext I was trying to imply being “I've seen you and will call the police if you don't leave her alone”.

I was astonished when the man called back:

“Yes, please, my wife is having an epileptic fit!”

So I went over and helped him get her home, and we became friends. Turns out the blood came from his trying to cushion her fall. Some weeks later I told them that I had thought he was up to no good in that doorway, and they both fell about laughing.

My point is that while we can simulate all sorts of scenarios, and come up with ideal responses to them, we cannot reasonably predict our own actions unless they have been tested under stress, nor necessarily predict the outcome of a seemingly obvious scenario. But we can use our training in violence to help us make moral choices about who we are and wish to be, and then try to live up to them, accepting that doing so can be dangerous.

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