Updated: Jun 16
“War is the all-father”.
That’s what Heraclitus said, a very famous, very dead, ancient Greek wise guy. I’m starting with a smart quote so that you know I’m well-read, intelligent, and probably right. I’m also an AKBAN instructor, and I’ve been practicing martial arts since 1993. So I must know what I’m talking about. And that’s “authority bias”; look it up. If you’re into martial arts, you’ve definitely seen/fell for it before. Worst case scenario, you’ll swallow this whole - hook, line, and sinker - best case, you see the chicanery for what it is: an attempt to strong-arm you into intellectual submission. The premise goes like this: “I’m stronger/smarter/richer/anything more than you, so you should do/think/say what I want, for fear of pain/ridicule/exclusion by me”. That’s violence alright. Showing power and imposing one’s will upon others, based on the thinnest legitimacy of all: force.
Does that mean that I’m a bully and all I’m about to say is wrong? No. I just want to illustrate a point. Not all violence comes in the form of a punch, a kick, a bullet, or a bomb. It can be clad in sweet words, in song, in pictures, in expressions, in the news, in presence or in absence. We’re all into it too; we apply a slew of different acts of aggression - big or small - every day, against everyone. Life’s complicated and context is everything. You see, there’s another thing that Heraclitus said after the bit about war. He said “everything is in flux”. Nothing is forever, everything is in conflict, and the only certainty is change. This means that the certainty which allows for anyone to exert force on others can and will evaporate eventually. So best to be careful not to hurt people with self-righteousness.
As martial artists, we are students of violence. It stands to reason that we should make all efforts to understand its nature, the many forms it takes, the constructive and corrosive aspects of it. The end goal is mastery over it. No, that’s too high a goal. Measurement in its use; yeah, that’s much more attainable. Violence appeals to us, so it’s fun to study. We’re in luck because it’s also unavoidable. It is power in its rawest, simplest, and crudest form. Power to impose our human will on a chaotic world. Simply and directly; in a way that allows us to fantasize that we are in control.
In reality, we are not in control, not in any way that matters anyway. And that’s scary. So we rage. At the base of each violent act, there is fear.
Violence makes us feel less scared, so we romanticize it. Whether it’s dishing it out for a perceived “higher” purpose (hero archetype) or suffering from it for another “higher” purpose (martyr archetype), violence is ultimately a system of managing fear in a way that validates our life experience. We are right, so we’ve made the correct choices and thus we are entitled to force others to accept our views, or suffer because others don’t agree with us. Hurray, our small, fleeting life is not in vain! We have not wasted our precious little time on this planet. That’s such a comforting fantasy in the face of mortality, that we’re willing to raise all kinds of hell to protect it.
And besides, violence works. Right?
No, not really.
In the short term, it appears to be effective, but this comes at a very steep price. Usually, it costs us our humanity and disintegrates society. The higher the level of violence, the higher the level of pushback it generates, and the higher the chaos it conjures up. Before long, it pushes all other options out of the discourse, reducing interactions to mere questions of survival, dominance, or revenge. How can it not? When people get violated, they get mad, and they want to get even. Wouldn’t you? The cycle of violence never ends, and it doesn’t matter who started it. As the saying goes, “No justice, no peace”.
Look what’s happening in the USA at the moment. Systemic, institutionalized racism (aka legal violence against minorities) enabled the most antisocial, bigoted, sociopathic individuals in that society to don a uniform and commit atrocities with impunity for decades. Recently, another black person - George Floyd - was strangled by the police, face down on the pavement, one among many who have met the same gruesome fate. And now people are angry as hell. They are on the streets protesting for weeks on end. They want justice, more than they want peace. So Trump deployed militarized police against them and even threatened to unleash the US Army on US citizens. Unsurprisingly, this only made the shit hit the fan at light speed.
Violence generates animosity and disrupts the normal flow of society. And people know that instinctively, as well as experientially (just ask any refugee). People feel rightly furious and want to burn to the ground the system that brutalizes them. But most of them choose not to, exactly because they realize that this kind of response is not sustainable. That’s why the protests in America have largely remained peaceful, even when met with brutal police crackdowns. High levels of violence appear good on screen and flare up emotions, but low levels of violence work much better. Can’t thousands of people swarm and kill police officers? Sure they can. They can haunt their homes, refuse them service, harass them, and generally make life very, very hard for them. But that will only escalate things, create social rifts, and spawn such deep hatred that would tear society apart.
War - even class war - must be very, very measured.
So is violence bad? Should we all kiss and make up (or make out)?
I don’t know. I teach martial arts for a living, I’m really not the best person to ask. I have a vested interest in violence and the fear of violence continuing to be an issue. But I do have some ideas about it. I think the best way to go about it - not in an actual “good” way, but more in a “least terrible” way - is to use violence as a last resort, for an extremely well-defined purpose, and for an extremely limited time. As little as possible, as briefly as possible. Like a medical prescription. I don’t imagine anyone wants to chug down pills all the time. Adopting a lifestyle that keeps us healthy beats taking medicine any day. The same applies to violence. It’s by far preferable to live in such a way that doesn’t require violence to maintain - whether it’s against people, animals, the ecosystem. Just use a bit, very controlled, very minimal, and very justified, and even then, only when it’s absolutely inescapable.
The only way we can do this is by controlling our fear. So we study violence, we internalize its discipline, we hone our fighting skills. It pays off to be a warrior, but never only to be a warrior. The knowledge that we can fight when we need to is enough. It’ll keep us sane, and it’ll keep us safe. We’ll use violence when we must, but be quick to put it aside. Don’t enjoy it too much, and don’t become attached to it, especially if you’re good at it. When it’s time to fight, fight, but remember that most times are not for fighting. Come to the dojo, practice, go home. Be at peace, not pacified. This sums it up nicely.
Collectively, we are not there yet, but we are waking up fast. We know that the way we live is unstainable and will drag us screaming to destruction. And for what? A constant stream of cheap consumer goods that alienate us from each other and keep us hooked to the dopamine hit of another phone, another car, another “like”. Some heaven we are promised… And we are not even all invited! Just the few who fantasize they’ll survive the downfall of our species. The rest of us can fuck off for not “pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps” and suck a tear-gas canister when we dare to demand an alternative. Is this not violence? Is it not madness?
We’re in a global “crisis” since 2008 with no end in sight. A pandemic rages across the world mostly unchecked. Environmental collapse is upon us because Fortune 500 companies can't be bothered to notice anything but their bottom line. Religious tensions are running high. Actual, damned Nazis are back in the open, many of them armed and many of them holding positions in governments. Corporate media tell us to shut up and keep buying shit while the world burns. Meanwhile, the massive behavior modification business that is social networks has everyone at the throats of everyone else (check out computer science pioneer Jaron Lanier's lectures about this). "It's a dog-eat-dog world", "homo homini lupus", "might makes right"... Call it what you want, but this world view is distorted, unimaginative, and just plain stupid.
This kind of violence against everything and everyone cannot go on. Nobody in their right mind wants perpetual war; especially against vague concepts or phantom enemies (eg. war on drugs, war on terror, “race” wars, religious wars, war on nature, etc).
But there are some who do, and they are not in their right mind.
If you ask me, it is time for some medicine.
But don’t take my word for it. You are a student of violence too. You have power in your hands. I’m not going to tell you what to do, and nobody should be able to.