Aggression as a regrettable necessity


The title of this blog is "The Way of Least Resistance". This is an attempt to translate at least part of the meaning of the Daoist maxim "wu-wei" (無為). This translates literally as "no action" but it is not an instruction. Rather it is a description of an ideal state: the state in which you have done nothing, yet everything is done. It is the position a wise person gains by going with the flow of nature, not against it.

The most common analogy used to describe the essence of wu-wei is a river or stream; one does not get far by swimming against the flow of the water. In order to get to a bank, one must go with the flow.

The principle of wu-wei is my own guide for conflict resolution. To me, this ancient concept, stemming from the Chinese classic "Dao De Jing" (The Way and Its Power), remains as potent and profound today as it ever was.

It is said that this principle is built into the internal arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan since they all stem from the Daoist philosophical tradition. Indeed xingyiquan is said to be a physical manifestation of the Dao De Jing, while baguazhang is based on the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) - a neo-Confucian classic that was strongly influenced by Daoist thought. However I have found that practically every far-Eastern martial tradition exhibits characteristics of wu-wei. This is no surprise: ultimately the most efficient fighters learn not to oppose force with force; to "go with the flow" and use their opponent's energy/force against them.

However on a more pragmatic level, a wise person knows that conflict is best managed by being avoided where possible. One should have recourse to aggression only where it is a regrettable necessity. I believe this to be self-evident; a truism that needs no further justification or proof. However recent events have provided me with some potent examples of just why this maxim is so profound.

Consider the following video which has now gone viral.



It shows a 67 year old man in a physical altercation with a much younger man on a bus. You can watch it, but the gist of it is this: the young man and the older bearded man are conversing. It is clear that the younger man is irritated - about what I'm not sure. The conversation escalates into a verbal argument and the bearded man then walks to the front of the bus to get away. Insults continue to be hurled back and forth, causing the young man to walk down to the front to remonstrate. He starts walking away, the bearded man hurls a final insult and the young man returns, throwing a punch. The bearded man is unharmed by the blow and counters with a flurry of punches that knock the young man down. The video ends with close ups of blood splattered all over the floor and on the chairs. The young man, bleeding profusely from his swollen mouth, asks for an ambulance.

This video illustrates how a situation can be needlessly escalated. There were ample opportunities for the bearded man to leave the altercation behind once he'd moved to the front of the bus. The "breaking straw" was the bearded man's final threat that caused the younger man to start the altercation.

While it is true that the younger man had walked up to the front of the bus and threatened repeatedly that he was going to put his "foot up [the bearded man's] ass", there was a moment when the tension had a chance to be diffused. The younger man had turned and was walking away. All was quiet for a moment. Then the bearded man suddenly (and, I believe, very foolishly) piped up: "I'm going to put my foot up your as and slap the shit out of it". The young man then immediately returned and the fight ensued.

Had the bearded man kept his mouth shut, there would have been no fight, of that I have no doubt. The younger man was walking away. Even when he returned he threw what can best be described as a lacklustre punch: his heart really wasn't in it. The bearded man re-escalated a situation that was "cooling off".

I think it is very apt to examine every encounter to see what was the "breaking straw" - the point of no return in the escalation of violence. In some cases I saw as a prosecutor, there was none - the attacker needed no provocation or other pretext. In most cases however there was such a point. I think a wise man or woman will avoid causing that turning point. Yes, the bearded man did "win" this altercation. But next time he might not be so lucky; his next opponent might be stronger, armed, in company or all of the above. And even though he "won" in this case - was it worth it? I don't think so. What did he actually achieve? Was the younger man "taught a lesson"? Most likely not. The younger man would have gone home seething and wanting revenge. He probably feels wronged and "victimised" - even if he was actually the aggressor.

Clearly the younger man was having a bad day. This didn't justify him taking out on the bearded man, but at the same time a different person might have walked away with little more than the memory of some guy on the bus being grumpy - as opposed to having blood on his knuckles.

So how can my analysis of "aggression only as a regrettable necessity" be applied to this situation? Surely the bearded man wasn't the aggressor? He might not have been the main one, but he was an aggressor nonetheless. "Where and how?" I hear you ask. The final insult he hurled back at the younger man was nothing if not an act of aggression. It had no function other than to act as an insult or threat; to belittle the younger man. It was an act of aggression and it was unnecessary: there was simply no reason for the bearded man to say what he said. As understandable as his reaction was (and we all feel like saying things like that) it was not logical or productive. It had only one possible result: to escalate the conflict into physical violence. And that it did.

Now I mention earlier that the situation might not have played out as "well" as it did. Nor is it guaranteed not to revisit the bearded man in the future. If you listen to the video at the end you will hear the younger man swearing he will get his revenge. This reminds me of another scenario which came to my attention a few years ago when I used to be a member of the forums at fightingarts.com.

A fellow on that forum posted the following query:
    "Well, recently some tough guy insulted one of my best friends. I then insulted him back very badly and now he's probably one of the most [censored] persons on the planet. He says he'll come after me and throw some punches at me, yet first i didn't feel scared at all. I've been through quite some fights and i know how to take punches as well as give them. Yet what worries me is that i've found out he's asking a big and strong friend of his to beat me up instead of himself.

    I find that to be quite cowardly and now this big and strong is coming after me, as he knows where i live (he grew up in my neighbourhood). Now i honestly feel scared. I'm 1m77 myself but he's 1m85, so quite taller and also quite stronger, as i know he quite often fights in bars or at party's.

    So my question being, is it cowardly to use a weapon such as a home made brass knuckle in a fight against this guy or will this invoke even more fights because he would be [censored] for me using a brass knuckle.

    Anyhow, in any case i'm not just going to take these punches because the first dude didn't even apologize for insulting.

    So err, what to do ?"
I answered as follows:
    "Well, you've got your self in a pickle, haven't you?

    "I then insulted him back very badly..." I'll be blunt: this was a big mistake. Do you know the nursery rhyme beginning "sticks and stones..."? In my opinion the smartest thing would have been to walk away. If you doubt me, consider what your efforts have brought you so far: fear and potential danger.

    Now do you really want to escalate the "war" by arming yourself?

    First, you should be aware that being in possession of a weapon without a lawful excuse is illegal in almost every first world country. "Self-defence" is usually not an excuse, unless you've picked up a stick from the roadside just before/during an attack. Check the law in your jurisdiction before you decide to pack the brass knuckles in your backpack/pocket.

    In my State in Australia you would be facing a serious fine or possibly imprisonment for the possession alone.

    Second - do you really think it would be smart to hit him with brass knuckles? If you hit the guy with this weapon and seriously injured him you'd have a tough time convincing a jury that it was "self-defence". They'd wonder why you went out "armed" in the first place (it will be hard to shift the impression that you were looking for him so as to beat him up). I'm afraid you'd come across as a common thug - particularly with your weapon of choice, a brass knuckle. I'm not being judgmental about this bit, just a realist - I speak as a former court lawyer.

    You'd almost certainly do time if you injured him. If you killed him you go for manslaughter or even murder. You'd go away for a very long time.

    Please take the time to consider your next move very carefully...

    What you want to do is diffuse the situation - not escalate it to a full-on war. I won't suggest how you go about this - only you will know, given the vagaries of your situation.

    Good luck. Btw - "cowardice" is the last thing you should be concerned about."
The correspondent wasn't terribly pleased with my advice. He replied as follows:
    "Well the answer to how to diffuse the situation would be more helpful to me than the entire text you just wrote. Can you give suggestions, all are welcome?"
A variety of suggestions were then made by others (not by me). In fact, sometime later I added:
    "You'll notice I deliberately didn't offer any suggestions as to how to diffuse the situation.

    I'm fairly sure the original poster knows what to do. And he'd be wise not to take advice on the next step from people who don't know the full details of what happened and who the protagonists are..."
And I stand by that "specific advice" or lack of it. I don't think anyone can provide an answer as to what he must do. All anyone can say is what he shouldn't do - ie. "wu-wei" , the action he must not take.

At around that time an article appeared in a newspaper where a fellow got into a fight at a cafe. He and his wife were seated at a table in an alfresco area when someone passed by and made some derogatory comments about his wife. He got up and hurled abuse back. After some ugly words the situation started to dissipate with the aggressor moving away from the table. However the husband couldn't resist hurling one more insult at his opponent. The aggressor turned back to the table and threw a single punch. That punch felled the husband, causing him to strike his head on the concrete. He died soon afterwards.

In his case the husband paid the ultimate price for hurling that final insult: it was an act of aggression that was unnecessary. It might have well been "deserved" if one adopts some kind of "moral calculus". But "morals" are not in issue here. It is logic - or better yet, applied logic: ie. wisdom.

So the next time you feel like "giving someone a serve" or doing anything else that is calculated to "spite", "get back at" or otherwise belittle someone, ask yourself this: is it a regrettable necessity that I do so? I say "regrettable" because acts of aggression always come at a price. The question is: is this price the lesser of evils?

The situations in which you might find yourself asking this question are myriad.

Just last year I was a passenger in a car being driven by an acquaintance. We were coming back from a funeral of the father of one of my dear friends. My acquaintance is, to put it bluntly, a lousy driver; not because he lacks control of his vehicle, but because he continually commits little acts of aggression, like "bullying" his way into a lane. In this particular case we were on the freeway onramp when he noticed a car just behind him on the right. The lanes were merging and he had right of way. However he perceived that the car behind was trying to nudge ahead. So he did something he often does: he made a sudden swerve to the right, then back again. The driver of the other car panicked, swerved himself, almost hit the side barrier, then backed off. My acquaintance immediately felt foolish. For one thing he had scared the living daylights out of our other 2 passengers, one of whom was an elderly lady. For another, even he could see that his action was rash.

Just how foolish his act was is something he will probably not understand until the worst case scenario eventuates. The car behind us might well have hit the side barrier and rolled. Its occupants could have been seriously injured or killed. Other cars might have been involved in the accident. All because he elected to enact a little aggression - ostensibly to "teach the other driver a lesson".

One thing I never told this acquaintance (and I wish I had) is that the driver of that other vehicle was one of the sons of the man whose funeral we had just attended, no doubt lost in thought and grief and certainly not expecting some lunatic to start swerving madly in front of him...

So the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, jumps your queue, hurls an insult at you, etc. ask yourself the following questions before you act:

(1) Are you about to commit an act of aggression?
(2) If so, is it a regrettable necessity?

Answering those questions will help you determine how to manage/diffuse any ensuing conflict in a way that is favourable - to you and, for that matter, everyone.

Clearly you might not have much time to ask yourself those questions; you might have to make a split decision. That's why it pays to think about these things beforehand.

And this calculus applies equally to fighting technique: every attack leaves an opening so you should ensure that your attacks are appropriately conservative.

In the end any acts of aggression - be they verbal or physical - must be necessary, if regrettable. Acting outside this paradigm might prove very costly indeed.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic