Bar stools and mosquitoes: more about wu-wei

I experienced an unpleasant event a couple of days ago:

I was walking along a busy walkway at the Wellington Street Bus Station here in Perth when a bus pulled up and people started pouring out. A fellow stepped off the bus straight into my path and we bumped into each other. I apologised (even though it wasn't my fault) and I stepped to the side to give him room to pass me. This is consistent with my nature: my first reaction is always a conciliatory one. And usually in such "bumping" cases the other person also apologises, we both smile and head off in our separate directions.

This case however turned out to be different. Even though I stepped to one side in a conciliatory gesture, the other fellow decided to plough straight into/through me (rather than avail himself of the gap I'd created).

He was a big fellow - at least a foot taller than I am and about 40 lb heavier. As he started to push into me I could see him looking straight ahead with a sneer, as if I didn't exist. I did some taisabaki/tenshin (body evasion) and slipped his pushing motion and we only made light contact.

As he stepped past I almost stuck out a leg to trip him up (I'd just done heaps of bagua trips in my workshop, so the idea was fresh in my mind). I didn't however.

Some of the things I'd like to have done to a particular fellow...

Three or four people around us looked at him as he powered off, shaking their heads. He might have been "big" in stature, but his actions made him look small. I certainly glad I didn't sink to his level by taking unnecessary aggressive action.

But this event raises a question: when does aggressive action become necessary? I have discussed previously my view that it is not appropriate to try to "teach people a lesson". But if we let others bully us, are we not encouraging their actions?

In this regard I'll quote my friend Miguel who said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I feel there's something fundamentally wrong with just backing off without protest. It just serves to promote more bad behavior. It's not a question of "teaching a lesson" as refers to better manners. As previously stated, this type of idiot feels himself to be the aggrieved regardless. What registers sometimes is that not everybody is going to tolerate his conduct, and he runs the risk of getting his butt kicked. As is well known, most bullies are fundamentally cowards. So standing up to him may give him pause down the road. On the other hand, I'm entitled to my dignity as well."
Heck, even my daughter said to me: "Why didn't you use your karate on him Dad?".

Well let us examine this argument:

I read Miguel's comments as "anti-appeasment". And I agree that appeasment is bad. But I don't think that letting him walk away on this occasion was appeasment. If I saw him every day, and every day I let him push me, that would be appeasment.

On this subject, I remember speaking to my sensei Bob Davies many years ago, and asking him this question: "At what point does it become necessary for one to take aggressive action?" He gave me the following example:

Supposing you go to a bar and take a seat. A man walks up and says to you: "That's my seat." Should you fight him over it? The answer is probably "no". Even if he says the same about every seat you choose in that bar, in most cases it is better to walk out than get into a fight.

However what if this bar is your particular "haunt" - a place you go to regularly to "unwind"? And every time you go to the bar you have to face the same idiot? In this example, giving in to the idiot is, in my sensei's words, compromising your very way of life. And in that case it is probably necessary to take some sort of aggressive action - otherwise you are appeasing (and therefore encouraging) his actions and contributing to your own misery.

This contrasts very strongly with what happened to me the other day. I will probably never see this man again, and even if I do, I won't recognise him. I think the chances of him shoving me again are remote.

In any event, I seriously doubt he would register any one-off "resistance" on my part as a message that "not everyone is going to tolerate his conduct". Rather, he would simply justify his initial aggression (to himself and others) and do the same for any subsequent escalation ("it wasn't my fault", "he started it by pushing into me first" etc.).

I think the "behaviour modification" I am likely to exert on a total stranger by offering "resistance" in a one-off situation is very small. I'm sure he's gotten his way through being spoilt by his mama since he was a baby. When someone offers resistance and he doesn't get his way, he probably just throws a bigger hissy fit. This is behaviour ingrained over many, many years and my resistance on one occasion would, I suspect, have done "diddly squat" to arrest/change it.

On the other hand, I would have risked escalating a very minor incident into a major one. I'll only offer this kind of resistance if my life is compromised on some sort of ongoing basis - and the resistance (with the risk of escatating violence) is the lesser of evils - ie. it is a regrettable necessity. I explained it rather more simply to my daughter. I said: "Would you have liked me to come home with some broken teeth - or perhaps to have broken some of his?" She didn't like either idea (particularly the former!).

In the end, I don't have to live with this fellow, so I don't really care if he is an idiot. And we can't all go about our lives trying to correct the behaviour of idiots.

In this regard, I always say that it is pointless trying to swat mosquitoes at a barbecue. You'll never get them all. You're far better off applying insect repellant or moving indoors. Idiots are the same: too numerous to deal with on a case-by-case basis.

So I agree with my friend Jeff Mann when he says:
    "I completely understand and share your sentiments. While some of the resistance we may offer (verbal or otherwise) is designed to make us feel better, there is an element of spite in there as well."
As understandable as it is to have a strong reaction to bullying, I don't think emotion should be the impetus for our actions.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. "...compromising your very way of life."

    Here in a nutshell is the fine line one must define and redefine constantly, and sometimes wrongly. From my "wild and wooly" days of "daily mortal combat," I have evolved to defining this line. Pausing to reconsider what could be irremediable... and just letting it go.
    There really is no easy answer.

  2. Love the post. I'm attracted to your exploration of aggression. Two comments arising from this post. Firstly, 'teaching someone a lesson', is bollocks. You'll find that those espousing this explantion for their behaviour are, in fact, motivated by anger whose 'dramatic plot is a demeaning offence against me or mine.' They are attempting to rectify their damaged ego. Secondly, the quoted comment regarding bullies being cowards is not helpful in understanding the behaviour. 'Cowardice', as is 'courage' (see The Mystery of Courage by Miller for an interesting meditation on courage, and by definition its counterpart, cowardice), is a moral judgement. Bullying is motivated by an emotion, or not. It is more helpful to understand the motivation for this behaviour. In this regard, I'm corresponding with two forensive psychologists in the UK. Fascinating.

  3. Thanks John.

    Yes, "teaching someone a lesson" is indeed total bollocks. I agree completely with your assessment.

    I agree also with your observations on cowardice. Sometimes I find myself using some terminology - but mostly it is to show my disdain for bullying and other anti-social activity, rather than make a rational observation. I use it, if you will, as a put-down. None of us, it seems, are immune to acts of aggression!

  4. Brilliant. I've spent some time thinking about this as well, and I relate to the Daodejing's teachings on war: if it comes to violence, then be violent, but regret that no other course of action was available.

    I expand on my thoughts a little in this blog post

    Although I hesitate to detract from your blog by promoting my own, perhaps someone reading might get something out of it.


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