The sight of 2 hands clapping: wu-wei and the threshold test for "aggression"

In previous posts I have outlined the Daoist concept of wu-wei and how it can be applied as "enacting aggression only when it is a regrettable necessity". Last time I discussed what I meant by "regrettable necessity". But what constitutes "aggression"? You might be surprised by my definition.

Again, I will explain my argument by reference to recent events.

Just last weekend I took my family to a local beach that has a wonderful children's playground, grassed areas and barbecue facilities. I watched happily as my 2 children ran ahead of me across the park towards the sand dunes. But my serenity was soon shattered as I saw my youngest slip on a concrete slab surrounding a barbecue. She fell badly, her head whiplashing onto the concrete with a sickening crack. As I got to her I slipped as well. It was only then that I saw the entire area was coated in a thick grease that had oozed out from under the barbecue: a torrent of grimy cooking fat that had created a dangerous glaze over the surface.

While my wife iced the head of my semi-conscious 3 year old I rang the council's after-hours paging service to alert the ranger to the hazard. Even as I was phoning, people were walking towards the slippery area. An elderly gentleman explained to me that he'd seen other children slipping there and that he himself had done so. While I waited for the ranger to return my call, the gentleman and I dragged some wheelie bins in the way of the hazard - which was directly in the thoroughfare to the beach.

When the ranger finally called me he was immediately defensive. He spent an inordinate amount of time asking me what I meant by "grease" before correcting me that it must be "cooking fat". After disputing my assertion that it was seeping from the base (and not the top) he finally said that he would contact the "Parks Department" as it was their responsibility, not his. I got off the phone shaken by his brusqueness and lack of concern for my daughter. Yes - I was distressed in my manner and tone. But I did not attack him (warranting his negativity): my conduct was consistent with that of an upset parent of an injured child, concerned about the ongoing hazard - no more, no less.

Five minutes after the phone call I saw the ranger's car pull into the car park. He strode out in a huff and began pulling away the bins that we'd put in front of the hazard. He saw my wife cradling my little one but didn't ask how she was or even acknowledge our existence. He was clearly annoyed and agitated.

Seeing this, and having overheard my phone conversation with the ranger, the elderly gentleman approached the ranger to remonstrate about his attitude. While I respected the gentleman's motives I could see it was unwise; it was what I categorise (for the purposes of this article) as an "aggressive act". I say this without any implied criticism - it merely fits my definition. There is a time and place for such acts. But as you will see, I don't think this was one.

The ranger proceeded to raise his voice as he "explained" that the Parks Department would clean the mess the following day, since he did not have the facilities. It was only after he'd vented some steam on this topic that the ranger said that he was going to cordon off the area in the meantime (which is all any of us ever needed to know).

"I hope so," replied the gentleman.

As he said these last words I winced: it was another "aggressive" act that, while understandable, could serve no useful purpose. Implicit in this remark was a lack of confidence in the ranger - a criticism of his conduct. Indeed, the ranger's immediate response was to rush up, almost nose-to-nose, in a highly aggressive manner. "All right then," he spat out, "what's your name?". Then he pulled out a notebook (as if he was going to give the elderly man a ticket!). The fact that he had no basis upon which to exercise his "power" to require a name and address appalled me, but I could see that there was no point taking him to task about this. He would use whatever powers he had - lawfully or unlawfully - in answer to the gentleman.

My wife was carrying my little girl to the car at that moment, so I left with them. Luckily all my child suffered was some concussion and a nasty bump. It could have been much worse.

So why do I say the elderly gentleman's behaviour was an "act of aggression"? Surely the ranger "deserved" to be questioned about / called to account for his attitude? Indeed, I think he did. And as I said earlier, I don't wish to sound judgmental about the gentleman's actions. I'm merely pointing out that his (implied) criticism of the ranger - whether justified or not - was, by its very nature an act of "aggression".

Regardless of his hostility, it was clear that the ranger was doing something about the hazard. And it was also clear to me that criticising his attitude would not achieve any better outcome. So while I understood the elderly gentleman's motives and shared his outrage, I didn't think it was necessary to take any aggressive action against the ranger. As it happens the gentleman's actions only led the ranger to abuse his legislative power to ask for a person's name and address. Depending on how things had escalated, it might have had other consequences...

I've contemplated filing a complaint with the council about the ranger, but this would also be an act of "aggression": it would constitute a direct attack on the ranger's conduct. Would it be a "regrettable necessity" for me to file such a complaint? Probably not. I doubt the council would fire the ranger. He would give a conflicting account of what happened. And even if the council believed my version of events, I doubt it would consider his behaviour sufficiently bad to warrant some sort of disciplinary action. I also doubt the ranger would have any remorse or "learn" anything from the experience. So faced with these observations, I must conclude that it would be pointless to file a complaint. The "aggression" would not be a "regrettable necessity". All it would do is draw undue attention to me and my family, which might or might not have its own ramifications.

Almost every day I find myself faced with similar decisions. Inevitably I've found that adhering to the concept of wu-wei means doing the exact opposite of what I would normally do. The temptation is always there to respond to a slight or insult in kind; to have a good (and preferably quick) come-back/put-down. However when I apply the test of whether it is regrettably necessary that I do so, I usually find that it is not. There simply is no point.

For example, some weeks ago a fellow posted some very nasty remarks about one of my jo drills, to the effect that it was "like a bad aikijo 'kata' mixed with fantasy". It seems he was unhappy with the fact that the drill wasn't "traditional" (and hence wasn't "useful", "practical", "effective", "authentic" - you get the idea). I deleted his comment and went to his own page where I saw literally hundreds of irate Youtube users berating him for his rudeness. He laughed each comment away. I was sorely tempted to add my own voice to the tirade; to explain that, after 30 years of training with the jo (in traditional aikijo as well as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu), I felt entitled to develop my own practice drills. I wanted to say that everything I post on the internet is under my real name (unlike this person who posts under a pseudonym). Furthermore I don't make any comments to a person that I'm not prepared to say to his or her face. I wanted to say that this person was nothing but a coward. I wanted to say so many more things. But what would be the point? He would use any comments I made as a springboard for further insult and ridicule. In short, he would drag me down to his level and beat me with experience. There is simply no point in getting into a squabble with such a person.

Nor does your action have to be particularly strenuous to constitute "aggression". Consider this story for example:

A friend of mine was driving in his car the other day when someone overtook him in a most unsafe manner, weaving at illegal speed between the other vehicles in an attempt to "get ahead". My friend was suitably disgusted at this and made a sarcastic clapping motion as the other guy's vehicle passed him. This was enough to make the fellow pull up sharply ahead of my friend causing him to bring his vehicle to a stop. The fellow then got out of the car with a pipe in his hand, ready to enact some road-rage. It mattered little to the fellow that he had 2 young children in his car. It was only my friend's large size and calm manner that defused a potential assault case.

Was my friend's "clapping" an act of aggression? It was. It was intended as a sarcastic put down of the other fellow's driving. As deserved as this might have been, ask yourself: was this "clapping" regrettably necessary? Did it serve any useful purpose? "Surely it would educate the other driver," you might protest. No - it wouldn't. I don't know of anyone who looks to other drivers (and to their criticism) as a means of education or training. My friend's actions are understandable and I have every sympathy for him. But what he did ultimately failed the test of wu-wei. It served no useful purpose and almost provoked a road-rage incident. If the other guy was driving dangerously enough, the appropriate action would be to take down his licence plate number and report him to the police. Short of that, he shouldn't have bothered doing anything.

It is important to note that this is not a moral matter: I am not judging my friend any more than I judge the elderly gentleman who locked horns with the ranger. Wu-wei is an amoral (as opposed to immoral!) doctrine. It concerns itself with logic and pragmatism - not with who is "right" or "wrong" or what someone "deserves".

As I have said previously, you can't swat every mosquito at a barbecue. You have to be judicious in your use of aggression. And be aware that even "the sight of 2 hands clapping" can constitute an act of aggression - one that can unnecessarily escalate a conflict into full-blown physical violence.

It matters not what your action is - but what it is intended to effect. If your purpose in taking an action is to put someone down - whether by insult, sarcasm, innuendo or otherwise - then it is an act of aggression. You should only take such action when it is the lesser of evils; when the risks of escalating a conflict are outweighed by the benefit or usefulness of your action.

"But," I hear you ask, "surely I am allowed a bit of back-chat here or there - I can't always turn the other cheek." Wu-wei is not about turning the other cheek. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't take aggressive action. It just means that you should evaluate the likely outcomes before taking such action.

So when can one provide a "quick come-back" in response to a slight? I'll give you an example of something I should have done:

Many years ago, when my wife was 8 months pregnant with our first child, she was diagnosed with an aggressive tumour in her throat. It went from the size of a pea to the size of an egg in 2 weeks. She needed surgery even though she was almost at full term; she might go into labour on the operating table. I remember boarding the bus shortly after hearing this news - in a fog of grief and worry. Shortly after I took my seat a man who looked for all the world like Mr Burns from The Simpsons approached me with righteous indignation and proceeded to berate me for not queueing. He gave a a full 2 minute lecture before returning triumphantly to his seat.

What I should have said after his lecture was this: "My wife has just been diagnosed with cancer. She's about to give birth to our first child. I boarded the bus in a daze. I'm sorry."

This would have been an "aggressive" act of a kind because it would have lowered him even further in the eyes of the other commuters (I think his kind of righteous indignation and sanctimonious lecturing is quite unseemly at the best of times). In short, he would have looked like a real prick - and a callous one to boot. But it would have been necessary to do this. He was attempting to demean me and I had every right to self-defence. Notice that my response would not have tried to justify my queue-jumping; it would merely have explained it in a way that highlighted his own pre-judgment. Note also that I didn't need to add: "and you're a sanctimonious, pathetic little worm who looks like Mr Burns from The Simpsons." Like an aikidoka, I would have let his own actions/words work against him. This would have been what was necessary - nothing more and nothing less.

Unfortunately I was so overcome by shock and grief that I barely mustered any reaction. I just sat there. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I remember how this person attacked me, assuming a whole range of things about me and why I had done what I had done. It was an uncaring and nasty little act of aggression that I should have responded to, had I had the presence of mind.

Luckily my wife's tumour, while aggressive, turned out to be the type that doesn't spread. It was successfully removed in an operation. My daughter was born 2 weeks later and all lived happily ever after.

I often wish I had the chance to give a serve to "Mr Burns". In fact, I saw him about 2 weeks ago in town. I thought about approaching him but reconsidered. There would be no point. Whatever I had to say was useful as a shield - not as a sword. The time for using the shield had long passed.

In the end, wu-wei does not mean that you should not take aggressive action. It merely suggests that you should only take aggressive action when it is necessary for you to do so. All aggression is regrettable; conflict is never a good thing. However if it is necessary, then so be it.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Violence and aggression is something I live with everyday. In principle, and in practicality, what you propose is true. One should attempt to defuse potentially harmful situation before they get out of hand and spiral out of control.What you propose assumes that one should have the higher conscience to step back, to do what logic and pragmatism dictate. It also assumes that the park ranger, irate driver, negative blog commentator, etc., will get their just desserts somewhere down the line.
    It is such a hard decision to make in the heat of the moment, when passions run strong.
    There is a dog on my street, that contrary to his other barking fellows, remains still as a stone, no overt aggressiveness, just a still and explosive presence.
    I would like to be that dog. I now will call him the "Wu-Wei dog."

  2. "Wu-wei dog" - I love it Jorge!

    I think it is important to remember that "wu-wei" is not an instruction. Rather it describes an ideal state: the state in which you have not had to do anything, yet everything that needs to be done, has been done.

    So I'm not really suggesting that people should have a "higher conscience" - merely what the ideal state is. If we want to live optimally we should strive to achieve this state. Whether we achieve it is another matter...

    I certainly don't want to imply some sort of moral imperative that people follow wu-wei. I see it as a logical/pragmatic issue.

    And I don't think that the park ranger, irate driver, negative blog commentator etc. will necessarily "get their just desserts somewhere down the line". Sadly, they probably won't. People like Stalin certainly didn't. I suppose I'm saying that it is often (though not always) irrelevant what happens to these people. We should take action by reference to what is going to happen to us - not what is going to happen to those who would do harm unto us.

    It is for this reason that I don't get into "revenge fantasty" films of the kind Mel Gibson likes to make. Revenge is the antithesis of wu-wei. It is an illogical (though understandable) motive.

  3. wu-wei sounds nice but in practice it must be exceedingly difficult. One must surely be open to learn from ours and other failings.

    I would have put that pipe wielding fool of a dangerous driver under citizens arrest after restraining him for the authorities. Fancy philosophy goes by the wayside (for me) when folks lives are in such danger. Sometimes I am compelled to act.

  4. I don't think wu-wei is all that fancy.

    It is a question of staying cool and doing what is logical.

    Had my friend not bothered with the clapping, he wouldn't have almost been assaulted.

    My friend is a senior black belt and a very, very tough. He would have taken out the guy with the pipe. But what would this have achieved? What about the guy's little kids watching from the back of their car? I salute him for defusing the situation. And I don't "blame" him for clapping sarcastically - I might well have done the same thing; I'm simply analysing the events after the fact.

    Hindsight is a powerful tool - not because it can change the past, but because it can avoid trouble in the future.

    I try to live my life through wu-wei. There have been times I have been compelled to act. At other times I have acted rashly/unwisely. But there are many other times where I haven't acted rashly/unwisely, and I've been glad that I didn't.

  5. If your friend had not been so dangerously cut-off he would not have been compelled to clap.

    Clear and obvious dangers to the public demand our attention and action.

    What responsibility does your friend bear to the poor folks that are subjected to the next episode from the pipe wielding dangerous driver (you and I both know there will be a next time for that poor misguided fellow)?

  6. Had my friend wanted to do something about the dangerous driving, the appropriate course would have been to note the licence plates and report the driver to the police.

    As to the pipe-wielding, I say this:

    My friend is not a police officer and it is not his duty to find potential criminals and bring them to justice.

    As it was, he said: "Listen mate, put down the pipe and we'll talk." Which they did. I think this is far better than "taking him out" (which I have no doubt he could have done, but some serious violence would have been involved). I unflinchingly support his decision not to go down the latter road.

    As I've said in my previous posts about wu-wei, you can't swat all the mosquitoes at a barbecue. In the same way, you can't live your life trying to "correct" the behaviour of all the "bad guys" around you. Like the previously mentioned mosquitoes, there are too many of them.

    Your sentiment is one I share emotively, but I see it as an emotive reaction - couched in a plausible justification.

    We all want to come face to face with "bad guys" and "teach them a lesson" or otherwise "stop them from doing bad things". This is understandable. But (speaking for myself) the "teaching a lesson" part is a justification - not the real motive. The real motive is anger, which I don't feel is a good basis for a decision, however understandable/justifiable that motive is in the circumstances.

    Was the pipe-wielding fellow "one of the bad guys" who need to be taught a lesson? Perhaps. Perhaps not. He might have been acting in his usual manner. Or he might have had a particularly bad day - heard some tragic news, etc. - and snapped for the first time in his life.

    Either way, it wasn't my friend's job to escalate the situation just so as to "catch one of the bad guys". In my view he doesn't owe the "poor folks" who might or might not be "subjected to the next episode" anything at all. He does however have a legal duty not to be an agent in causing unnecessary violence.

  7. In Georgia, US, it is one's civic duty to stop crimes in progress. And the laws reflect that in the jury expectations and legal allowances.

    Shifting this cultural expectation to some place that doesn't support it, is troublesome.

  8. I believe it is more than troublesome Ymar. I think it is inappropriate and dangerous. Thanks for your input.

  9. Love this post. Where do I begin? Dan, you're as guilty as any lay person in 'judging' aggression and violence. Both terms are so judgement-laden that we don't study them because of their negative connotations. You do, veary astutly, refer to an act of aggression. Because aggression is not an emotion; it is motivated by emotions but it is not an emotion. And violence is a form or aggression, but aggression is more than just violence. Those who study aggression refer to the Blanchard's categorisation of aggression (and violence) as offensive and defensive aggression (and violence). Offensive aggression they suggest is motivated by anger and defensive aggression by fear. I'm currently taking task with this association, but, it does take away the negative connotations. It's not a wise marketing move to promote the fact you are teaching violence, but you are: 'instrumental violence'. It's a fascinating subject, and your reasoned analysis provides support for my work. Keep up the good work.

  10. Thanks for reading and for your comments John.

    I am teaching violence of a sort. I am not, however, teaching any aggression unless it is a "regrettable necessity".

    In terms of "judging", I'm afraid my legal background comes out too often!

    I don't wish to sound as if I'm "judging" anyone. Rather I evaluating what is productive and what is not. Emotive response is totally understandable and I don't wish to sit in "judgment" of anyone. I am able to say, however, that I feel doing "x" or "y" is not productive of a certain outcome.

  11. I didn't know you had a legal background. You might be interested in a reference to aggression/violence types and the legal system.

    Fear-motived violence = self defence. Anger-motivated violence = assault or manslaughter. Instrumental (no emotion) violence = murder.

    You might also be interest in a paper a psychologist who worked in prisons and prison hospitals wrote were he referred to continued violence by one prisoner on prison staff. Long story short, he concludes that most violence comes from shame. Shame is too painful to bear, so anger is used as a coping mechanism to deal with the pain, and aggression and violence are action tendencies for anger. I've been writing about some of my research in this area on my kojutsukan blog.

    You may have misunderstood my reference to 'judging' - I didn't express myself too well as I was very excited to read your posts with reference to my work. I'm fully aware you were not judging anyone; what I was trying to say was that the terms 'aggression' and 'violence' are judgement laden. Because we judge these actions we may not refer to the growing body of knowledge that is about these actions. Also, we then don't look at what we can do to make us more effective in dealing with a violent situation by using our evolved survival responses. Again, refer to kojutsukan blog for further details.

  12. I love your analogy of using aggression as a shield or a sword. For some reason it's never occurred to me. Thank you once again for gracing the internet with your insight, experience and wit.

    I think I also understand a little of what you mean by wu-wei being amoral. Morality is a system of valued judgments imposed by the human mind, and to a degree, judgments are not useful to achieving outcomes. Or something like that. I suspect the longer I live, the more I'll understand the contents of greater minds like yours and Lao Tzu's.


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