Wu-wei vs. pacifism and appeasement

Introduction: the need to differentiate wu-wei and pacifism/appeasement

I've been surprised by the response I've had to my recent articles about the Daoist/Taoist philosophy of wu-wei. I've had quite a number of emails in addition to the comments posted on my blog and on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum. Furthermore I note that the number of daily hits on my blog reached an all-time high in the last week (more than 3 times the average!) - largely due to these articles on wu-wei.

There appear to be some recurrent themes emerging, so I thought I'd address them here comprehensively.

Many readers of my blog were (quite rightly) incensed to read the account I gave of my friend being physically threatened by a pipe-wielding lunatic in a road rage incident - all because my friend had clapped sarcastically as the lunatic swerved dangerously around him in a mad attempt to "get ahead".

A large number of my correspondents felt that something needed to be done; something greater than what my friend had in fact done, which was to say calmly: "Put the pipe down and let's talk".

Many correspondents argued that he needed to "arrest" the aggressor or otherwise "set him straight/teach him a lesson". At the very least there was the feeling that one ought not "appease" such people or "affirm" or encourage their actions through our own inaction.

This is, superficially, a very compelling argument. It appeals to our sense of "moral outrage" and seems quite logical. After all, appeasement of wrongdoing is never a good thing. My friend Jeff Mann referred me to this famous quote:
    "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke
Let me say at the outset: wu-wei is not a doctrine of pacifism nor appeasement. It does not require or advise one to simply "do nothing". That is why I stress that wu-wei is not an instruction. It is a description of an ideal state. Part of wu-wei ("not doing") is knowing when "doing" is necessary. Not using aggression, in circumstances where the aggression is necessary, is a kind of action in itself. In other words, appeasement is a kind of action - the kind a Daoist would say one must avoid.

In my view, the reason why the Daoists focus on "not doing" rather than "doing" is because the latter is more likely to get you into trouble. We as human beings have a tendency to respond emotively, and justify it later with various arguments that, while plausible, conceal our true motives.

In my view, most of my "angry" correspondents were just that: angry. This is understandable. However I see their proposed response to the "road rage" incident as an emotive one, not one that is necessarily productive.

So let's examine the arguments for "arresting" the aggressor, "teaching him a lesson" or otherwise "not affirming/appeasing/encouraging" his conduct:

1. We have a duty to stop such people so that they don't hurt others

My friend who experienced the road rage incident is a senior black belt, very big, very strong and very experienced as a security officer/bouncer. If any lay person could overpower this aggressor, he could. But to assume that he should do so would, in my view, be an error.

For a start, he would be putting himself at risk of serious injury. The aggressor had a metal pipe. No matter who you are, when faced with an armed attacker you are probably going to be injured. As my friend Zach Zinn says:
    "The only fight you are guaranteed to win is the one you don't get in."
Second, the aggressor would very likely face serious injury. While many of the angry correspondents would say they don't care, it is worth noting that the aggressor had 2 young children in his car watching. I personally wouldn't want them to see their father being beaten up unless it was absolutely necessary in the circumstances.

Third, irrespective of his martial arts training, my friend is not specifically trained in the apprehension of offenders in the way that a police officer is. He also isn't appropriately armed, doesn't have the back-up etc.

Fourth, he doesn't have the statutory authority/powers of a police officer; what he can legally do in performing a citizen's arrest is really quite limited.

Finally, and most relevantly, he doesn't have the duties/functions of a police officer. It simply isn't his role in society to go apprehending law breakers. In fact, the police (and society in general) actively discourage people from playing "de facto" police officers or worse, engaging in vigilantism. There are very good reasons for this - namely those I've referred to above (specific training, equipment, back-up, statutory powers, etc.).

So we do not have a duty to "correct" the behaviour of random strangers. We can only alert the authorities if it is bad enough.

We do however have a legal duty not to be agents in causing unnecessary violence. Had my friend engaged the aggressor in a fight, there is every chance that both he and the aggressor might be prosecuted; the police might have a tough time deciding "who started it". And assuming they decided that the fellow with the pipe was primarily responsible, they might still look very dimly on my friend if it were clear that a physical confrontation could have been avoided.

2. But if we do nothing we're "affirming" their behaviour; these people need to be sent a message that what they are doing is wrong!

There are a number of false assumptions inherent in this statement.

The first one is that my friend, in not physically engaging the aggressor, was "appeasing" or "affirming" his conduct. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was strongly against the aggressor's conduct and he made that clear. He just didn't do so in an in way that might have escalated the situation into a full-blow tragedy.

Had he suddenly started apologising to the man with the pipe and saying "it was all my fault, you had every right to come at me with a pipe", things might be different. This would be a kind of "doing" - and a very bad kind of "doing" (unless he were forced to do so for reasons of self-protection or protection of another).

Second, it is wrong to assume that the aggressor would have accepted any kind of "correction" from my friend or from anyone else. In short, he was never going to "learn a lesson".

It occurs to me that often the aggressor in a road rage incident thinks that he or she is actually the "good guy"; ie. the one who is "teaching a bad guy a lesson" or "not letting a bad guy get away with it".

For example, the fellow who wielded a pipe at my friend was shouting, blaming my friend for "almost causing an accident". He was wrong, but he didn't think so. He no doubt felt he had to "teach my friend a lesson". He probably took the pipe with him "for self defence" because he anticipated violence from a much bigger, stronger and younger man (whom he had already categorized as a "bad guy"). All of this is an "after the fact" justification. In reality, he was just feeling bad-tempered and took it out on my friend who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is my view that those who would argue that my friend needed to "teach the pipe-wielding guy a lesson" are falling into the same trap: they are responding emotively, and following up with a justification.

This serves to illustrate the dangers inherent in this line of reasoning. You risk becoming part of a vicious cycle of escalating violence. We need to get out of this mindset or we are just part of the problem; we become just like the "bad guys" we are trying to stop (or at least others have a hard time figuring out who is "good" and who is "bad"). As I've said above, the courts certainly frown upon violent interchanges, and often convict both parties in a physical altercation.

As an aside, I would argue that appeasment/affirmation is only an issue between people who have a standing relationship and where conduct is affirmed/appeased on an ongoing basis (see my article "Bar stools and mosquitoes: more about wu-wei"). I seriously doubt that an encounter with one particular stranger is going to have any real effect on encouraging (or changing) the behaviour of any individual to any significant extent.

But lastly, even if we could change people's behaviour on a "one on one" basis, we get back to the inescapable reality that there are too many people to "correct". This is what I have previously described as "trying to swat all the mosquitoes at a barbecue". You could live your life seeking out people who were bad-tempered in traffic and never dealing with more than a tiny fraction of them. Such a life would be, in my view, utterly wasted.

3. This wu-wei is fine as a theory, but it is just too hard/unrealistic to implement

I would strongly disagree with this statement. Wu-wei is nothing if not a practical philosophical maxim. I have managed to live most of my adult life by it. Like anyone, I lose my cool occasionally and make mistakes. But I can usually tell afterwards where I've gone wrong and inevitably this has to do with not following wu-wei.

People who argue that wu-wei is "too hard" are, in my view, ignoring the fact that their response is primarily fuelled by emotion. Instead of acknowledging the role of these emotions, they doggedly stick to their intellectual justifications (we can't appease bad behaviour", "we can't be passive", etc.).

As my friend Angelo said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I do not take the doctrine of Lao-Tzu as an injunction to absolute pacifism or inaction. Rather, the doctrine of 'Wu-wei' means to me 'right' action, attained by the shedding of all excess and 'unnaturalness.' The difficulty IMO is separating the wheat from the chaff."
"Separating the wheat from the chaff" as Angelo puts it, is indeed difficult, but this difficulty doesn't mean the philosophy is "unworkable" as some people seem to think. It means acquiring wisdom. And acquiring wisdom is necessarily difficult (otherwise everyone would be wise).

Aspiring to be wise is a good thing. Letting oneself be "unwise" because "wisdom is too hard" is not really a compelling argument.

In this respect I will quote the Lao Tzu:
    When the highest type of men hear the Way, with diligence they're able to practice it;
    When the average men hear the Way, some things they retain and others they lose;
    When the lowest type of men hear the Way, they laugh out loud at it.
    If they didn't laught at it, it couldn't be regarded as the Way." - Robert G. Henricks translation

People often mistake wu-wei for pacifism and/or appeasement, however as I've said, this is profoundly incorrect. Just because wu-wei advocates not taking emotionally-charged action (eg. revenge) or action one might ordinarily expect a person to take but which is unproductive (eg. insulting someone who has insulted you) does not mean that you "turn the other cheek" (ie. do nothing about factors that are detrimental to you). Wu-wei means not taking unnecessary action - and by necessary implication it requires the taking of necessary action.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Having meditated on your recent posts on Wu-Wei and reactions thereto (including mine) I'm beginning to grasp what moves your arguments to stay intervention to avoid needless confrontations that go nowhere.
    And I guess it hit a nerve because we all have this innate violence looking for an excuse to justifiably" manifest itself; we need to feel superior to kick butt blamelessly. It hits the core of our very being and social fabric.
    We confuse any daily skirmish for a morality play. We want to right the wrongs that befall us,believing we are on the higher moral ground; it is always the other guy.
    I am the other guy.

  2. I too am the "other guy".

    But at least we both know.

  3. http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/

    Looks at violence from a SD and crime perspective.

    Target Focus Training looks at it purely from a tactical perspective where any violence can kill a person, thus any violence must either be justified enough to warrant human death or be avoided if it is not.

    Thus if you don't want to kill the person with the pipe, then don't attack the person with the pipe. But certainly, if he attacks you or takes aggressive action (that wasn't just reacting off of you), then by all means.

  4. Interesting post. I'm working on a book concerning our evolved survival response which then leads on to emotion, aggression, and violence. You'll find Lazarus and Lazarus' Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions an eye opening read.

  5. Jorge, how humbling and profound. I am touched by your humility and honesty.

    And, of course, yours Dan. Once again, a well-written article with some incredible substance. It's a little uncomfortable to think of ourselves as trying to justify emotive responses with logic, but you're right of course. I think all of us would benefit from realising it. Thank you again for your wisdom.


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