Understanding your violent potential

Here are a couple of videos that struck a chord with me regarding violence against women - and violence in general.  In a roundabout way, they led me to start thinking more generally about martial arts and its relationship to violence.

I've long been a fan of the actor Sir Patrick Stewart.1  In the first video below you will see him bringing all his considerable gravitas to bear on a very serious issue.  He shows himself to be a true humanist, as well as a man of great insight, wisdom and compassion.



Stewart talks about the abuse his mother and he endured at the hands of his father.  It is a most touching and revealing account of what it means to live with the constant threat and fear of physical violence.

I've included the second video below because Stewart goes one step further to reveal the most likely cause of his father's violence: untreated, chronic and severe post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting in World War II.



It is important to note that at no point does Stewart intimate (nor am I somehow suggesting) that finding an explanation for such violence provides an excuse.  The conduct of such violence remains reprehensible in every way.

Finding the explanation might have no bearing on the condemnation we give to such acts of violence.  But it is important nonetheless.  Why?  Because it helps us understand the origins of this violence - which in turn helps us identify and manage/prevent it in our communities.

Had Stewart's father been properly diagnosed and treated for his post traumatic stress disorder, he might never have inflicted lifelong scars on his wife and children.  He might never have been guilty of such heinous acts.  And it is worth noting that he himself might never have borne the guilt, shame and self-loathing that (according to his own son's account) he seemed to suffer as a result of his own actions (in addition to the mental scarring he suffered in the war).

In other words, understanding violence is not part of excusing it.  It is part of avoiding it.  It is part of treating it.  And, most importantly, it is part of preventing it.

How many other veterans come back from wars bearing similar scars?  And how many go on to inflict further scars on their families?  How often does this perpetuate a cycle of violence that goes on for generations?

I know that my own grandfather suffered terribly during World War II - both at the hands of the German forces and later at the hands of the Communists (under whom he became a political prisoner simply because he was a former officer in the Yugoslav Royal Army).  He emerged from prison after the war - alive, but broken.  He drank.  And when he drank, he became abusive.  His story might as well be exchanged with that of Stewart's father - and countless other returning soldiers, across all of human history.

We can condemn the violence such men perpetrate without hesitation and without qualification.  But we simply must understand its causes.  And we must address them: for the sake not only of the victims first and foremost, but also for the sake of the perpetrators.

I know that the last comment has the potential to draw the ire of some.  "I have no pity for such criminals," they might say (and in the case of many victims, such a sentiment is perfectly understandable).  But, speaking as objectively as I can, I feel I must follow Patrick Stewart's humanism.  Because I think there is nothing wrong - in fact, I think there is everything right - with feeling empathy for those who are themselves part of a vicious cycle.  Empathising with their plight does not excuse their actions.  It merely shows that we are human: that we aren't cold and unfeeling - even towards those who have done us wrong.  It shows that we can see more than one tragedy is being played out.

Now let me make this abundantly clear: I am only too aware that there are some people out there who don't warrant our empathy: not even one iota.  I'm talking mainly about people who are themselves without empathy or remorse, or hope of any realistic rehabilitation - the sociopaths/psychopaths: those who are truly evil (under my definition of that term anyway).2  For example, I wouldn't waste any time empathising with some brutal rapist and murderer like Adrian Bayley.

But was Stewart's father such a man?  Was my grandfather?  Or were they just ordinary men - caught in a vicious cycle that was not of their doing?  Can we condemn their actions unequivocally while finding some understanding (and even sympathy) for how and why they came to be how they were?  I think so.

Consider: how would any of us cope with the brutalising effects of war?  I know there are some who would say "I'd never become so violent."  And it is easy to think that way when you've spent a lifetime without expressing, or even thinking of, physical violence.  But this is a trap; it is not someone else's pespective: it is still the view through your own lens.  Thankfully, few of us know what it would be like to grow up being, say, a child soldier in Sierra Leone.  We can assume all sorts of things about what we might and might not do in a certain situation.  But unless/until it happens to us, we simply can't know.
Budo - the martial way

Which brings me (somewhat circuitously) to martial arts:  Over the years, I've had any number of people express some horror at the violence taught in traditional civilian defence systems.  I recall holding a class in the mid-80s where I was demonstrating a particularly brutal application of saifa kata involving a smash to your opponent's ears and a twist of your opponent's head after that.  A woman watching the class approached me afterwards and said: "I'm sorry - but I could never be party to such violence as you teach."

Another time, in the mid-2000s, I was teaching taijiquan to a small group in town at lunchtime.  I showed an application of a particular technique involving a finger strike to the eyes.  One student said to me, somewhat accusingly: "Why would I ever want to do that?"  My references to "only in necessary self-defence" were met with a skeptical shake of the head.

In both cases I was seen to be supporting - indeed advocating - violence of the most reprehensible kind; the kind people like Patrick Stewart would rightly condemn without hesitation.

And so why do it?  Why engage in, and teach, such a violent past-time?  Am I just an apologist - even facilitator - of what is most wrong in the world?

I have a long history of writing about wu-wei - avoiding aggression unless it is a regrettable necessity.  I have very strong views on this.  If anything, I think I am accurately described as a pacifist.  I have (touch wood) managed to avoid almost every instance of (sometimes, almost certain) physical conflict in my life with some sort of "diffusion".  As an individual I abhor violence.  I can't recall any instance where, as an adult, I felt remotely motivated to strike in anger.
Yet I practise and teach arts that are sometimes unquestionably brutal in nature and scope.  Why?
It isn't just because I believe there is a possibility that even we pacifists might have to engage in almost unspeakable violence in order to save ourselves or our loved ones (ie. that we might have to choose such a course as the lesser of evils).  No - it is because I am only too aware when listening to Patrick Stewart talk about his father (or my mother talk about my grandfather) that there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.  Yes - men, women and even children (considering, for example, the child soldiers in Sierra Leone).

Okay, so you might never have expressed anger physically.  But we've certainly all expressed it verbally.  And it is important to recognise that even this is a form of violence: maybe not remotely in the same class as the violence Patrick Stewart witnessed in his father - or my mother witnessed in my grandfather - but violence nonetheless.

I remember once in Law school walking past a senior lecturer's office and hearing her screaming at her secretary for some mistakes that had apparently been made.  The verbal abuse was unfair, unbridled and brutal to the point of sadism.  In other words, it was violent.

Granted, there was no physical violence - nor even any potential for it.  But it was a kind of violence just the same.  And it is important to note that any kind of violence can have significant consequences for the victim.  (Indeed, I think it is fair to say that psychological violence can sometimes have more far-reaching consequences than the physical kind.)

So I think it is important to note that while physical violence is most typcially perpetrated by males, violence itself isn't a "male issue". 
It is a human one. 
We all have the potential for violence.  Understanding that potential within ourselves helps us manage our own behaviour (whether this means men seeking help before they abuse their female spouses, men not assaulting other men, parents of either gender not beating their children or people of all ages and descriptions not bullying, humiliating or otherwise abusing others). 

More importantly it helps us identify, understand and manage the violent potential of people in our communities - often through lines of least resistance (wu-wei).

Accordingly I, a self-avowed (and, I think, demonstrated) pacifist, will continue to practise martial arts.  I will learn the arts of "war", so as to find (or at least, affirm) my own path to "peace".

This is the paradox of the martial arts: budo - "the way by which the sword is never drawn".3

Footnotes:

1. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a bit of a "Trekkie", and while I don't think that The Next Generation was the best series of Star Trek (I am fan of the original), I have always felt that Jean-Luc Picard was the best captain - largely because of the gravitas Stewart brought to the role.

2. Those who share my view that there is no such thing as "evil" per se should read my article: "A glimpse into the heart of evil" to see what I mean by this term (ie. I mean something like: "a harmful act committed by a being who has consciousness but has no conscience").  My definition of evil has little to do with "blameworthiness" and "free will", and nothing to do with "retribution" or "vengeance".

In this regard I adhere to the views of Sam Harris on this topic.  Indeed, I think it is logically true that psychopaths like Adrian Bayley are ultimately the product of a mix of environmental and genetic factors.  So they aren't any more or less "blameworthy" than war veterans who commit similar acts; both do what they do largely because of how they were born and raised, and how other major life events have affected them.  Of course they are still "blameworthy" in the sense that they are people who have deliberately done things harmful to others.  And the only sense in which this is relevant to me is this: what do we need to do to stop them/others from doing it again.

Nor am I interested in "retribution"; revenge on them won't bring back the lives they stole/ruined (however much I understand that motivation on an emotional level).

So if I don't think they are entirely "blameworthy" (in Sam Harris' sense of "free will") and I don't feel "vengeful" towards them, then why don't I empathise with them?  Because empathy is something I reserve for those who themselves feel empathy: ie. people who have a conscience.  If people have no empathy or remorse (ie. no conscience), extending one's own empathy to them makes as much sense as trying to empathise with a tornado, earthquake, tsunami - or an attacking crocodile or shark; events of nature that cause us harm but do not have a "conscience".

The difference between these "events of nature" and psychopaths and sociopaths is that we expect the latter to have a conscience - because we know they have consciousness.  This mismatched expectation is the nearest I can get to actually defining (objectively) what people think of in colloquial terms as "evil", hence my definition.  But it should be clear that my definition carries no actual "moral assumption" about some "good and evil" existing as abstract concepts outside human society.

3. It is  worth noting that "budo" (martial way) comprises 2 characters: 武道.  The first means "martial" - however, somewhat paradoxically, it is made up of the elements of "sword" and "never to be drawn" (the character 武 consists of two characters 戈 and 止 which mean “sword or weapon” and “stop” respectively).

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic