A world of illusion: coping with the reality of violence

We martial artists spend a lot of time thinking about violence and practising ways of countering it. But underlying our practice is the knowledge, deep inside us all, that we are to some extent living in a world of illusion. We are under an illusion as to our realistic chances of reacting appropriately (if at all) under the pressure of an attack. And, even if we do react appropriately, we are invariably under an illusion as to the adequacy of our defence resources (against attacks which might involve firearms or other deadly weapons, multiple assailants, etc.).

On one view, most of what we practise is going to be of marginal, if any, use in many attack situations. Why? Because serious criminals like to stack the odds in their favour. They don't plan on having a "fair fight". They plan on surprising you and overwhelming you with force and numbers. They don't really want to leave a thing to chance. It is only logical, after all.

So how do we cope with this realisation? For most of us the answer is simply this:
We ignore it.

As a prosecutor I noted that victims of violent crime often have trouble adjusting to life after the event. It can seem to them as if their whole world has collapsed. Whether we are talking a street assault or home invasion, the result is often the same: the victims just don't feel safe anymore.

But has anything really changed? Are they really less safe than they were prior to the crime? The answer is invariably "no". All that has changed is their perception of the world. Where once they went about their daily affairs oblivious to the dangers, now they have become hyper-aware of them. They have gone from not being concerned with fears to being consumed by them.

Of course, all of this is perfectly natural, and I don't for one moment wish to be seen as critical of people who have been victims of such tragic circumstances. Their reaction is totally understandable and I am well aware that "there, but for the grace of God, go all of us."

I'm merely pointing out that, largely speaking, we live in a world of "illusion"; one that treats statistically real (albeit small) chances of harm as essentially non-existent. We cocoon ourselves from an indifferent, often cruel, world by using nothing more than a set of assumptions ("I'll never be attacked" or "my home will never be broken into"). When those assumptions are challenged and found to be false, we discover that our whole world can collapse around us. This is because those assumptions underlie almost everything we do: walking to the shops, watching television at night, etc.

I was thinking about this on Saturday when I went up to my brother's place to catch up with Gary, an old buddy from South Africa. We got to speaking about crime in that country (as SA expats tend to do). As Gary noted, most people in South Africa have at least a couple of personal stories about violent crime.

Gary mentioned how he was lucky to have survived two encounters by nothing more than dumb luck. In one case, criminals entering his home through the roof mistakenly dropped a tile which altered him to what was happening. But for that, they would have caught him totally by surprise. And in South Africa most criminals don't just take what you have and go. They kill (or at least maim) you as well - if for no other reason than because they can.

In another case, Gary (who used to keep a firearm tucked into his belt at the back) was surprised by a home invader and went to reach for his gun. The criminal saw his reflex reaction and bolted. This was fortunate because when Gary's hand reached where the gun should have been, it wasn't there; he had taken it out for some reason.

In each case, Gary survived by way of pure "dumb luck". Had the dice fallen another way, he wouldn't have been there on Saturday telling us these stories. And for everyone in South Africa who has such a "fortunate" story, there are many more who don't.

One of Gary's work colleagues once turned up at the office a bit late. He said he'd shot a home invader and killed him. When quizzed about the event, the colleague said, matter-of-factly, that he'd fired two warning shots, and when the criminal continued advancing towards him he had no choice but to shoot him square in the chest. "Don't worry," he said, "my neighbour killed the other two." Lest this seem overly callous, it was worth noting that these same criminals had just slaughtered an entire family two doors down. Given the horrific crime statistics, South African police only required Gary's colleague to fill in a few forms and he was free to go.

So how do people live in today's South Africa. "Well," said Gary, "it's not all that bad. You get used to it. You're okay if you know what you're doing."

It seems that life in South Africa has settled into a "new normal", albeit one that involves, for wealthier South Africans anyway, a nightly ritual of checking whether the security staff are at their posts, activating the electric fence, arming all the doors and retreating into the "safe zone" for the night (see the ridiculous "house" with the "drawbridge" depicted towards the end of this article). For poorer South Africans life is bound to be a whole lot more uncertain, with lesser safeguards available (and, correspondingly, a higher threshold for the "illusion of safety").

Regardless of your socioeconomic status, during the day you avoid certain areas. You travel by motor vehicle as much as possible. And if you are at all suspicious, you even ignore red lights (many criminals will open the door of a car waiting at an intersection, shoot the occupants, push them out, then drive away). You see, for the criminal there is also a "new normal" - requiring a new modus operandi.

Is it possible to have any "illusions" in such an environment? If not, how is it that people don't become total nervous wrecks?

Well, it seems they just don't. For the overwhelming majority, life goes on. The "new normal" simply replaces the old assumptions with a newer, more cautious, set: If you take certain precautions and you can go about your business as before. You can go to the shops or watch television at night. You replace one illusion with another one that is easier to sustain in your particular environment.

Is this a bad thing? Quite the contrary. It is a testament to the human spirit. Yes, it is a dreadful thing to have to live in a world that is so full of crime and danger. But at the same time, the people in such a society have to be commended for getting on with life; for still having some level of trust (albeit subject to strict caveats) that they will get through the day unscathed; for getting up in the morning and facing each day as if it were "normal".

It seems we humans cannot live without some "illusion" of safety. It forms the very foundation of our existence. When we lose that "illusion", we become fearful, resentful and, ultimately, profoundly depressed. As I said to my daughter yesterday, we all require a bit of "illusion" to get on with our lives. Whether we persist in the illusion that we could actually do something to avoid a freeway collision were a car suddenly to swerve into our lane, or whether we persist in the illusion that we are "exempt" from random street attacks or home invasions, the result is the same: we get by in life principally by not thinking about the possibility that these things could happen to us at any time. Yes, that possibility might be statistically small; but it is real nonetheless. It is not "fanciful" or "imaginary".

So what can we do? The best we can do is take those measures that are prudent. In Australia that might mean locking your door and security screen at night. In South Africa it means something altogether more stringent. After that, we will probably assume it isn't going to happen. Why? Because we don't do ourselves any favours by assuming that it will.

People often ask me if martial arts training makes me more confident about defending myself. I am always reluctant to say "yes". The reality is that "defence" seems to cover such a broad spectrum, ranging from some troublesome young man wanting to pick a fight, to a brutal, armed, home invasion. Can I really say that I am confident about my chances of defence in even the mildest of these cases? The answer is no. If you want that kind of certainty, you need to do a lot more than learn martial arts (as any South African will tell you).

So why do martial arts then? For the time being I'll leave aside things like health, fitness, art, fun etc. and focus squarely on defence:

Put simply, martial arts training can form part of the "appropriate precautions" you need to take in order to put the threat of attack out of your mind. Yes, you know it isn't nearly enough to give you any kind of "certainty". But, like locking your front door, it can give you a base level of security. Even if that security is only applicable in relation to something like a sucker punch, it is still valid. And, as I've previously noted, in Australia this is precisely the sort of security you're most likely to need.

Even if any greater sense of security is, to some extents, illusory, you're still entitled to some measure of it. After all, you can't live without it. Even the South Africans have "illusory security": all that has happened there is that there has been an "arms race" so that their "minimum" is a heck of a lot higher than ours in Australia.

The answer in civilian defence has never been eliminating all risk. However laudable, that objective is not logistically possible. The risk of facing a violent attack is always there, just as you can't remove all risk of accident while driving on the roads (no matter how big your SUV, how well padded it is with airbags and crumple zones etc.).

The best you can do is take whatever measures are reasonable in your particular environment. And after that you can, and should, get on with your life - however "illusory" the certainty of your safety. Because to give in to fear is to cede some victory to your would-be attackers long before they have even tried to strike a blow.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I'm currently working on a chapter that looks at injury science. To cut a long story short, in answer to your question 'what can we do' and in support of your advice to do whatever possible in the environment - injury science provides a tool to facilitate your advice. It's called the Haddon Matrix. It is a little known tool which has huge application in our area of interest. Check it out.

  2. Perhaps posting a link to http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/ might add to your post?

  3. When intelligence, honesty and plain will to inform (instead of will to profit) all meet, things like this article are given birth.
    Great article (as always), Dan. I hope you feel ok for being an intelectual heritage for mankind. :D

  4. I'd like to add (or extend) some thoughts to the "martial arts for self-defense" issue:

    First, "self-defense" relates to defending oneself in and against . It should be obvious (but not every martial artist understands it) that this leads to the conclusion that martial arts won't be any help for many kinds of threats, once those arts were designed to deal with only a few (very limited) kind. Even so, martial arts would be less and less useful the more amount of factors against the defender, until a point where, "sadly", MA remains basically useless (ordinary example: being caught from behind on surprise by an armed attacker).

    Second, most martial arts themselves were just not made to deal with the threats we face today. Take karate as example. From what I've learned, its developement in Okinawa was highly due to the fact that weapons were forbidden in the island by its time. Same happened to kobujutsu/kobudo, the art of Okinawan weapons (that are made from adapted agriculture tools). So if the Okinawans had better options to defend themselves, they hardly would choose karate or kobujutsu/kobudo as their main ways of civillian defense. Why would I, for example, use a stick when I could use a sword? The point is they didn't have the choice (having a sword would be difficult for most people, anyway, given the high price for iron/steel in that time and place). Nevertheless again, Okinawans' choice of karate or kobujutsu were chosen to face specific kinds of threats. Those arts were not to fight assailers using firearms (that were largely abscent in that time) who could kill them from a distance. If they faced different threats, they would have to find different strategies to defend themselves.

    Although I've only given the example of karate, I don't believe any martial arts have been made to fight all kinds of threats. Instead, they were mainly developed to face the most common threats existant in the context (time and place) where those arts were created. So an art that prioritize wrist locks, for example (I'm no expert on this, it's just an example) could be particularly important in a context where it would be vitally important to avoid an attacker would draw a sword or other kind of weapon. And so on. And when we move this art away from its original context, it becomes highly flawed, because it wasn't designed to face different context (otherwise, the techniques would be different as well).

    So when people think of using martial arts for self-defense... yes, it can be used under some circumstances. But they have to know they're *probably* choosing techniques that were designed for a totally different context (where there were no firearms, for example) from the one where the current practitioner is now. It means that, to defend against one threat, you are choosing the best option... for a different threat. So, in today's world, when thinking seriously about self-defense, people should understand better what are the dangers they are exposed to, and choose their ways to defend more accordingly to these. I believe non-physical measures (including preventive) are the most important in the great majority of cases.

  5. I just noticed up in my second comment (the long one) I accidently ommited some words in the second line. It became pretty meaningless =/.

    I should've said:
    "First, "self-defense" relates to defending oneself in and against [...]."

  6. Hey, no way!!
    My words were ommited again!! Haha! How come?! There must be something wrong. Could it be some kind of antispam block or something similar? Or I forgot to put the missing words "again"? (Hard to believe that).
    My words were wiped again in my correcting comment! Hahaha...

    I meant to say...

    "First, "self-defense" relates to defending oneself in dif-ferent situ-ations and against dif-ferent ki-nds o-f thr-eats [...]." (Hahaha, this can't be serious).

    Anyway, dear Dan, I see you understood what I meant. Thanks for appreciating my comment, too. :D

    Gotta move one to the newest article, anyway!

  7. My original instructors always took care to mention that even though technically what we were learning was self defense, in actuality we were just learning how to kill people using bare hands or various tool attachments.

    I was somewhat more aware of the evil of humanity and inhumanity before I benefited from their training. Afterwards, I calmed down a lot since my perspective changed from attempting to predict and defend against potential existential threats, to focusing most of my action on being the first cause.

    There's a significant sea change, at least for me, when one comes to the realization that in a crowded room, chances are that I could kill all of the people in it, so long as they could not run faster than me and I had stamina.

    A classic comment about gentlemen is that they are invariably polite, but also always have a plan to kill everyone in the room. That was always a bit more real than fiction for me.

    Marc MacYoung often times uses rhetoric in a fashion more targeted against people that grew up like him, rather than people who have never used an ounce of violence in their life. His talk of legal fears and using it to pound the realization of fear into people may work against some people, but not me and not against people afraid of violence. Being afraid of legal consequences just makes them more, not less, afraid of violence. And I don't have to worry about legal consequences because those things are automatically taken care of when you figure out how you are going to act before you get in trouble to begin with.

    My ideal society is where prison is a place meant to protect the inmates from society, rather than protecting society from murderers and rapists.

    I took up martial arts mostly as a way to refine my defense and to develop non-lethal power and techniques off the foundation of lethal applications. Surprisingly, I found my previous skills to directly impact the speed at which I learned various martial arts. Whether it was my personality or my original teachers at work, was hard to say.

    The nice thing about crime and criminals is that they tend to underestimate an unarmed person. They will get in close, far closer than they need to to execute a target with the range of a firearm, and use it as intimidation to make you do things their way. And that is because they aren't too worried about someone with H2H skills that can kill them before they can kill the target with a gun. People for example mostly use metal detectors to search for weapons because the idea of lethal force coming solely from bare hands is something only the Ancients knew about, it seems.

    Movies may glorify it, but the actual practice seems rare to non existent. A metal detector may take all my external tools and weapons away, but it does not take away my brain or my arms.

    One of the key elements, or secrets, to utilizing lethal force is that if you use it as a way to save yourself, you can get in some psychological trouble. But if you use it on the assumption that you are either already dead or that the same thing can be just as easily done to you, rather than you doing it to someone else, key psychological elements of the human brain are activated and freed from previous constraints. Old time warriors might have considered it as fighting to live, because they are already dead. The acceptance of self demise is not an easy thing, yet it becomes more and more necessary as one wields more and more power to end other lives. Mere self deception becomes more brittle and not much of a self protection any more.

    One of the more weird elements is that the more I learned about human anatomy and healing, the more I could make destructive force efficient too. This was a recommendation from Tim Larkin's instructors in the beginning, but I saw more and more of it in Taiji Chuan. The Haddon Matrix mentionoed before is also a part of it. Instead of preventing injury and death, we are instead told to maximize it instead. Only by knowing what would prevent it, would we get a hint of how to maximize it.

  8. Hi Dan,

    I've been following your blog for some time and have been really enjoying it. Thanks!

    I'm South African and can perhaps add to the discussion with regards to coping with the reality of violence.

    I've recently avoided (another) mugging attempt by 3 guys, mostly by recognising the threat from a couple of metres away (the distinctive gangster gait, eyes scanning for targets etc.) and managed to wrong foot them by sidestepping and then sprinting.(A soccer move that I'd recommend anyone to include in their training.)

    While it's true that South Africans just get on with it, I'd say that there's definitely a kind of pressure that builds up internally from having to be constantly vigilant. It spills out in other ways - road rage, increased sensitivity to perceived slights and a generally unhealthy hair-trigger response to things.

    It's why I find the internal arts so valuable. The kind of pressure that that kind of fear and anger generates can, weirdly, end up putting one in even more dangerous situations. A vicious cycle.

    Being able to respond to situations with the requisite amount of force (and not creating confrontations out of nothing)is a necessary skill to pursue!)

  9. Thanks for your input Charlie - I'm glad you managed to avoid that mugging!

    I understand the "internal pressure" of which you speak, having experienced a little of it and, more relevantly, having seen it in so many of my friends who have come over here in recent years. Getting them to relax is very hard - I couldn't persuade some of them that it was safe to get out of the car at a public park in the middle of the day.

    When I say that people "get on with it" I mean that they go about their affairs and do what they have to do, but I am only too aware that there is a cost to their psyche.

    Thanks again and all the best!

  10. Fear makes people spread that fear to others. Humans have natural empathy as a skill and will often pick up and emulate emotions around them, especially anger, hate, and fear.

    The idea of self defense as being the only way to protect yourself, and that it requires you to react, means people are always put on alert and always looking for things to react to. And if they find nothing, fear will still be there. Without people becoming proactive, they will always be controlled by their fears, and not their logic.

    As mentioned by some other SD experts, the most aggressive and violent people around are also some of the most afraid. Their reactions have gotten to the point where they think safety only rests in attacking everyone else. And that is the generic conception of what being pro-active means in SD for most people of more civilized parts. It's also a very common social misconception. Constantly being told that to attack makes them the evil criminal, and constantly being told that being on defense just means someone will eventually kill them, does not promote a sense of control and mastery of one's internal emotions and external circumstances.

    Battle psychology has long had difficulties dealing with human mental flaws and errors. But few have applied it to inner city crime and civilian defense.

  11. It happened a couple of months ago -- after a number of years living as an expat in South Korea, I suddenly felt it lift off of me. "It" being the constant vigilance, the constant Code Yellow or Code Orange, the constant underlying stress that every South African lives in.

    I couldn't believe how much unnoticed stress I had been carrying with me. I had grown up in a particularly dangerous part of South Africa where we literally had to stand guard some nights and had to take military like precautions. And as an adult, I became a self-defence instructor, which made me more aware of the dangers and precautions one need to take to increase one safety. But this was a part of my life. It was part of my "normal". I had never known any other way of living.

    My current host country is by comparison ridiculously safe. Unlike South Africa where violent crimes almost never make the prime time television news unless a celebrity is involved, in South Korea violent crimes are so unusual that it is quite possible to be in the evening news if it occurs. I once caught myself doing something I would never do in South Africa: I walked down a dark alley with my expensive camera hung from one shoulder (rather than across my body -- or better yet, hidden away) while reading a book and not looking around me. I was shocked that I should be so cavalier about my safety -- then I remembered, I'm in Korea, not South Africa. While I'm still in the habit of locking my house door as soon as I enter or leave, this is not an all pervasive custom in Korea.

    Having experienced being at Code White for extended stretches at a time, rather than the constant Code Yellow or Code Orange required in South Africa, I'm starting to wonder if I would ever want to return to that. As you say, people adjust to a "new normal". What I realized, however, is that that adapted "normal" is still stressful, even though the stress may be subconsciously felt. It was only when I adjusted to a new (safe) normality in South Korea that I became aware of the (South African) stress that departed from me.

    My point is that this "new normal" that South Africans live with comes at a cost. They might not realize the stress they are experiencing, but it is there nonetheless. And it takes its toll on ones psychological energy and your health.

  12. Yes, you're absolutely right Sanko. Thanks for your input.


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