Thursday, 19 December 2013

Self-defence is the root of all violence - 20 Dec 2013

Like so often, this train of thought, that 'self-defence is the root of all violence', has been growing in my mind over many years already, but recently there has been some kind of concentration around it that I will try to share with you here. The concentration however is maybe more so the consolidation and clarification of a question rather than the finding of an answer, so please forgive and bear with me as I take you through my usual 'stream of consciousness' ramblings.

In the many different martial arts classes that I go to (whether as an instructor or participant), and the (unfortunately) countless martial arts videos that I watch, I find myself often doubly observing what is going on: on the one hand I am trying to learn, take in and process the content material of what is being shared, whilst on the other hand observing and thinking about what is actually happening in the class, or more simply put, what it is that we are actually doing there. 

So in the midst of these observations I often wonder and ask myself if what we are doing actually makes any sense at all. Let me explain. What I mean maybe does not apply to all martial arts and training settings alike, but in the non-sporting martial arts at least one of, if not the key objective is to learn to defend ourselves against one or more ill-intended offenders. So what do we do, we build ourselves to become stronger, bigger, better, more flexible, mobile, faster, enduring, softer, balanced, more (technically) versatile and so forth - add or change the list in which ever way suits your respective art better. Don't get me wrong, I have done this for quite a while now and continue to do precisely this still, but I can't seem to rid myself off the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with this.

Put simply, my feeling is that we are ultimately fortifying the walls of self, making ourselves stronger and stronger, so that no evil force can ever penetrate or crush down these walls, but in turn gets crushed in the process. To me, this basic pattern is completely the same in all self-defence endeavours, regardless of how peace-keeping they might sell themselves. Control, submission, subduing or defeat of an opponent are still and no matter which way you put it, control submission, subduing and defeat of someone or something else, regardless of whether it is achieved via fist-in-the-face, presumably friendly wrist or shoulder lock, neck choke, or pretty throw with pretty roll out. Really, I don't think that we should fool ourselves into believing anything else to be the case. Think about it, even in the presumably peace-loving art of Aikido, I cannot count the amount of classes in which instructors, including myself, teach us to ultimately become 'better', at least 'better than' the opponent in this particular situation. 

This path of self-improvement is surely often not done out of ill intent. No, there both are and we perceive many very real dangers in the world out there on all kinds of levels and we need to prepare ourselves to become more able to face and survive them. So the intent is ultimately survival - the need to retain 'self' and a clear sense of it against all odds. And this is were I can't help but feel that this drive to self-defence has something aggressive, destructive, and land or space conquering to it. 

Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th century philosopher of ethics, repeatedly described the struggle for 'my place under the sun' as a fundamental problem of mankind and possibly one of the central causes for violence. Inevitably on reading that, time and time again I can't help myself but think about European beaches crammed with people, or resort holiday style lounge chairs around pools where people fight for their place under the sun by placing towels on the spaces they desire. And surely, no one is ill intended, wants to fight or argue, so long as they get (to keep) the place they want, but funnily enough all hell breaks loose if you take it from them.

Ok, now where am I going with this? I am not saying that we all need to disappear off the face of the earth or do the 'Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader' move in order to be good, peace-bringing, or non-violent martial artists. But what about the following: What if we thought of the whole situation the wrong way round in the first place? That is, what if those that we perceived as attackers, offenders, or aggressors where actually attacking us out of a perceived threat to themselves, their personality, their security, their being, or else? And further, what if all this were actually based upon a false perception or misunderstanding of 'self'?

Without wanting to go into too much detail in regards to how we might understand 'self' in a better way, and how we might see that danger to 'self' is not that which we normally perceive it to be, maybe, if we were to understand our attackers motivation in this way, we would end up with a different approach to our training. I am not sure how exactly this might look, but I find it interesting to even consider it and search for it in practice and theory. I mean, if we seriously want to throw around ideas like 'the principle of non-destruction', or consider the 'bu' in Budo to be about bringing forth peace, then we have to ask how we can do this by means of the sword without actually using the sword. How does this look? Seriously? Technically or practically and in a situation where the others self-defence (ie. attack) is well and truly vicious and set out to eradicate us? Unfortunately, in the martial arts I have yet to be shown, and not just told this by someone, anyone.

In the process of thinking about all this I recently stumbled across Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1957 'Nonviolence and Racial Justice' essay, which is a great read for anyone interested in such questions and I highly recommend it. Most of these ideas are by now nothing new to most people, but King was really quite well versed in making his point and even though I am not sufficiently historically informed to make this call, might have been more successful in his endeavours of nonviolence than most presumably nonviolent martial artists. His whole idea, and again this will not sound unfamiliar to most Aikido practitioners, is based on the understanding that meeting force with force, or oppression with violent retaliation will never stop, but only perpetuate the cycle of violence into the sometimes immediate and sometimes more distant future. In his own words, 'to retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate'. Thus, he states that 'man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation'. He goes even further when he states that simply refraining from resistance or violence is not enough, but that 'true peace is not merely the absence of some negative force - tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force - justice, good will and brotherhood', and goes forth to propose his five  point alternative to violence.

The five (later, in his book 'Stride Toward Freedom', six) points of nonviolent resistance that he suggests as such an alternative route in this essay are:

1. It 'is not a method for cowards; it does resist', 'is not physically aggressive toward the opponent', 'passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is non-aggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually'.

2. 'It does not seek to defeat or humiliate, but to win friendship and understanding'. Though occasionally using boycotts and noncooperation (akin to the concept suggested by Étienne de la Boetié in his 1550 essay 'Politics of obedience: The discourse of voluntary servitude'), ultimately seeks redemption and reconciliation.

3. 'The attack (or defence??) is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught by these forces'.

4. 'It avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.' 'Love in this connection means understanding good will'. In the later version of these points listed in his book, this point was in fact importantly 'a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back'. In this later version, the fifth point was the present fourth point and included that 'the nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but also refuses to hate him'.

5. '... is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice', this is 'faith in the future'.

So just to review these points, nonviolent resistance is still resistance, however one that not just refuses to retaliate, destroy, hate (that is, as King said in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech - 'to overcome violence and oppression without resorting to violence and oppression') but even aims to reconcile and even win friendship. I have no idea how this could look, nor can I do it yet, but I find it most intriguing to even accept the challenge to make this a goal to work towards. In regards to point 3 the, I guess I am suggesting that the forces of evil that we truly have to fight against are 'the misperception and misunderstanding of self and danger to it' that I have described above, or in other words and to steal some Buddhist terminology the ignorance of interconnectedness and attachment to self/permanence

Without the shadow of a doubt this path is much more difficult and challenging than its counterpart, but since when do martial artists shy away from challenges? So I wonder, how would our techniques look if we aimed to help those that attacked us, rather than just defend our 'self'? Can we successfully  'de-fence', that is, take down the fences and walls, instead of reinforcing them with more and more self-defence training, and can we help others to understand that they need not put fences up themselves and establish their place under the sun because we are (hopefully) not actually impinging on their space or self? Can we understand that we are all in this together? I don't know, I am rambling and this has turned into much longer a blogpost than I had planned. I'm just saying... there is too much violence in this world...

So with this messy collection of unrefined, unedited and unfinished thoughts I leave you for this year and wish you a great holiday and best possible transition into the new year. I look forward to seeing you all again in the new year and continuing on this exciting project. Now get out there, do some good and change the world!
See you back on the mat very soon,