First thought: Violence is about dominance. Dominance (a very big thing with many levels) is the primary; violence a tool to achieve it. There are so many ways to dominate others that are lacking in violence or only offer the faintest hint of threat- but they still are an attempt to force someone to submit, to show not just respect but acquiescence. The passive-aggressive co-worker who stalls production or grumbles just out of hearing is just as coercive as any other kind of bully, only too insecure to expose himself to the risks attendant with just saying his heart. There is no such thing as a peaceful protest- just under the surface is the threat that this mass, these numbers could turn into a mob if they do not get what they want, and skillful protest organizers know that their power comes from fear and they use it. It is a very dark thing to watch people march and scream for peace and love. "Political correctness"- threats of litigation and disciplinary action under the guise of compassion and tolerance. And what is this tolerance where any ethnicity (or creed or gender or orientation or...) is encouraged but only one opinion is allowed? The essence of the entitlement mindset is "I should have the power to do anything I want, that's freedom, but you should be prevented from responding in any negative way because that is oppression." Reverse it and obviously the math doesn't work. It can be a very free-hearted, smiling evil.
This dominance is dark stuff and subtle and pervasive. For some people it is darkly addictive, too. To make someone else do what you want is power. Whether the coercion comes from whining or claiming a victim status or passive aggressive bullshit or naked violence it is power.
We all sense this in some levels. It's possible that one of the attractions of martial arts is that it might promise a way to navigate this mess.
Someone once said (George Mattson?) that people join martial arts schools for self-defense but they stay for other reasons. It may be a notch deeper than that. With it's hierarchy of ranks and traditions and rituals for dealing with dangerous physical action (how do you hand a sword to a warrior?) It seems perfect for making the subtle, shadowy dominance game distinct.
Does it work that way? Not so much. If you really want to learn how to navigate the world of dominance hierarchies I suggest you join a highschool football team. The very hierarchy and obvious aspects of dominance in a dojo simplifies the picture, much like the violence in a dojo is simplified to be understandable. Here's the first connection, Mike's question about the weak personalities that are drawn to the MA (and don't get your panties in a twist. Not everyone who does MA is weak and there are many good reasons to study, so obviously I'm not talking about you.) (Steve, you were right when you said no one ever recognizes themselves when you write them into books. Weird.)
Just at a physical level, and there are some of these, you get people who want to learn to be tough guys, but do it in a way that doesn't hurt. Looking at it from this desire to understand dominance, I think there are many, many more who want to face fear without feeling any. They want to learn to deal with danger in a perfectly safe environment. They want to take on the dominance voluntarily so that there is no coercion in it.
Many martial arts attract people who want to have their cake and eat it. People who believe that they can learn to deal with violence without ever feeling pain or fear; or that they can learn the deepest secrets of life in one of the most artificial environments on earth (taught by a guy wearing the underwear of another continent and century). And, compassionately, do it all without hurting anybody else, either.
Worg wrote about the weirdos in martial arts, some of whom develop high levels of skill. My first reaction was that we don't know each other's definition of skill, but that's not necessary. That idea goes right here. All of those things in the paragraph above are considered simply immature to people who have to work for a living. Things come with prices. Things are attached to other things. Most people (fortunately) have never had to think that surviving an attack probably involves dealing with pain and fear, but if it comes up it seems obvious enough.
This 'specialized immaturity' is drawn to martial arts. It's cool for a number of reasons- most people know relatively little about martial training and they assume (or simply never thought about it) that the practitioner is in to pain and danger much deeper than most really are. It is one of the few places where this kind of immaturity can get recognition and even subservience from others- have you ever seen a martial artist who you personally know couldn't fight a gifted fourteen-year old preen when someone said, "You're a blackbelt? Man, that's awesome. A guy would have to be crazy to fuck with you."
It's also self-reinforcing. As long as everyone in the little MA community plays along (and they aren't playing, they really believe they are doing something great) you earn the respect of your peers, too. So, Worg, it's one of the few environments where this mindset actually has the opportunity to develop serious skill. It's not always the skill they think they are developing, but it's okay.
There's more going on in some cases. At high levels or in obscure or imaginary arts, the practitioner can just make up what 'good' is. The hierarchy master/student thing has led to pretty serious brainwashing in some cases- literally where the techniques only work on students of the person demonstrating them. That's sad. Funny from the outside, but sad, too.
Still haven't quite pulled this all together. More to think on later.