Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Middle Ground

I read something recently, a short essay. It was very sincere and it was well-reasoned and it touched a lot of people.  About how violence was toxic, how dark things not addressed would boil out, how people with that darkness in them who toyed at things like martial arts would eventually become something dark.  How no one who deals with that can remain untouched and how violence can never solve anything, only creating needs for more violence in the long run...

It struck me very much as a reaction not to violence- there was nothing in the essay to indicate that the author had ever had any direct contact with what I would consider violence or evil- but as a reaction to the concept of violence.  A reaction to thoughts about violence.  A logical response to quiet the fears through insight. Another reaction to fear as opposed to danger.

The other side of the argument- the violence groupies and virtual tough guys and 'ultimate deadly street fighting systems'- are just as toxic, just as based on imagination.

For both sides it is about fear and control- if you fear violence, you can try to convince everyone it is a Bad Idea(tm) and they will all move to the light and you will be safe... or you can decide to become, or imagine yourself to be, a master of violence yourself.  Then you control the thing you are afraid of.

It doesn't work like that.  Violence between humans exists because it works.  It has been reliably used to get money for drugs for generations. Ending slavery (relatively, the institution still exists) was a bloody business.  When someone is breaking into your house with intent to rape and kill and you have retreated to the last room in the basement, violence (countervailing force, to be PC) is the only thing that will solve that problem.

Violence works.  The rarer it is in a society, the more powerful it becomes because fewer people are prepared to do what it takes to prevent it.  Bullies get the reward of control.  Protests, even when called 'peace protests' are intimidation, and look at that one carefully.  Little weasels wrecking a downtown area have not swayed a single person to their point of view so the reward comes from elsewhere and that reward is likely the satisfaction of scaring other people, feeling powerful.

Once a human gets used to using violence as a tool, once they learn how easy and safe it can be* the only thing that will stop them are fear or force. Physically stopping them (force) or the clear ability to stop them (fear).

Back to these two points of view- the violence groupies and the dark-side pacifists.  You don't see a lot of either of these points of view in professionals.** They rarely say "Violence never solved anything" because most have clearly, personally, solved stuff with violence.  Sometimes the problem solved was their own survival, which is kind of hard to devalue.  They do (often) wonder if the problems they are solving will stay solved; if the plans were really thought out; or if the perceived problem was worth the real cost.  
The trope that 'you will turn evil if you are exposed to enough violence' doesn't play very well.  I have heard it from a few professionals- mostly from people who felt themselves drifting that way and recovered- but I don't actually see a lot of it.  Most of the people who got in trouble over their uses of force were asses long before they ever put on a badge.  There's also a common comparator here that doesn't work very well.  You can't use cops and soldiers interchangeably on this one.  Soldiers use force on other soldiers- possibly an eighteen-year-old kid who doesn't want to be there and doesn't even understand the issues that led to war.  Soldiers wind up killing people very much like themselves and most recognize that.  That's hard, and I suspect far more likely to damage the psyche than an officer using force on someone who has already done an act that clearly separates the threat from the rest of society.

There is a cost to using force and professionals realize that- you can't do it much without facing your own mortality (do you drink that hard truth away?)  You learn that luck can screw up your best tactics (do you go the lop route and just always try to be a little slow to respond?) You will almost certainly find that the more comfortable you are with violence the less other people treat you like a person (do you go hermit, or just hang with others who 'get it?')

Those three things are powerful in another way, too. Understanding mortality is enlightenment, if you can handle it.  The ability to risk your life in full awareness of the power of luck is a greater faith than any religion can simulate.  And feeling isolated is exactly the same thing as feeling special...and any of these can be deep and liberating or just egotism.

Same from the other side, the violence groupies, what Jim Raistrick calls the 'warries'.  They want control and domination and freedom from fear.  Artificial or vicarious, it doesn't matter.  They love the feeling of victory, the accolades, the glory and dream of saving the willing maiden.

Just like the other side, there are similar things with pros, but not these things and not to this extent.  Victory is cool primarily because losing sucks, even if you live.  Winning and losing both hurt.  Accolades?  You might get some from your coworkers.  Your supervisors will just want reports and might even give dire warnings.  Medals go to the people who get stuff written about them.  And willing maiden?  More likely a toothless, smelly, meth addict.

But there is stuff here that the pros get. Not dying is a big payoff.  The respect of your peers is harder to earn and worth more than a medal from a bureaucrat. And the glory.  It's not glorious.  But sometimes on that very edge for a few seconds everything is real and you are exactly what you are and everything, mind, body and spirit come together in a perfect thinking animal.  There is no feeling like it.

It can be addicting.  It can put your trained values ("Violence is the last result of the ignorant.") in conflict with what you experience (Shooting at a distance is the only way to stop a vest bomber).  It can purify your values, and that can enrich your life while simultaneously severing your connections with others.  And you might or might not care.

Both of the points of view, the toxic pacifist and the warries, are slightly twisted, but they've touched on some old truths.  Just misunderstood them.  In the end, the extremes come together in a sort of shared fantasy, a skewed view of the issue that they fear, like the things a child imagines in the dark.

*A former bad guy who read an early version of "Meditations on Violence" said that I gave too much hope- he boasted that no one had ever gotten out of one of his predatory assaults.
** Maybe we should talk about professionals some day, because there are many different kinds and levels.  A Vietnam draftee with intense experience is clearly a professional, but is very different than a voluntary enlistee who re-ups through multiple combat tours.  Cops are different than soldiers, COs different than road officers, lops and posers very different from meat-eaters.  They all process similar experience differently.


jks9199 said...

I think you've got a real point distinguishing between different types of violence professionals. Street cops see different sorts of violence than correctional officers. Cops on different streets of COs in different facilities have entirely different experiences, too.

I work for a smallish to midsize PD. The population where I work is mostly middle to upper class. But I'm currently assigned to a regional task force; different agencies and different places call for different tactics. Conduct that would have me in unending IA investigations at "home" is normal in some of these places...

Anonymous said...

Could you give us the link to the essay?

considerphlebas said...

It seems like "Violence is never the answer" functions, on a societal level, like the warnings on the fences around power line transformers. They scream "DANGER - HIGH VOLTAGE!" and make it seem like just brushing up against the fence could kill you. In reality, you can touch the fence and be fine, you can walk inside and be fine, you can touch most of the casing and things and be fine, but yeah, there are things inside that can kill you. Unless it is specifically your job to be in there, you have no business going in there. And even if you have a basic knowledge about electrical principles and are skilled home electrician, you STILL have no business going in there. If you are the exception, you know it, you do not need the sign to tell you.

So at what level does it become useful, as a society, to understand that violence solves problems? Probably not even at a high school level- trying to reliably teach all high school kids both that it is safe to touch and go inside that fence and that they should not do it is a monumental task without a clear reward. Leaving that unclear feeling of dread is an easier and safer policy. At the same time, if legislators are attempting to get the high voltage death traps totally off the streets, there is failure in understanding.

so, yeah, where and how do you think teaching the nature and use of violence is useful?

I was linked to your blog via some martial arts grapevining, read your book, and want to say I really enjoy thinking about your writing.

Travis said...

I really like considerphelbas warning sign analogy. I disagree a bit about the views on whhen you learn violence can be okay.

I think we should actually extend the analogy further. If you are a kid you might learn that it is okay to defend yourself. Just like my technologically inept father-in-law still can operate the light switch.

Get a little older, maybe we shift to the 'you can't start fights but you can finish them' stage. Much as I can flip the breaker and safely do minor repairs.

You progress further still, now maybe you are choosing to apply violence at appropriate times. An actual electrian.

Two reasons for letting kids be at least a little okay fighting. 1) they might need to. The number of fights I, as a quiet, skinny introverted kid was in went way down when I made up my mind to unleash when someone started fucking with me rather then waiting for them to escalate. (Bear in mind that this was in a small town, so there essentially the same few people you might fight with, not only day to day but even year to year.) It's a classic case of bullies preying upon the weak. Who WANTS their kid to be the weak one?
2) Can you really tell someone that violence = a Bad Idea up until what, college age, and then reverse positions and have them internalize that change in attitude? Absent a significant life changing event I doubt it.

Actually just thought of another point about that. You mention teaching High School age as being a herculean task. I agree, yet it is probably easier to teach younger folks. Like gun safety, who would you rather have out on the range, a ten year old or a sixteen year old? Especially if you wanted them to integrate the skills/attitude/knowledge for life.

I'm starting to ramble I think.

considerphlebas said...

I suppose I should make it clearer that I'm not talking about your kid and you, one and one. You're naturally going to teach whatever you're comfortable with. But taking YOUR kid at whatever age to the gun range, or teaching what an acceptable level of violence is and when it's appropriate, is an entirely different matter than somebody taking 30 kids and attempting to do the same thing. Like the warning sign, having the general atmosphere be one of strong caution about the whole idea of violence may be beneficial. Or maybe not.

Rory said...

Considerphlebas (is there a name I can use?), I'm uncomfortable with lying, even the "lies to children" variety http://www.paulgraham.com/lies.html
On a pragmatic level, and this has come up on the blog, (but ever stated so well, thank you for the insight) teaching something that has to be unlearned later strikes me as inefficient. On a personal level, people act as dumb as you treat them. And most can sense when they are being talked down to.

This case gets interesting because regardless of whether it be the hawks or the doves, ignorance winds up driving policy... which the pros then have to make work, sometimes at a vast increase in personal risk.


Vaughn said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the link!

I can't wait to crack open your book by the way! Have to wait a few days though before USPS gets it to me though...

Be safe!

Kai Jones said...

I think every person should be taught from early childhood that they have the right to violently defend their own life. This doesn't have to be explicit, direct communication: children can learn that they are worthy, that their lives are meaningful and important, and that they have the right to defend themselves with everything in their power in lots of ways.

Steve Perry said...

I think part of what you run into when discussing such a topic is the notion of a default position. Most people are probably somewhere on the scale between "Violence is never an answer." and "Violence is always the answer."

There are folks out there who understand that reaching for the hardware is sometimes the proper response, and that knowing when, where, and how matters.

There are also folks who think shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later is the way to go, and until relatively recently in our culture, this was considered perfectly appropriate.

If you can see its a wolf coming for the sheep, then it's a no-brainer. If you aren't sure there's a wolf out in the darkness, spray-and-pray might not be the best answer, even if it is your job to protect the flock.

It's hard to understand, from where I sit, somebody who would allow an attacker to take a child, any child, but especially their own, without raising a hand to stop it. Yet I know there are people who believe that.

(I have a Gandhi quote I like, I found years ago:

"Non-violence does not admit of running away from danger. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.""

But in some of these cases, it's not about cowardice, but conviction. (Even though I cheered like everybody else when Harrison Ford's cop character, hiding out among the Amish, slugged the crap out of a bully who was annoying him in "Witness." People do hate a bully.)

Still, the violent response ought not to be the first tool we reach for every time, nor encouraged as such.

Years ago, I heard a writer giving a lecture in which he brought up the old Star Trek TV series. Name, he said, an episode that wasn't resolved with violence, or the threat of it. I couldn't think of one offhand, even "The Trouble with Tribbles" had humans and Klingons slugging it out ...

I expect most of the people who show up here are inclined to allow themselves the violent response, when it is appropriate, and that's the key word, "appropriate ..."

Kamil said...

Great post...I've often felt that pacifism is just as much an irrationally extremist position as the virtual tough guys. It's just a way of denying the reality that SOMEtimes SOME people use fists to solve SOME of their problems and SOMEtimes we should be prepared to use fists ourselves.

That point about the rarer violence is, the more effective it becomes is especially important. Like planes flying into buildings. If you've never seen it before it seems like the sky is falling. But, horrible as these things can be, life goes on. Perhaps not your life...but life goes on.

And as for the former bad guy's boast, he probably shouldn't be too proud. There's no reason why anyone, including him, should survive a good ambush...at least as long as people need to eat, sleep and breath. That's why we try to be nice to each other -- so people aren't motivated to poison our food or slit our throats as we sleep.

Scott said...

Nice post. I might have to write my own because you made a 4 part problem into a 2 part problem.
When you juxtapose only Quakers and Rednecks, the other two American Folkways-- Southern Caveliers and Puritans-- come out looking like the middle ground.
In reality, America has 4 distinct traditional ways of viewing violence. They have never agreed, and they never will. And that accommodation of difference makes us one heck of a strong nation!

Here is a piece I wrote about "Rough and Tumble," the Redneck Way (Backcountry is the PC term). [The name of the book is Albion's Seed. A 'must read' for people who love American culture.]


Rory said...

Thanks. I've read descriptions of that fight before, but the four perspectives thing is new. I'll be watching your blog for a detailed explanation. It sounds very intriguing and very useful