On Violence

23 Mar

I sort of wanted my thoughts on violence to be a paragraph or two in another post on feminism and/or raising kids, but I think it might warrant its own space. I am a huge advocate of not just learning about violence but learning violence in a controlled space. Particularly for women. I would also like to note that I believe that the responsibility for violence rests squarely with the aggressor, but until we live in a world where irrational violence never happens I’m going to advocate everyone taking the necessary steps to feel safe. My stance on this is pretty deeply rooted in personal experience and I’m hesitant to speak for other people on something this sensitive, so let’s open with that.

[I’m also, on reflection, not sure if this deserves a trigger warning or not, but to be on the safe side – contains descriptions of violence.]

I started taking Tae Kwon Do when I was six or so. I don’t remember the exact impetus. Certainly I was an aggressive, rambunctious kid and I went to a school where it wasn’t unusual for kids to get into fistfights now and then. I definitely had no hope of keeping my mouth shut enough to stay out of trouble, so that might have had something to do with it. My dad was no stranger to fisticuffs himself, having grown up in rough neighborhoods where fighting the local bully daily until you beat him was de rigueur. He always wanted me to be able to defend myself, particularly as a girl, and I definitely idolized him for his stories.

My mother was less enthusiastic about the whole thing than my father and neither parent wanted me to be a little thug, so there were rules: 1) You absolutely never hit anyone first; 2) If someone hits you, tell them to stop, walk away, and if necessary tell a teacher. You must try all three of these things first; and 3) If you’ve tried all of these and this person is still hitting you, you are not in trouble for hitting them back.

It might seem surprising, given that I followed these rules pretty religiously, that number 3 was usually triggered once or twice a year until I was in 9th grade. All I really have to say about that is that public schools in DC are crap-funded and you’d be amazed how ineffectual and apathetic teachers can be under those circumstances. Also, there was no rule against being a loudmouth, and I was. The ritual when one of these incidents happened was my dad running through the checklist with me (Did you tell him to stop? Yes! Did you tell a teacher? Yes. Really? Ask Ms. Brown! I did!) and when I passed the test asking, Did you win? Not always, but I got a high five when I did.*

So I got into fights and, separately, I started learning martial arts. My teacher was a tiny, scowling Scottish man who was improbably gifted with children. We did not backtalk him or goof off in class, and somehow we all liked him. Now, I should say right away that martial arts and real violence are very different things. In some ways it’s odd that I’m advocating Tae Kwon Do as a way of learning violence, when I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve employed it in an actual fight. ** But here are the things I got out of Tae Kwon Do*** that helped me handle violence:

1) A serious philosophical engagement with violence, early in life.

Martial arts, when taught in a somewhat traditional manner, usually have rich philosophies surrounding their use and practice. Our teacher made us memorize ‘tenants’ and define them each class – in our case honesty, integrity, courtesy, perseverance, and indomitable spirit, sir. A bunch of six year olds, as they learned how to punch correctly so they wouldn’t hurt their wrists, were also learning the use of violence as something inextricably linked to responsibility and respect. You can’t get that out of a purely pragmatic self-defense program.

In martial arts, the ability to not hurt someone is a far greater sign of skill than the ability to hurt them. This is tangible and real enough to be comprehensible to little kids – we can’t spar with each other, we are not capable enough. The next class up can, but they wear heavy padding and perform set patterns of moves on each other because they are too clumsy not to make contact. Our teachers can throw spinning kicks at each other’s faces wearing no protection, because they have that  much skill and control. In a good dojo, hurting other people becomes a sign of incompetence and immaturity.

2) Violence is demystified.

One thing we did in my dojo once we reached the sparring-with-padding phase, is to take turns standing with our hands behind our backs and letting the others kick our chest pads. To anyone who has never done this, it’s not really painful, but it is a shock at first. Even just holding stuffed pads a few inches away from your body for people to kick is scary the first few times. You freeze up, squeeze your eyes shut. What if your partner misses and hits you somewhere your gear doesn’t cover? Sometimes they do. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt that much. You learn how to take a hit.

From a practical standpoint, that’s useful. That’s why we did that kicking drill – so that when we began to spar in earnest we would not be too afraid of getting hurt to function. It’s the same principle of learning not to shy away from heading the ball in soccer. From experience, when people get into real fights even the aggressors often aren’t prepared to roll with a hit. They aren’t used to it. Learning what it feels like, demystifying pain, makes you able to have an intentional reaction. Involuntary reactions – freezing up or lashing out – are dangerous to yourself and others.

From an emotional standpoint, you understand what being hit feels like. It isn’t The Worst Thing anymore. It’s so  much harder for people to bully you when they can’t do The Worst Thing to you. When you’re not frightened, you’re much harder to coerce and you can keep so much more self-respect.

3) You learn how to hurt people and that you are capable of hurting people.

I’m not trying to be flip here – the basics of violence are more non-intuitive than you might think. I’ve rarely used straight-up Tae Kwon Do to defend myself, but I’ve used the basic mechanics of how to punch all the time. Most people think that they know how to make a fist and don’t. They hold their wrist or thumb in a way that would severely injure them if it made contact. Most people don’t know how to stand in a stable stance, so they can easily be shoved over. Most people aren’t, at a basic level, very in touch with how their body works under stress.

Additionally, harming others is difficult for a lot of people, physically and emotionally. I’m reasonably far on the violence-capable end of the spectrum – I’ve had practice – but I still remember once when I was young hesitating to kick someone whose hands were around my throat because I knew this person and hurting them was hard for me.

Do I think people should be willing and able to hurt those who are trying to hurt them? Yes. Yes, I really do.

I still hold with the basic ethos of the rules my parents applied – try every other solution first – but sometimes for your own safety you just need to kick someone. Plain and simple. If you understand and have experience with violence, you will be in control of your response. You will know that hitting a person is not The Worst Thing and you will have enough control of your body that you can also control the amount of harm you do. If you have sparred at a dojo regularly, then you have had practice de-coupling violence and anger. In class, the person that hits you and whom you are trying to hit is your friend (or at least colleague). I’m not saying you won’t be angry if someone is trying to harm you, but I am saying that if you have practice you are more likely to be able to retain  control of yourself and the situation.

I wrote this post primarily with women in mind, but I believe these things are valuable both for people who are small, female, and/or worried about being the victim and people who are large, aggressive, and/or in danger of being the aggressor. I’ve tried to include some of the reasons it’s valuable for teh menz to learn these things as well, but I admit I haven’t focused on it. I won’t go into it in depth here or anything, but I will add that learning violence teaches you to respect the harm your body can inflict  – and therefore makes you less likely to treat it lightly.

I’m also not advocating a violent response to all violent acts. Far from it – I know how stupid and dangerous that would be. (This is also something that is emphasized by a good martial arts teacher – a real sensei will always tell you to give the mugger your wallet) But my familiarity with violence has given me a feeling of safety that I don’t think you can get any other way. I’m not more afraid of violence than I am of heights. That is, I understand that these things can present a real danger and require care to handle, but they don’t oppress me in daily life. I am not afraid of walking home alone in the dark, even though I am cautious.

Also, quite frankly, occasionally people I didn’t think would have tried to hurt me did make a go of it and on the whole I have been able to stop them. The source of a lot of my opinions on the matter is as simple as that. I have not ever felt like a victim, even when I lost a fight, precisely because they were fights.

I haven’t had a real fight in ages, thankfully, and I doubt I ever will again (knock wood, way to jinx it, Sid). But I still go to Tae Kwon Do and I still, in my ordinary, civilized, primarily non-violent life, take comfort in knowing that I can handle violence if it arises.


* I think my dad quite rightly understood that he couldn’t fight these battles for me and made a canny decision to let me keep ownership of them instead. Even if the teachers had been a reliable source of protection, it was impossible for there to be an adult watching us all the time and anyone who’s been bullied knows that ineffectual intervention is worse than no intervention. If my parents had taken to calling teachers out when they didn’t adequately break up fights, in all likelihood they would have resented it and as a result looked out for me even less. Complaining to a violent bully’s parents usually only exacerbates the problem – eight year olds who are unprovokedly violent are unlikely to be getting great guidance at home. By giving me support for protecting myself, my parents gave me agency.

I have an anecdote (don’t I always?) that I think pretty much exemplifies why direct parental intervention would not have worked, but the strategy my parents used did: Once when I was in 5th grade or so, I was walking home from school and a gang of boys started throwing rocks and chunks of ice at me. I was too far from home to run and not near a commercial area where I could duck into a store. They had pretty good aim. My choices were to be hit or make them stop – so I grabbed the biggest stick I could find and went for it. I came home and told my dad. He bandaged me up, gave me hugs, and told me I was smart and brave. I didn’t feel like I had failed or done anything wrong; I got to feel proud of myself.

A little while later, one of the boy’s dads called to complain about me hurting him. I heard my father’s side of the conversation, which consisted of, “If you want to make an issue of my daughter beating your son and his friends up, be my guest.” The guy heard those magic words – and they encapsulate so many things that are wrong with our society – apologized for bothering us, and hung up. These kids never bothered me again and I knew my dad had my back if I needed him to.

** Though one of the few times I did is an excellent proof of concept – that is the only fight I have ever been in where no one got hurt. I did nothing but block the whole time until he went away. I think you get, like, one of those per decade, but still.

*** I am not saying, of course, that you can just drop in to Al’s Karate-O-Matic and learn all of these things along with how to be a kung fu master. Martial arts culture can be very hit or miss, and choosing your dojo is a very serious business. Your teacher and the atmosphere of the dojo entirely determines whether you will be enriched or harmed by learning there – and there fore the choice is not to be taken lightly. I have a lot of thoughts on what makes a dojo good, but that seems a bit special interest for this post.


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