Violence is not the Answer. What was the question again?

“Violence is not the answer.” is an oft-used expression. It is usually made in response to aggressive or violent intent. Typically, it is also a subtle accusation of moral inferiority and an attempt to school the recipient in good, socially-acceptable modes of behaviour.

So if this is a lesson in morality, please be specific. What type of violence and what question does this type of violence not answer?

Now don’t get me wrong. Although I have dedicated my life to understanding combat, I dislike violence perhaps more than most of the people who would make this kind of statement. However, a grand, sweeping statement like this needs some clarification. If reason is not applied when statements like this are made, we risk undermining the very values we are trying to reinforce with unrealistic, irrational conclusions that bear no resemblance to real life.

We will start with violence itself. What type of violence does the statement refer to?

“There are different types of violence?” I hear you ask. Well, yes. Think about it based on the following Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word ‘violence’:

Violence: Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.

That’s quite a far-reaching definition that applies to many things that we encounter on a daily basis which we may not even immediately identify as violence.

What did you eat for lunch? I can almost guarantee that something had to die so that you could eat today. Is that not violence? According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, it is. Whether it was plant or animal does not matter. The definition of ‘violence’ is broad enough to apply to all living things.

Have you ever been sick? It is hard to put a number on how many bacterial and viral organisms our bodies kill every day because exposure levels vary from environment to environment but we are likely to be exposed to several hundred million bacterial cells every day which our body’s immune system attempts to murder. It’s a war inside. Both invading organisms and elements of our immune system die. That is violence.

Where are the megafauna that were prolific a few hundred thousand years ago? Many are extinct. The exact level of humankind’s involvement in these mass extinctions is still a matter of debate, but some scientists believe that we were involved through direct predation, environmental engineering and competition for shared resources. Without the displacement and elimination of major carnivores and competitors for shared resources (such as grazing lands), humankind would not have been able to rise to its position of prominence and create the society that we are all so familiar with today. We were violent. We didn’t just build this city on Rock and Roll. It was built on the bones of untold billions of organisms and entire species.

Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan or meat-eater, large areas of land have been cleared in order to produce crops or graze animals to put food on your plate. Agriculture has an associated death-toll in terms of both species and individual plants and animals. Even small-scale, environmentally-friendly subsistence farming requires some violence against certain organisms, even if only in the harvesting stage. Agriculture is an act of violence.

Commerce, production, energy demands, agriculture and farming, in fact all of the processes and infrastructure that supports our way of life all have costs in terms of the lives (and quality of life) of people, plants and animals. As such, you could say that our society is built on violence. In a world of limited resources, this will always be the case because competition for survival usually becomes violent and desperate. Life in competition with other organisms is itself an act of violence. Sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle.

While I believe that it is possible to adopt external socially pacifistic attitudes and behaviour patterns, I don’t believe that there can be such thing as a true pacifist. The only true pacifist is someone who is dead because they no longer compete against any living thing for any resources. The resources tied up in their remains are reclaimed by the environment and they no longer require anything for their survival.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines violence in another way, and I think that this is where some of the confusion creeps in:

Violence: The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.

Although I believe that the act of violence is quite well defined by the first Oxford English Dictionary entry, I believe that where, how and why violence is employed changes its nature. These different ‘types’ of violence I will define below. We’ll see if you agree with me:

Violence in War. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘war’ as:

A state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country.

War is different to criminal violence in that there are usually international laws, treaties and agreements that define how war is waged. War is not usually unlawful as it is waged in accordance with various laws. The violence in war is thus usually ‘lawful’.

Criminal Violence. The second definition of the word ‘violence’ in the Oxford English Dictionary above is what I would call criminal violence. The word ‘unlawful’ identifies the activity as criminal. Criminal violence is any act of violence that is perpetrated in defiance of applicable laws. Hence ‘unlawful’.

Violence in Self-Defence. The act of self-defence may require violence in order to insure safety and survival depending on the severity of the threat. Most legal systems in most countries have allowance within them for the violent act of self-defence. As such, violence in self-defence is ‘lawful’.

Violence in Competition for Shared Resources. This is a form of violence that is not always immediately evident because often the subjects of this violence are not known to, or seen by the person profiting from this violence. It could be a sweat-shop worker making cheap shoes so that we don’t have to spend too much on footwear or it could be a cow getting knocked on the head so that we can enjoy Maccas for lunch.

I think the original expression “Violence is not the answer” is typically assumed to refer to war or criminal violence. I don’t believe that there are many people who would condemn a person for causing injury or death while legitimately defending themselves from an unprovoked attack.

I don’t believe that there are many people who would condemn someone for eating a sandwich when they are hungry. Even though there were many organisms which perished to produce that sandwich. So how can we retain internal consistency while still clinging to a sweeping statement like “Violence is not the answer”? I don’t believe we can.

I believe that violence is an unavoidable part of life in a world of limited resources as long as our goal is survival. Believe me, it saddens me to say this. I may be a life-long student of combat but I hate the true act of violence. Fighting causes pain, misery and death. But I will do what I find distasteful, and fight for survival when necessary.

There are certain cases where reasoning and social interaction will not ensure survival in the face of a physical threat. An enraged animal or person cannot always be reasoned with. I would love to live in a world of peace although I have no way of understanding that world, and neither do you. We are altogether products of violent biology and environment. A world completely without violence would be fundamentally different on every level to the world that we live in. It would be alien. Completely unrecognisable.

While some may find this perspective disturbing, it may go some way towards explaining the apparent contradiction in the origin of Chinese Wushu. Many martial art systems, including our own, trace their lineage back to the Shaolin Monastery. The Shaolin Monastery is renowned as the source of traditional Chinese Wushu or Kung Fu, a vast combat system dedicated to developing the very highest levels of fighting proficiency in its dedicated practitioners. But the Shaolin Monastery was also dedicated to the teaching of predominantly Buddhist philosophy, which is renowned for its peaceful disposition.

Thus the contradiction I mentioned before. How does a Monastery dedicated to a peaceful philosophy and way of life become the source for one of the most influential martial arts systems of all time? A proper discussion of this would take several articles, but suffice to say for now that perhaps its got to do with Perceiving the Real. Perhaps inner peace is only possible when reality’s true nature is acknowledged and accepted.

But we still haven’t fully defined the scope of the original expression. What is violence not the answer to? Perhaps we could say that violence is not the answer to creating external peace. To this I will agree. Violence breeds more violence, especially war. This is a topical thought in our current, unstable political environment. Even violence in an act of self-defence can breed more violence if the surviving offending parties convince themselves and others that the blame lies with the person or persons who exercised their right to defend themselves.

So there are two separate outcomes which are sometimes mutually exclusive. “Peace” and “Survival” cannot always be enjoyed at once. There are times when we have to choose between one or the other. I have noticed that some of my students, in particular the ladies, tend to struggle with the concept of violence and aggression even when related to self-defence. I have not noticed a prevalence of the same issue amongst my male students and I believe that the reason for this is two-fold. Males are usually more comfortable with aggression and violence through greater levels of exposure (such as on the playing fields at school) and males are possibly more psychologically predisposed to violence (see my previous article entitled ‘Fight like a girl’ for a link to a background article describing some of the gender-based differences in regards combat).

This reticence to appear too ‘aggressive’ can be such a pronounced problem that it can prevent students from rehearsing techniques with the proper focus and intent when partner applications are being practiced. Instead, some students adopt a non-committal, slow and sloppy approach to practicing technique in an attempt to appear non-confrontational. I shouldn’t need to say this, but without the proper focus and intent, practicing martial movement is no better than practising dance. As you train, so you will perform.

Now when I talk about proper focus and intention, I am not speaking about emotionally losing control and/or physically trying to hurt other students. This is completely unacceptable and contrary to the kind of safe environment which we try to create for learning martial arts. What I am speaking about is creating the right controlled mind-set and setting the right mental context for the movement, whether attack or defence.

Students must be able to practice movements with the right mental and physical intensity while remaining fully controlled. Whenever we practice martial technique with a partner or partners in the safe environment of a class, there is a two-fold compromise that we must maintain in order to derive the most benefit from the exercises.

Firstly, we must have complete control of our emotions and our physical movements and full awareness of the safety of the person or persons that we are practicing with. Their safety becomes our top priority because our partner is not our enemy. They are practising martial technique with us in an effort to improve their own skill and to help us improve ours.

Secondly, we must create the proper mental context and intensity for ourselves for the movement we are practising. For example, if we are practicing a series of strikes, we must put ourselves mentally into a scenario in which we are striking an opponent in order to defend ourselves. While maintaining this ‘combat mentality’, we must practice the technique in complete control of our emotions and movements to ensure that our partner remains completely safe while obeying the instructions issued by our supervising instructor.

Does this sound like a difficult compromise to maintain? It is, and for this reason, I only accept certain people into my school after they have successfully attended an interview because students who cannot control themselves emotionally and physically become a danger to their class-mates.

Written by Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia

Photo Credit: Lori Iverson / USFWS —

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