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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > May, 2006 - Violence
by Ross Robertson

Violence by Ross Robertson


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[Author's preface: The following article was written before the recent discussion on Aikido-L about the nature of violence. Since that discussion has transpired after the date of the initial writing but before publication, a few notes are in order. First, this article assumes the definition of violence to mean "behavior which causes harm, damage, or death." Secondly, the scope is aimed at human violence, meaning harm to the body, to a population, or to the environment and support infrastructures (although comparisons to other biological systems are made). Third, violence is treated as a normal, natural outcome of evolutionary processes. Finally, the article assumes that it is also natural to seek ways to minimize or eliminate the experience of violence, both for one's self and one's kind.]

In the study of a self defense or military science, we should seek to understand the roots of violence -- not simply its expressions and how to deal with them, but what motives may be at work. To look at these things objectively it is helpful to view them as natural phenomena rather than forces of evil. So, by analogy, if we can gain better insights as to the conditions that precipitate hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and so on, we might learn how better to protect ourselves and our infrastructures. By the same reasoning, the circumstances favorable to warfare and individual assault should be studied and understood. The following represents my speculation along these lines.

We can identify general categories for the causes of violence. No doubt there is some overlap, as distinctions of convenience are always somewhat artificial. A more in-depth analysis would be able to suggest a hierarchy for these categories. For now, they are presented In no particular order:

  • Territory
  • Predation
  • Sport
  • Fear
  • Aberration
  • Accident
  • Defense

Territory

Competition for resources is a natural imperative at all levels of biology. There is an upper limit to how much life a geographic area can sustain. Establishing a sufficient hegemony over those resources is necessary for continued survival for both individual and species.

Predation

In the strictest sense, a predator hunts and kills for its own survival. In addition to skills in stalking, trapping, and killing, the predator must also defend the prize from thieves. In the more general sense, thieving is also a kind of predation. Organisms and living systems that are successful in taking life or sustenance from others do so for their own survival.

Sport

Killing or harming for play may not contribute directly to survival, but it can have the effect of sharpening skills used in predation.

Fear

Under perception of threat, an organism may attack preemptively to remove the source of the threat. Humans may be induced or coerced to commit violence to others out of fear of reprisal by their own gang, tribe, or culture.

Aberration

Organisms may do violence outside of normal behavior if there is an anomalous health condition. Rabies is one example, but among humans we see it as the result of congenital neurological defect, severe abuse, neglect, or other from environmental stresses. Violent behavior in this case is the result of a broken cognitive system.

Accident

Violence often occurs in complete absence of malice. From car accidents to natural disasters, an unlucky combination of circumstances can be fatal.

Defense

Defensive violence is always in response to an actual, active threat. Whenever escape is not an option, violence may be necessary to overcome violence. Fear may or may not be a component. True defensive violence is distinctive because it is not preemptive. It is always as a response to a manifest attack.

In what ways can this information be helpful? In the realm of human affairs, we can learn from the successes of other biological systems. Being human, we may be able to choose among many survival traits to find those that are most appropriate for the conditions. Among these traits are superior strength, speed, stealth, cunning, camouflage, numbers, cooperation, symbiosis, weaponry, awareness, and undesirability.

Let's look briefly at how these may be applied to the above categories:

Territory

We must understand that finite resources and inequity of opportunity breeds conflict. If we do not learn to manage our own population densities, natural dynamics will eventually correct the imbalance in a manner catastrophic for human societies. In the territorial battle with other life-forms, we have pretty much won on all fronts except for certain microorganisms. Now we have to use our control wisely to preserve resources necessary for sustenance and quality of life. As regards competition among humans, we can minimize violence by achieving a more equitable distribution of resources and respecting the territorial rights of others.

Predation

We must take life in order to live. In the broadest sense, even agriculture is predation. Predation occurs within human societies whenever there is slavery, sweatshop economics, or other rapacious behavior. There is also predation at the individual level in the form of thieves and muggers. Successful predation can be a valid survival trait, but tends to breed violent defensive reactions. Predation can be minimized by cultivating stronger survival traits and becoming less of a target of opportunity.

Sport

Sport violence in its lethal forms rarely occurs among modern societies. Our tendencies for purely ritual warfare have mostly been sublimated by games. But we still see assaults occur among individuals for purely "recreational" sadists. Defensively, we should recognize that the motive is very different from the ordinary predator, which might be "bought off."

Fear

The fear response is a fundamental survival trait. It elevates our fight or flight capacities. It works against us, however, whenever our perceptions are inaccurate. We must guard against our own paranoia and not do violence when the threat is imaginary. Also, by presenting ourselves as non-threatening to others, we decrease their fear of us.

Aberration

There may be no good solution for dealing with the criminally insane. Punishment is unlikely to correct behavior. Reasoning with a deranged assailant is probably out of the question, although with great skill one might be able to enter into their world long enough to direct the outcome. To minimize violence at the individual level would require tremendous skill and awareness. We can hope that society will develop better therapies and understanding of the root causes for mental illnesses.

Accident

Although it may seem that accident is by definition outside our ability to control, no system of self defense should be without a general understanding of safety and emergency response. As always, greater awareness can help prevent hazardous situations. Some knowledge of first aid should be encouraged. Survival skills in both wilderness and urban settings should be practiced. Individuals and communities should always have contingency plans for various disaster scenarios.

Defense

Violence is the necessary last resort when escape is not possible and skills are insufficient to divert harm. So called pacifism does not stop violence, it merely designates the victim. Avoidance should always be the first stage of defense whenever possible. Killing or crippling may guaranty that the aggressor will never attack again, but may also precipitate fear perceptions in others. Doing minimal harm, or responding "proportionately" is generally considered the appropriate balance between survival and excessive retaliation.


From an evolutionary standpoint, living systems that are most successful at aggression, defense, and adaptation, survive and pass on their genes. Humans are no different in our receipt of these genes and the traits they express. We are different, however, in our particular combination of survival traits. Chief among these is a certain capacity for self-programming. We can be selective about how we express our traits and learn to emphasize those which are most sustainable for ourselves and our environment.

For one thing, we can better appreciate that violence is not a singular thing. Responding to all expressions of violence with the same strategy is not realistic, especially if those strategies tend to breed more violence. Understanding the causes of violence gives us hope of creating conditions where brutality is both unnecessary and unproductive.

There are, of course, important ethical considerations surrounding the issue of violence. But we should avoid moralizing in ways which invite endless debate. Instead we can deal with violence objectively, just as we would any other threat of nature. Then, perhaps our efforts at minimization will be less encumbered by prejudices and political agendas.

We must also overcome the fashionable cynicism which labels any attempt at reducing violence as unrealistic and utopian. We already seek to improve our abilities to predict earthquakes and hurricanes, to build more durable infrastructures, and develop improved capacity for responding and coping with the inevitable. We embrace breakthroughs in medicine which allow us to be more durable and resilient. It is only logical that we should do the same for warfare, ethnic cleansing, gang rivalry, and personal assault.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, TX, USA


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