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War, Conflict, Competition
War, Conflict, Competition
by Ross Robertson
War, Conflict, Competition

Do you love violence?

I know, it's really not a simple question, and not entirely fair. People who openly declare a love for violence, and especially if they act on their violent impulses, tend to be shunned by society (and for good reason). Yet I suspect that most of us carry around a secret love of violence that exceeds what we are willing to admit to others, and perhaps more significantly, to ourselves.

Like many, if not most people, I like seeing things blow up. I like seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. I like a good chase scene, I like a good fist-fight, or a daring dual with saber and stiletto. Stealth, intrigue, military tactics and maneuvers, political power plays and espionage... all of these make me feel somehow more alive.

And like most people, I prefer it all the more if my engagements with violence take place in a cool dark theater, or in the cozy comfort of my living room. The images are real enough for me to have an experience. My body sees things and reacts by releasing the appropriate stress hormones, and though I may be sitting perfectly still, my awareness is caught up in the action. Like dreams, theater or books or games can give us an actual (if limited) experience that we live through and carry with us as a basis for our future self. But without any of the risks.

This brings me to my first point. Polite, civilized people like our violence best when it's vicarious. In addition to the primal thrill of the kill, there is the value-added sense of relief that it's happening to someone else. We get the visceral experience of something with convincing directness, but we know rationally... not really. And if there is any lingering discomfort from a troubled empathy, we can satisfy ourselves that our schadenfreude is usually only at the expense of well-paid actors or fictional characters.

There is another aspect to our attempts to resolve whatever cognitive dissonance we experience when we begin to admit to ourselves that maybe, on some level, we actually do love violence. We feel relief to be able to participate in violence (even vicariously) whenever it is righteous violence. Deep down, we want to believe in a fairy tale justice inherent in the universe that is capable of expressing itself through heroic action. However bad things get, eventually the hand of fate will reach out and choose from among the humble or the exalted, a Champion (maybe me!!!) who will restore balance and heal the hurt. In other words, we don't really love violence after all. Unless it's the good kind.

And this is my second point: We want to believe there is such a thing as bad violence and good violence. Bad violence is anything we don't want. Good violence is whatever it takes to make bad violence stop. A trained martial artist may sometimes wonder if they have a moral obligation to kill or maim someone they deem truly evil, lest the responsibility for all future misdeeds fall on the spiritual shoulders of the nominal knight-errant.

Just by asking the question, we place ourselves beyond consensus, beyond the structures (strictures?) of human justice systems, beyond law and social order. In other words, we place ourselves above society. We are better than the rest! We are more civilized than civilization! We alone carry the dark and terrible burden of duty, the knowledge and capacity to do what's right without the puny artifice of a distributed, socially sanitized, and ultimately unwieldy collective responsibility.

The vigilante wears a mask for a reason, but not the one that's usually given in our modern mythologies. They wear the mask we all put on to hide ourselves from our simple, basic urge to do violence. And this itself masks the thing we least want to look at, let alone reveal to others... that we are sometimes impotent, that we are overwhelmed by things we can't control, that we are afraid and alone, and that there is nothing anywhere, ever, that we can truly count on to make things right.

If we jump through hoops to rationalize whatever violent urges we notice rudely poking through the membrane of our unconscious, like an unzippered pant at a formal ball, then this is understandable. We are, most of us, fundamentally good people. We know violence is not a fundamentally good thing. When we realize we are also fundamentally violent, well... of course this has to be somehow reconciled.

So here is my third point.

We are violent because everything else is violent.

The nature of conflict and competition predates even biology. One of the most basic truths of the universe is that some things (phenomena) are more durable than others. Things that are more durable have a better chance of adapting and becoming even longer lasting. (If adaptability and durability seem contradictory, consider that there can be persistence and continuity of identity through change.) Long-lasting things can combine with other durable things to make even more stable structures.

In this way, some but not all particles come together to make atoms. Some atoms combine to make molecules. From there we get crystals and metals and organic compounds, organisms, persistence through reproduction, family, tribe, nation, commerce, economy, ideology, and so on.

At every stage in the progression there is competition. Durable things eat less durable things for breakfast. Self-directed durable things get to seek and gain advantage over others. (Although, we assume the atoms in our bodies are not self-directed, and they are billions of years old. So don't get cocky.)

Evolution is competition. Competition for survival is warfare. Warfare began with the Big Bang and shows little inclination to stop any time soon. Violence is part and parcel of space/time itself.

Hopefully by now you've started to formulate your objections. Wait, you say... the forces of attraction that bring particles and atoms and molecules and people together, surely these are not inherently violent? Isn't the very idea of durability something that implies a balanced state, an integrated structure at one with itself and its environment?

Absolutely. The great paradox of being is that this binding together, this bonding, this cooperation if you will, is one of the most robust competitive advantages there is. We come together in accord because it makes us more durable. As I have said before, even in warfare (barring random chance), the nation or group that can out-cooperate the other side, wins.

If we are driven toward beauty, if we seek harmony and peace and stability, if we revel in freedom and humor and fun, if we are called by the urgent and powerful necessity to love, then it is because all of this is the inescapable nature of reality. At its most essential level, the universe is founded upon aiki.

Within durable systems there is a dynamic of agreeable change and stability. All of the components are aligned in a collective symbiosis. The very health of the system itself is defined by the extent to which this is true. The ultimate mortality of the system arises only at the moment that forces are sufficiently unbalanced as to cause collapse, whether from within or from without.

Between durable systems, there may be either cooperation or competition. Where there is cooperation, a larger durable system may arise which will either subsume individual identities or not. If there is competition, there will be either mutual destruction or destruction of the least advantaged structure. In some cases, the competition itself can become a durable structure, with the competitors' health diminished, but not sufficiently so as to cause collapse. It is also true that it is possible to become stronger through competition, even without a clear victory.

So before I get to my fourth and final point, I need to recap. If you eat, you do violence. Actually, it's even more basic than that... if you exist, you do violence. While you live, you consume resources that other living things could have used. As a simple physical object, you take up space, you bind energy, perhaps you collide with other things and break apart the weaker ones. Moreover, violence will be done to you. You will be eaten. You will be broken down. Your durability will come to an end, and the scavengers will feast on your remains. The sooner you can see the beauty in this, the happier you will be with what time you have left.

At the same time, if you eat, you'd better take an interest in sustaining and renewing the things you consume. Sustenance is just another word for durability. The path of wisdom lies in committing your energy to sustaining the things that sustain you. If at times we must destroy, it is good to have the knowledge and skill to do so efficiently and in just the right measure. But our survival habits are better turned toward creation and the furtherance of life, the making of friends from our enemies, or at least drawing power from that which threatens us. Whatever else my study of budo may bring me, I'd rather have my laughs last, than have the last laugh.

Does it make us more durable to spend our energies enriching those things we know will outlast us? I can't say for sure, but it does seem to add to the quality of what life I do have.

So what is my fourth point? Actually, I snuck it in about five paragraphs ago. Although, really, I should say that in the end, there may be no need for the cognitive dissonance we feel when we find that we love violence. It's one of the peculiarities of love that it embraces that which is anathema to it, and that it endures even when its opposite prevails. Contrary to our ancient texts and our modern fictions, the universe is not locked in an eternal struggle between light and dark. Violence and non-violence exist as co-creators, happy in their partnership and heedless of the confusion it causes among us mortals.

As is so often the case, the best resolutions come about when we realize there was never anything unresolved in the first place.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA


Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.
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