Non-Violence and Self-Defense

This is a tricky subject, and I hope you will discuss these issues with myself and your friends to figure out your own opinions. This post is going to be a multifaceted exploration, because I’m not settled on all the factors. Ethics is messy, so let’s get our hands dirty.

War, Police, Politics

And I want to jump in at the deep end. Large-scale planned violence has been a human activity since prehistory. As big as we can coordinate a group, we have coordinated them to war.

The big question is whether a war is legitimate. Countries have different procedures and thresholds for declaring war, but we can try to examine the question from the outside: When should you send a group of trained soldiers to fight? Clearly, we can get a few situations out of the way with a simple rule: A soldier must only attack other armed soldiers, positively identified.

  • Carpet bombing is wrong because it is unspecific in location.
  • Drone strikes to any non-military vehicle or building is wrong.
  • Torture or any violence to a prisoner is wrong because they are unarmed.
  • Laying landmines or sea mines is wrong because it is unspecific in time.

What should be done when a soldier kills a civilian? Put them on trial for murder. What if he was ordered to do so? Then put both him and the commanding officer on trial for murder.

Perhaps you think we’re beyond war now. I would certainly agree that small terrorist groups and small military strikes seem to be more effective than large-scale conflicts in today’s world. Is declaring war against a nation a thing of the past when unmanned aircraft cross borders, and the rhetoric around the Afghanistan war sounds more like policing?

One thing we know is we cannot do without police. It has been shown repeatedly that our most civilized societies devolve into looting when police go on strike. We give exclusive authority within our borders for the police to use violence to prevent crime. Normally, this works out great, except when the laws they are enforcing are unfair and should not have passed the legislative process. Worse, when the police take orders from politicians or requests from businesses more seriously than human rights. And worse still, when the police use weapons against unarmed civilians, become aggressive when questioned or voluntary compliance is refused, and exert force to defend their ego. Why is it worse when a cop is killed? For the same reason that is it worse when Americans die than Mexicans in the war on drugs.

International relations is split in two concerns: economics and war. Handshakes and photographs mean nothing to a country compared to trade negotiations, sanctions, and the threat of war.

Threats and Bullying vs Free Speech

Is a threat of violence the same as performing a violent act? All communication changes behaviour because our minds develop our attitudes in the context of others. Communities and nations have shared values because of communication, and evaluating what is safe and what is dangerous is frequently a social calculation. Sadly, we have more to fear from other humans than from any other threat. So, that person threatened to hurt you. That is communication that will change your behaviour like any other threat assessment:

  • How credible is the threat?
  • What is the cost of compliance?
  • What is the danger of non-compliance

But underlying this evaluation is the clear understanding: my behaviour is changed based on words uttered by another person, and concerned with physical danger. Therefore, that person has used violence.

Agitation, because it seems volatile, is frequently interpreted as threatening. A calm person, although creepy, is not as much of an immediate danger as a frantic individual. Losing your temper, raising your voice, using aggressive gestures (even without any words of threat) will make others back away and evaluate the danger… therefore you are using violence.

Online bullying is a new worry for parents and some governments have proposed legislation regarding speech on the Internet. Posting in blogs and forums, on Facebook and Twitter, can be done nearly anonymously, and with all of us online more frequently, the impact of insult and attack has been growing. Young people are especially vulnerable to insults and vulgarity from their peers, and suicide is a non-trivial concern.

So is it ethical to bully someone? Clearly not. It falls within my previous points about threats and agitation. Should we outlaw certain speech? Would this be dealt with by Internet Service Providers pulling down individual posts or whole websites? That has been proposed and is not only onerous and impractical, but can easily lead to overreaching and unfair scrutiny of legitimate users. Alternatively, should it be a matter for civil courts, wherein an individual could sue for libel, and have the post retracted with a monetary settlement? That process is too slow and cumbersome. It also falls into the Google trap, which is that an original post may be removed, but copies and search indexes may have already propagated the post to any number of other servers. It’s a problem.

Hate speech, which is propaganda against a certain group or sub-group, has several effects:

  • It broadcasts to the sub-group the direct message, like bullying
  • It broadcasts to those not in the sub-group that it’s okay to bully them
  • The more people hear it, the worse its effects.
  • If the speaker is in a position of authority, it represents the views of the group he represents
  • Similarly, the mode of address lends authority: broadcast by radio, it has the consent of the radio station, and its backers, which may include the government.
  • Even if the message is positive, it creates an us-and-them mentality which is the basis of all discrimination

Based on that, if your position is that hate speech is bad and should be legislated against, ask yourself whether it’s ethical for the government to censor advertising that says “Nazis are evil”. I didn’t really want to go to extremes there, but were you aware that the German government has outlawed all mentions of the Nazi party?

Closer to home, we all know that theatre is often political, and you should watch movies with the suspicion that it may be propaganda (that’s how Disney started), so how comfortable are you with freedom of speech versus censorship for the public good?

Okay, words may harm you, but the reason we need self-defence is…

Defending Life

If you are attacked, most people believe you have the right to defend yourself. The clearest ethical ground you can be on is if you sustained a physical assault, and the attacker is threatening to continue. In my view, if you do not actively defend yourself, you are giving consent to being beaten. I discuss consent below, because it’s the toughest subject.

In most cases you’ll want to defend yourself, and the question is how early and how hard.

Reactionary self-defence is really difficult, and I’ve discussed it before. Once you have been hit, the pain will affect your mobility. If you are hit in the head, you may have sensory problems as well. It is better to avoid being hit, but reacting with intercepting blocks and evasions requires a keen perception of the attack vector in a split-second. It is far more effective to attack first. Therefore, I counsel students to go on the offensive as early as possible when it is obvious the assailant intends physical violence.

Stand-your-ground laws are clearly a perversion of this idea. In Florida and other U.S. states there are laws which state that a citizen may fire a handgun when they feel threatened. Setting aside the fact that this legislation was written by ALEC on behalf of the NRA and the gun lobby, the law cannot be legitimate when deadly force is authorized against a verbal threat.

Unjust laws and illegitimate governments mean that the unarmed populace is opposed to the police and army in their own country. Here’s where nonviolent resistance comes into play.

Ghandi and Resistance

Ghandi was the embodiment of non-violent resistance. The idea that a single man or a group can sit in protest and change the minds of many through hunger strike and peaceful community has many proponents today.

I would dearly love to believe that we can just tell the populace to “be brave enough to stay calm even as they beat and pepper-spray you,” but there are only a few who are so courageous. The Occupy Movement was, by and large, non-violent, but there is always doubt whether some adherents will break off. When confronted with peaceful protests like these, the police insert agents-provocateurs who are plainclothes police sent in to stir up confrontational attitudes, or to throw the first molotov cocktail. The police prefer a violent clash because they have the weapons to deal with it.

However, Ghandi himself advocated killing stray dogs who were infected by rabies, which outraged many of his Hindu followers. After considering the ramifications, he argued that all killing is violent except when it benefits the being killed. Therefore, consent or implied consent (in the case of animals) is an act of mercy. All other violence, even to protect the life of another, is unethical.

Consenting Adults

Which brings us to prize-fighting, modern combat sports, and into the bedroom. Are there exceptions to the rule that when two or more people consent to violence, then it’s acceptable?

Two men step into the ring, touch gloves and agree to obey a referee… is this ethical? Should there be laws against it? Some jurisdictions consider a public display like this potentially threatening or disturbing to the viewing public. Others regulate matches because they intend to protect the fighters. Boxing and other martial arts contests have been part of societies worldwide for generations, but are considered by many today to be barbaric. Is it tradition that we should enshrine, or a bygone era that we should leave behind?

Since this is a Bartitsu blog, I’ll take a Victorian mindset, and mostly elide the discussion of consent in the bedroom. I’ll just say that adults who are not in public view should be allowed to consent to whatever practice they wish, so long as their partner does not violate their expressed wishes. However, it becomes public not only when in public view, but also when talked about afterward, or if there are bruises.

And at the risk of overstating the matter: unconscious or drugged people cannot consent, so you shouldn’t touch them at all, except to save their life.

Promise You Won’t Be Angry…

An emotional reaction such as fear or anger is often pre-thought. Like withdrawing your hand from a hot plate, you cannot think about where it will drop, your hand snaps away by itself.

You can and should try to keep calm when something you hear or see causes an emotional reaction in you. It’s actually nice to have some warning if something controversial is about to happen. You can’t promise not to be angry, but you can promise to try to stay calm when the angry reaction happens. Breathe.

Remember that consent must be expressed in terms of actions that the other party can choose to do, or not do. The command “don’t say anything offensive” is impossible to follow, because it requires the person to know in advance what the other person considers offensive. I can consent to being punched in the face and body but not below the belt in a boxing match because these are voluntary actions.

In the case of duelling, which is outlawed everywhere, two people consent to fight to the death, but in many small sword bouts a charge of murder would be laid if the winner used his empty hand to parry. And the whole situation was started with an insult. Insult a king, and you’ve got a war. War is hell, but hell has rules too. The Devil, you say?



David McCormick Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
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