Chuck Carroll

Meditations on Violence

Published: 2024-01-14

No matter how "civilized" we think we are, at our core we're still animals that, when push comes to shove, are capable of violence. I recently read Meditations On Violence by Rory Miller. In it he describes human nature's relationship to violence, his personal experience with it, the social implications, the "chemical cocktails" introduced from violence or threat of violence, and the disconnect between martial arts and actual real-world violence. Below are some notes, thoughts, and observations I've made after reading Miller's book, training BJJ for several years, and having a few encounters with violence myself.

Violence and Social Status

Most of the time when humans fight, it's for social status and territory. It's over a place in the social hierarchy. It's about "face" and "respect". But it's rarely out of necessity and survival. Establishing hierarchies is a strong human instinct and, whether we're conscious of it or not, drives much of our behavior and lives.

There's this concept that Miller describes called "the monkey dance" which a younger version of myself was quite familiar with embarrassingly enough. You do not play the monkey dance, it plays you. If someone challenges you, the moment you feed into this social contest, you're no longer in control, and it's extremely difficult to withdrawal from once you engage with it. For men, especially young men, backing down from a status conflict can do psychological damage. To avoid physical and psychological damage, avoid the dance and deescalate the situation. In fact, in some social hierarchies, engaging in the monkey dance can lower your status simply by participating.

The "monkey dance" is almost entirely a male phenomenon and it's very rare for the female of the species to dispute over status and territory (possibly because they're less genetically expendable, or due to the hormonal differences). The "monkey dance" is usually non-lethal, and when damage does occur it's usually cosmetic.

There is, of course, other types of violence other that for status and territory. Predatory violence, for example, sees the victim as a resource, for example, money, possessions, or rape.

The Dissonance Between Martial Arts vs Real World Violence

Most people, even trained martial artists, have had zero encounters with violence. The majority of people with zero experience in violent situations (especially young men) live in a fantasy world believing that they know exactly what they would do and how they would react in a violent situation, dangerously overestimating their abilities. That is until they come across a violent and aggressive person and their fantasy is shattered. Mike Tyson famously said "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth".

"Real" violence is different than martial arts training. For example there isn't any sort of training that will prepare you to defend against a sucker punch to the back of the head in an environment where your guard is down. Assaults occur closer, faster, more sudden, and with more power than most people realize, and therefore very difficult to train for. When you're training martial arts on the mats, you're always expecting it and thus removes the element of surprise.

Another flaw, is stress. When you're under extreme stress, such as a violent attack or about to encounter one, various glands in your brain are releasing hormones in your body that have profound effects on you physiologically and mentally. This chemical cocktail is also extremely hard to address in training. "The mind you train with will not be the one you have when attacked." The skilled technique that's been perfected from years of training degrades substantially under stress. As martial artists, we must ask ourselves if the technique is still effective if the person applying it is terrified and the person they're using it on is insane, completely enraged, and/or totally immune to pain (such as being high on PCP).

From my own personal experience, sparring/rolling is absolutely nothing like a real fight. You're not going to be experiencing the amygdala hijack where we go into fight or flight (or freeze) mode, nor will you experience the shaking trembling that comes from an actual threat.

One of the traps we can fall into training martial arts is that even if a technique is efficient and works incredibly well on the mats, it may be in fact a terrible option and completely unrealistic in a real violent situation, such as a performing a flying triangle in a concrete parking lot. In a similar vein, most people are not as capable following through with a technique to completion than they think they are. For example, most normal well-adjusted people will find it mentally difficult snapping someone's arm or gouging our their opponents eyes from their sockets.

Miller points out that most people that train will never have that big ugly brawl, but training is fun. However, training safely means intentionally screwing up power, timing, and targeting/accuracy. Pulling punches, for example, can become habit which could prove deadly in a serious altercation. If you're training safely (which I hope you are), you must acknowledge that you're literally practicing to miss.

I've been training jiu-jitsu since 2016, with some breaks between every now and then. One phrase I've heard several times is that "a BJJ blue belt can take on and overpower the average person on the street". I think this is partially true to an extent, however most people on the streets are not going to be trying to pick a fight with you. There's a strong likelihood that the average person who is willing to pick a fight with you has done so in the past with other people, and therefore familiar and comfortable with violence than "the average person on the street".

Why Train Martial Arts

All of this being said, I am not saying that people should not train martial arts, I'm simply trying to look at training soberly. Sparring is not "violence", but it's more like practicing violence or "pretend" violence. As I mentioned above, an actual violent experience is nothing like the training or sparring you do on the mats, but training a "real" martial art like jiu-jitsu, muy thai, or judo is the best thing you can do to make yourself better prepared and more confident if you ever find yourself in an unfortunate violent scenario.

I've primarily trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu and have a purple belt. I've also trained Muy Thai for a couple of years. For me, martial arts is not just about learning self defense, it's also a means to keep my active, fit, and healthy. Punching and kicking a bag, and rolling with someone is an excellent workout and usually pretty safe.

And there's more than just the physical benefits as well. Equally important is the social and community aspect, especially for someone like me who works from home and doesn't really have any other community, religious or otherwise (online communities don't count). Some of the coolest and most interesting people I've ever met has been through training. I didn't begin training with the intention of making friends or being a part of a community, but the more I trained the more I got to meet (and be strangled by) really great people.

Another reason why I think it's important to train a martial art is to simply challenge yourself. Something like jiu-jitsu is really difficult. Most people that consider training never actually take that first action of stepping on the mats which is why some say that getting your white belt (the first belt you get when you start training) is the hardest. Doing something challenging and seeing yourself improve gradually over time is a rewarding experience. If you're interested in seeing parts of my journey visually, I upload my BJJ photos here. Sam Harris likens jiu-jitsu to learning how to swim and wrote an essay called "The Pleasures of Drowning". With jiu-jitsu you do indeed drown but you can learn from your mistakes.

Advice for Violence

I've had my own encounters with violence, primarily "the monkey dance" as a teenager getting into physical altercations with other teenagers, as well as several other situations in my early twenties I didn't have the wisdom to avoid (I have the scars to prove it). This is not uncommon for males at that age so I'll forgive myself for being foolish and unwise. The best piece of advice I can ever give someone is to avoid violence if you can. I think that 99.99% of potential violent situations is downright not worth your time and energy. Unless you're defending yourself, a loved one, or something important that belongs to you, there's no reason for it.

If someone is trying to provoke you into fighting, that's a strong indication that this person isn't worth your time and you should not engage. That individual trying to instigate probably doesn't have a lot going on in their life and has nothing to lose. You, on the hand, have everything to lose. It takes just a second for your life to drastically change, either from being assaulted and becoming permanently disfigured or handicapped, or even worse, death. The same holds true the other way around. You may simply be trying to defend yourself, but the attacker could die a punch at just the right angle and power, or could hit their head on the edge of the sidewalk as they fall. These not only could carry legal implications, but it's psychological baggage you'll have to carry with you the rest of your life.

Some of the best piece of self-defense advice I've heard is distance management. Traditionally, this means managing the distance with your opponent, then closing the distance when you begin your attack or preventing them from attacking you. However, managing the distance can also means something else. The ultimate form of managing distance is not being within the vicinity of a bad person that may wish to do you harm. This means avoiding places where shady people potentially go, such as the bad neighborhoods, "rough" bars, etc.

The last piece of advice I'll share is to just go train. Training is not violence, but training will make you more confident if you find yourself facing violence (the point is to not become overconfident, avoid and deescalate if possible). The hardest part is actually creating a pattern in your life for training, and if you want to actually learn and grow, I think it's important to go at least a few times a week. Also, diversify your training as opposed to doing just one. I prefer jiu-jitsu because it's easier on the body and can be trained safely at full force, but as I mentioned above, I've also trained a bit of Muy Thai, and at some point would like to train judo. I can personally attest to these realistic martial arts, but there are plenty of almost useless martial arts out that would absolutely never work on someone trying to hurt you. Most martial arts gyms have a trial before you sign up, so go train and see if it's for you.

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