I will never forget the sound of the fist smashing into my friends face. The slow motion of his eyes rolling back into his head and the classic spam of his shattered nervous system as he collapsed, his head bouncing onto the cold wet pavement.
Under extreme duress the brain diverts additional processing power to the visual cortex, making time seemingly slow down.
I watched them wind up to stamp his head into the kerb. It seemed to take an age.
I had failed. Failed to identify the threat. Failed to act before it escalated. Failed to end the issue with words.
All around me, the late night crowds shrunk back. My other ‘friend’ ran. There were no police, no have-a-go heroes to step forward and stand by my side. No one else wanted to tangle with three feral thugs, their inhibitions dulled with alcohol and their barbarism stoked with Cocaine.
I was alone and I was terrified. What is more, I was about to step into a no holds barred street fight against three vile and horrible Men, and I had no fucking clue what I was doing.
I survived because I was strong and fit and I managed to stay on my feet. Non-the-less, I was beaten badly enough to spend the night in hospital.
The incident shook me to my core.
In my own backyard there were people who would batter me for their own enjoyment. Worse, it required no provocation on my part. In fact, the lack of our assertive response to the situation may have been the very reason we were singled out.
They preyed on our fear.
I realised, in order to change this dynamic, I would have to again face someone intent on rendering me unconscious.
I began training with a friend who was an ex-professional boxer. It was tough, despite playing contact sports like rugby throughout my childhood. What became clear was that the thorough ‘education’ our culture infused me with, had rendered me unable to deal with violent conflict.
The ring is a lonely place. You are stripped of your façade. It is just you and him, and when he is bigger, faster or simply better than you, the ring becomes an even lonelier place far, far outside of your comfort zone.
You will pay dearly for mistakes, indecision, hapless fear or even just incompetence.
If you choose to compete, dealing with the psychological build-up to a violent contest and stepping inside the ring to the deafening noise of a crowd baying for your blood is a serious test of ones mettle. Meeting the glare of an opponent matched for your size and trading concussive blows with him is not for the faint hearted.
My brief encounter with boxing had the desired effect, I became much better at dealing with conflict, to the extent I even worked for a while as a doorman to pay my way through college.
Some years later, after several revelations brought me to think deeply again about violence and how it fits into humanity, I decided the journey was important enough to build on my early experiments with boxing. It seemed that violence has always been present in human societies, and that the goal of peace and stability somehow also required an understanding of violence.
Several modern sources, such as the infamous essay ‘Violence is Golden’ by Jack Donovan, rust humanity and violence together effortlessly.
“Every time a soccer mom stands up and demands harsher penalties for drunk driving, or selling cigarettes to minors, or owning a pit bull, or not recycling, she is petitioning the state to use force to impose her will. She is no longer asking nicely. The viability of every family law, gun law, zoning law, traffic law, immigration law, import law, export law and financial regulation depends on both the willingness and wherewithal of the group to exact order by force.”
Essentially, the crux of what Donovan is saying is, “Or else what.”
A pacifist without the ability to unleash real and potent violence is not truly peaceful, they are cowardly. Cowardly in the sense they have left themselves no choice in a negotiation but to roll over and submit. They have chosen weakness, because weakness is the easy way, the default position. It is the place of zero responsibility and pre-meditation of victimisation. A real pacifist has the capacity for violence at any moment of his choosing, but by wielding restraint, he shows the true value of peace.
Professor Jordan Peterson runs with this notion in several of his lectures. He often cites this biblical quote:
Except Professor Petersons interpretation of the word meek, and thus the alternative understanding of this proverb, read more like this;
‘Those who have swords, and who know how to use them, but choose to keep them sheathed, shall inherit the earth.’
In fact, Professor Peterson is often heard saying that it is impossible to respect yourself until you ‘grow teeth’ - until you become dangerous. That is, when you realise you are seriously capable of terrible acts, you treat yourself with the respect and control required to become a truly integrated being.
Further, he is fond of quoting Jung, when he says this is part of the process of incorporating your Shadow. This involves confronting the areas of your unconscious that you really do not want to accept about yourself. Part of the Shadow is often animalistic, carnal, primitive, fearful and both terrified yet capable of great violence. To go there, psychologically speaking, as with the physical aspect of training for violence, is difficult. It is easy to see the attraction of defaulting to pacifism if it avoids such traumatic development. But if Jung is right, this path must be walked by the seeker of true enlightenment. Because it is the truth of the physical world we inhabit.
I sat through a lecture a long time ago on Game Theory. Here, biologists attempt to elucidate the evolutionary consequences of interactions. For example, in the Hawk and Dove model, Hawks run an aggressive strategy when confronting another for a resource, Doves run a passive strategy and avoid conflict, giving away the resource without challenge.
A hawk may encounter another hawk, or a dove; likewise, a dove may encounter another dove, or a hawk.
If the two individuals come together and adopt a dove strategy, the resources are partitioned equally. If a dove encounters a hawk, the hawk acquires the totality of the resource, while the dove receives none. Lastly, if a hawk encounters another hawk, the resources are partitioned equally; however, there is a cost incurred by each hawk due to the aggressive interaction.
A population of doves may be invaded by a hawk, and the hawk strategy will displace the dove strategy.
An Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) is one which if adopted by a population, cannot be invaded by an alternative strategy.
The hawk strategy is an ESS only if the value of the resource is greater than the cost of the conflict. If the cost of conflict is greater than the reward, then neither the hawk nor the dove strategy satisfies the conditions of ESS as a pure strategy.
Why does this matter?
Well, I appreciate this is just a model of behaviour, but the take home message is clear. In a group of all Doves, a single Hawk will wreak havoc.
It reminds me of what the scene must have been like when the first Viking marauders landed on the shores of England, at the holy island of Lindisfarne. The Monks there, defenceless by their own choosing, actually went to the shore to greet their slaughterers-to-be with gifts. The bloodbath that ensued is well documented. The Pagans, warlike and schooled in extreme violence, did as they pleased, took whatever they wanted and sailed off into the horizon with their ships laden with riches.
How different history might have been had those heathen sea farers encountered a fortified island inhabited by trained and well-armed holy warriors. They may well have chosen to sail on to alternative shores.
Denouncing violence is fashionable. But Doves and Lindisfarne Monks suggest it is a strategy for the foolhardy. There is always a Man ready to assert his will upon you and take what you have.
No matter what people may say, everyone intuitively understands the only solution to a conflict situation is to ensure you can convincingly overwhelm the opposition.
They understand this because for the last 2 million years, it is what has allowed humans to work together to achieve great things.
Most animals don’t help other animals of the same species unless they are highly related. (Helping someone highly related e.g. your brother, or your daughter helps to get more of your genes into the next generation and is thus beneficial.)
This is because someone will ALWAYS cheat the system, and the cheater not only benefits directly, they also hinder a potential opponent. A double victory. So, most species simply avoid situations where this can happen. Granted, there are altruistic examples in the animal kingdom, but nothing close to the scale of how humans co-operate socially.
But just how are humans able to co-operate on a large scale, with non-related individuals and avoid the cost of cheaters abusing the system?
When I first read the theory of Coalitional Enforcement (Bingham 2003) a lot of threads suddenly came together to make sense.
The Coalitional Enforcement Hypothesis refers to co-operation between related and unrelated individuals. This produces significant mutual benefits that exceed costs and are potentially adaptive for the co-operators (Magnani 2009). Central to the theory is the tenet that parasitic behaviour within the group is punishable.
Cooperation is achieved through morality, enforced by violence.
Humans are unique in the animal kingdom in that that they have acquired the capacity to kill at a distance. Prior to this, even if several group members teamed up against an individual cheating the system, they would stand a reasonably high chance of being injured themselves.
But for the last 2 million years homonids have evolved the ability to effectively club, and then later throw with great accuracy. This competence at remote killing means they could punish behaviour the group deemed unsavoury at a lower and lower potential costs to themselves (see Lanchester’s Square Law). This allows non-related groups to form at a level larger than direct family members by punishing members who show parasitic behaviour – or who cheat the system.
What is even more fascinating, is that as weapon technology advanced, and the ability to kill remotely improved, social co-operation grew larger and more sophisticated with it. The emergence of the bow in late pre-contact North America is one such example. In the wake of the bow reaching North American shores, around 400-600 AD, there were dramatic local increases in adaptive sophistication, including agricultural revolutions, driven by increased co-operation, enforced by the new, remote killing technology.
Considering all of this, it becomes clear how the development of atomic weapons brought about relative stability globally. No country wants to be on the receiving end of a nuclear missile strike, and large scale co-operation follows, which drives further advancements in civilisation. It seems coercive violence, exploiting the uniquely human capacity to kill remotely, is essential to all human social cooperation above the level of the family. As Bingham eloquently puts it.
‘It is only because of this human capacity (for coalitional enforcement) that our social lives are not overwhelmed by the trivial conflicts of interest that dominate, brutalize, and degrade the lives of nonhuman animals. The mobilization of coercive threat in defense of confluent human interests provides the only possible foundation for what we cherish most, our common humanity. This was and remains the sole sustainable selective force producing virtues like integrity, compassion and justice amongst us.’ (Bingham 2003)
It is worth noting that coalitional enforcement only works when the common self-interests, and therefore co-operative self-interests of large numbers of individuals are engaged. Should the purpose or underlying culture of the group become significantly disjointed, chaos can quickly ensue. History is littered with such examples, and it serves as a reminder of the importance to preserve culture and tradition whilst fostering a mindset of growth and shared purpose.
On a large scale, the Coalitional Enforcement Hypothesis makes complete sense, and in a modern society, well trained armies and police constabularies do the enforcing.
The problem for an individual is still personal though. Social parasites may still deploy violence if they think they can get away with it. Plus, humans are emotional creatures, and they may descend to a state of mind where they have little care for the consequences of their actions.
This may mean a social parasite is punished for deploying violence towards you and your own.
But that is little consolation if you are dead or grievously injured by the time the authorities arrive.
Should you find yourself the target of imminent violence, you must be prepared. The response of societies enforcers is unlikely to be swift enough to obviate you of your personal responsibility to protect yourself, and your loved ones.
Violence is the grim and yet inevitable warden of peace that humanity is bound to. All of the things we treasure - order, morality, technological advancement, safety and prosperity. They are underpinned by the ever-present threat of violence. Without this, someone WILL cheat the system, and as Donovan puts it, they’ll ask:
‘Or else what?’
It is a harsh message, but a just one. Become powerful and resilient and dangerous. Even terrifying when necessary. Embrace the animal that prowls your subconscious and control its strength. Train your mind and body to be weapons such that would be predators decide against using violence as a means to exploit you. As Imi Sde-Or, founder of Krav Maga stated:
“So that one may walk in peace.”
This is not a call for yet more violence. It is a request to understand violence, to become proficient in its use, and ultimately to leverage this to proliferate peace wherever possible.
Bingham PM (2003)Human Evolution and Human History: A Complete Theory, Evolutionary Anthropology, 248-257
Magnani L (2009)Hypothetical Cognition and Coalition Enforcement, Language, Morality and Violence, Proceedings of the annual meeting of the cognitive science society, 33(33)