The Art of Yielding
March 10, 2016 § 7 Comments
The ache in my left arm seems to travel up a nerve towards my shoulder. I wince as I stretch the arm up and then rotate it in an arc. Every Friday night I attend a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, and last week during open rolling – which, to the uninitiated, is essentially grappling with a partner – I was thrown to the mat by a zealous fellow student, and crashing onto my left arm I immediately felt the shock of pain that now lingers there in my bicep. At the time I was bit angry, as the amount of strength my opponent applied was a bit excessive for such a drill, but thinking about it now perhaps that is foolish of me. It is a fight exercise after all. Myself, I am always slow to apply great strength in any drill, as I am fairly frightened of hurting someone. I often find that during a roll where I am dominant and pressing down with intense force that I periodically ask my opponent if they are OK. If they weren’t, they of course, could easily tap out, but still, it concerns me that I might needlessly hurt someone.
Jiu Jitsu, if we return to the Japanese root words (Ju Jutsu) is the art of yielding. As combatants roll they are applying strength and force, but they are also reading the direction of the force being applied against themselves and then attempting to use their opponents energy against them. My trainer once relayed a statement that he heard from a master practitioner, which was essentially that all of Jiu Jitsu is knowing which square inch of the opponent on which to apply all of one’s body weight, and knowing when to do it. This trainer is by day, a police officer. Funny, myself an anarchist, a vehement supporter of efforts to abolish prisons and police, respectfully and humbly listening to this man and trying to always devour with my eyes all of his movements and motions so that I can absorb them in the fibers of my own legs and hips. I laugh at his jokes, as he is genuinely funny, and in the next moment, I imagine him using the very techniques he is demonstrating to subdue me in the streets. I wonder how these skills he imparts on me have been applied against people who now sit in a prison. When we roll, he out classes and out strengths me, but each time I am able to resist his efforts to sweep me, I smile. That smile is then quickly followed by him quickly overtaking me.
Life is complicated and so entirely writ with nuance and irony. There is a beauty to such contradictions, and I am grateful to be reminded of the great complexity of our context, and I am grateful too for the reminder that a world so replete with complexity and contradiction is a world in which easy answers need not apply. Often we simplify what we experience to make our day to day existence easier or more efficient. In doing so, we almost certainly shuck away the truth of things until we create an existence with a lot more mutual exclusivity than is actually present. We make binaries out of gradients. This is often necessary. It is also often the first step towards justifying violence as it is the root of manifesting the “other.”
Thirteen people were arrested in Anaheim this past week as a Ku Klux Klan rally was quickly cut short by anti fascist activists who confronted and then fought with the Klan members. The Klan members pulled knives, and even used the point on the tip of a flag pole to fight back, and they ultimately stabbed three people. Back in 2012 several young people crashed a meeting of white supremacists in Tinley Park, Illinois attacking the attendees. Five of them were eventually arrested and served prison sentences. Anti-racist actions such as these often have mild mannered Americans suggesting that we must refrain from violence and respect free speech. They follow with the claim that the only weapon to be used against Klan members and neo-nazis is either counter speech, or out right ignoring them.
The logic of such suggestions goes like this:
Free speech will conquer bad ideas and hate. Those with hateful ideologies will be shown as the fools they are by the reasoned counter arguments of those who oppose them, and these counter arguments will affect society at large in a positive way, resulting in a society in which those who proliferate hate speech are mocked and shunned. Thus, no violence is necessary to counter them. Further, the application of violence to counter speech opens us to the “slippery slope” whereby violence is brought against more and more people for even slight deviations in thought or opinion. Also, violence begets violence, so we should always and forever avoid it.
The entirety of this issue needs unpacking because it is quite convoluted. “Free Speech,” as it is referred to in the United States is a reference to a constitutional protection offered by the first amendment which prohibits the government from interfering with the speech of individuals and groups. It is not an obligation of an individual to hear out any other. Of course, it should be said that like most constitutional protections, “free speech” goes right out the window once it is not convenient for the state or their capitalist counterparts. Endless videos of protesters being gleefully beaten by the police can attest to this fact.
Obviously, unthinking and mindless violence is not the tool we should immediately reach for every time someone says something we disagree with. Someone at a bar stating that, “climate change is a hoax,” is not justification for me to haul off and break his nose. As a long time bartender, I have found that usually mockery and humor are the best weapons against the drunken loud mouth who wants to use my bar top as his soap box. This is a skill I have finely tuned over many years of dealing with drunks, almost always men, who after a few beers want to loudly espouse their right wing talking points. I may well be a black belt in rhetorical judo.
However, what if this person says, “I am going to fucking kill you!” Am I justified then in kicking him in the jaw and crushing his face into the floor? Surely I would need to read the tone and intention in his voice, but the point remains that a direct threat of aggression permits a response that can meet and dislocate the threat. And that is where the waters begin to muddy. The Klan has an extremely violent history. Their rhetoric is rhetoric of violence towards entire swathes of the population. How tolerant should the general public be of a group that has incited horrendous and gruesome violence spanning generations?
More imporantly, how patient should the would be victims of racist violence be with liberal society’s calm and reasoned counter arguments? If a cross is burned in your front yard, or a black man dragged behind a pickup truck in your town, should you sit back and wait for well articulated, non-violent responses to convince white supremacists of the inappropriateness of their behavior? The sheer fact is, that sometimes, counter violence is the exact response necessary. Indigenous peoples were completely justified in fighting back against the encroaching settler presence as it occurred in the Americas. It is still the appropriate response in those last places where indigenous peoples live in their traditional homelands which are threatened by attempts at civilized exploitation, be it for the construction of an oil pipeline, a hydroelectric dam, a nuclear waste dump, or the construction of a university telescope.
Those who are the victims of the violence meted out by the dominant culture need not wait for those behind the levers of power to spawn a conscience. They need not wait for a critical mass of pacifists to turn the gears of democracy and generate a legal response for their protection.
I am reminded of Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend, in which he laments the absence of an immediate and forceful response on the part of the French to Nazi aggression. Camus suggests that the French consciousness is one which responds to the absurdity of the human condition by seeking beauty and love, whereas the Nazi response was one of nihilism and the pursuit of conquest. Such dispositions gave the Nazi an advantage over the French who first pontificated on the righteousness of counter violence. The Nazi did not care for such ethical questions, and according to Camus, in the end it took the French coming to terms with the righteousness of their position, indeed, it took the confidence of spirit and the sword together to be victorious over the Nazi:
“…[W]e shall be victorious thanks to that very defeat, to that long, slow progress during which we found our justification, to that suffering which, in all its injustice, taught us a lesson. It taught us that, contrary to what we sometimes used to think, the spirit is of no avail against the sword, but that the spirit together with the sword will always win out over the sword alone.”
Any suggestion that the tool of violence is appropriate does require that those who would take it up think long and hard about the implications of their actions. Our world of seven billion people and growing is a world of seven billion minds all generating individual interpretations of reality. To be sure, the majority of those minds are convinced of the righteousness of their actions and ideologies. The abortion clinic bomber is convinced that his is a justifiable counter-violence. The ISIS executioner is convinced that his is a justifiable counter-violence. The anarchist arsonist and US military drone pilot are likely also convinced that theirs is a justifiable counter violence. How in such a cacophony of noise, confusion, and rash behavior can one escape what is a seemingly impossible knot of human delusion, anger, and misunderstanding? How in good conscience can a person with deep concerns for autonomy, cooperation, and compassion suggest adding to the violence and misery of the world?
When would it have been OK to start attacking Nazis during the rise of the third reich? When Hitler was giving speeches in small halls to small audiences, would it have been reasonable counter violence for anti-fascists to have attacked him and his cadres? There would have been a point in time where this small man loudly screaming his nonsense to a room of twenty people was absolutely laughable. Rational minds would say, “Just ignore him! He is a fool, and he and his ideology will amount to nothing.” Years later there would have been a time when organizing to violently confront Nazis would have meant a death sentence, when the party already controlled the state apparatus and resistance would have been near impossible. At what point in between was the exact right moment to strike, according to a pacifist or liberal dogma?
This is the trouble with nuance. Easy answers are usually wrong answers. To strike opens us up to greater realms of ethical complexity and realms of possible negative fallout. To wait cedes crucial time and ground to those who have absolutely no concerns for such ethics. At what time, and what place, do we place one hundred percent of our strength? When do we yield and allow the momentum of our opponents to be their own undoing?
Sometimes yielding is fighting. And sometimes you give up your back and get caught in a vicious rear naked choke. Master tacticians can be brutal in their yielding. But even master tacticians can be knifed in the dark. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
At the end of it all, we must choose which is the preferable mistake, and in making such mistakes we put our souls on the line, killing an integral part of ourselves because we hope that in doing so a greater beauty is allowed to survive. Then we pray that our children can forgive us.
I, for one, will not err in favor of compassion for a Nazi.
Choirs of frogs still sing along the rim of the pond as dawn breaks. While still technically winter, the robin hopping along the ground near budding daffodils tells me that spring is here. Another cold front is always possible, but this winter that never really materialized is bowing out. The garden calls for so much attention. Greens need to be planted, pathways need covering with wood chips, and I need to get annual seeds started and placed in a cold frame. Energy surges upward from the subterranean metropolis of tree roots and mycelium, and as it flows through the flesh of hickory and maple, oak and dogwood, so to it flows through my limbs. I am anxious to get back to the long, slow process of developing our homestead. My endless list of projects is less daunting these days as I approach it one job at a time.
Out in the world of human hollering and bickering, an impending election is drawing a lot of attention. I try to ignore it. I try to focus on our small hollow here in the backwoods. Our community of young families trying to get by on the day to day with what little we have while surmounting the challenges that the raw entropy of civilized life throws at us can absorb pretty much all of the mental capacity I have to offer. But then there are whispers and hints that the authoritarianism and racism being whipped up by certain campaigners finds it way to my ears, and I ask myself, if it comes here openly and brazenly, what am I to do? What cannot be tolerated? What requires a response, and am I prepared to offer one?
Perhaps we should all start asking ourselves such questions. By the time the shadow has covered us all, it is too late to take shelter from the storm.