Violence is Decreasing: Are Martial Arts Becoming Useless?
I have expressed several times the fact that I believe that Budo have less to do with warmongering and personal defense than with physical and mental education, and that those who mainly seek martial efficacy in training are in my eyes wasting their time developing useless kills, and probably living in irrational fear. Today I would like to substantiate these claims with hard facts and ask the question: “What is the point of training to achieve martial efficacy in a peaceful world?“. Violence in human societies is on decline and it has been so for hundreds of years. As a consequence, we are currently living in the most peaceful and harmonious time that our specie has ever known. This phenomenon has been put forward in its most elegant and persuasive form by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature“. I propose to share some of his ideas and evidence, and to discuss how this affects martial arts practice. In a nutshell, I could sum it up as : “No, the world is not becoming a dangerous place, so chill out and enjoy martial art training for what it is: a healthy habit, albeit a mostly obsolete one“.
Before starting, let me first state that I have no illusions regarding the fact that some horrendous acts of violence take place everyday and I sincerely empathize with the victims. What I want to discuss today is the fact that violence is substantially declining nonetheless, and that within this context, we can probably shift our focus in Aikido training towards something that is more useful and fulfilling than mere concern on whether or not we would be able to kick someone else’s butt if need be. As Aikido practitioners we have to be better than that, we have to consider our discipline in a wider framework than mere self-defense. I have developed these views in length in this article dealing with the definition and purpose of Budo. While, judging by the statistics offered by Google Analytics, a good few people seem happy to read my prose, I am sad to report that that I did receive however a good few emails that all tend to say the same thing: “Aikido is a deadly martial art inherited form the Samurai and it should be practiced as such because the world is going nuts. One should know how to take care of oneself“. It is people sharing this view that I want to address today.
Instead or restating my own ideas (please see previous articles), I would like to develop a bit about the fact that as far as I can see, those people seeking only martial efficacy in Aikido training must be motivated by either or both of these intentions:
- the desire to attack someone
- the fear of being attacked
Being somewhat familiar with the Aikido community, I think I can safely say that the majority of Aikidoka are taking the moral high ground of the second proposition. Assuming that these people have spent the past ten or twenty years training dutifully, they must have reached some levels of efficacy in Aikido. Sadly, I am afraid that most of these efficacy-oriented Aikidoka have been wasting their time because of the fact that each day passes makes them less likely to have to ever need to use these skills. Worse of all, I would argue that they have been living in an irrational fear due to their misrepresentation of the actual level of violence that really surrounds them.
Why do I say this? Because the truth is that they have on average less chances of facing a violent assault nowadays than their parents or any of their ancestors ever had. Note that I am saying on average, as it would be rather counter-productive to discuss the specifics of particular violence events or hot spots.
The evidence for a decline in violence in human societies
As I said before, this decline in violence has been a long-lasting trend but somehow, we find difficult to admit it because of a perception bias (that will be developed upon in a further paragraph). Moreover, there also seems to be a strange byproduct of the Occident’s post-colonial guilt that gives us the false idea that non-Occidental or primitive societies were harmonious environments where people were less violent and more in tune with nature. I will develop upon that too a bit later but first, let’s look at the evidence.
If we look at the next graph (Fig. 1), which represents the likelihood of males dying due to warfare, we clearly see that all anterior societies studied were far more violent than ours, and that the naive perception of their peaceful and harmonious nature has more to do with pop culture, a sort of Avatar-esque representation, than with reality.
Figure 1. Percentage of male deaths due to warfare [adapted from Keeley (2003)]
Fast-forwarding and focusing on the post World War II period (Fig. 2), we can see that although interstate wars have not completely disappeared (obviously), and although they are still the deadliest form of conflict, the relative number of casualties that they induce is steadily declining.
Figure 2. Number of battle deaths per state armed conflicts since the 1950 (adapted from Human Security Reports 2006)
Now of course, these are warfare-related deaths. What about crimes and homicides in general? These concern us more in our everyday life don’t they? Well, there is also pretty solid evidence that goes in the same direction as that presented above. If we look at Europe (Fig. 3), a place that has been rather good at keeping a record of its deaths, we can clearly see that the decreasing pattern of violence is the same.
Figure 3. Relative number of homicides in Europe [adapted from Eisner (2003)]
For American readers, data pulled from the FBI databases are also pretty eloquent (Fig. 4). Interestingly, you will notice spikes of violence every now and then, the latest being a slight increase in homicides in the eighties, something that has since been put under control and which on the whole, does not affect the clear general decline. At the time of writing this article, the city of New york has known its first day in recorded history without a single murder.
Figure 4. Homicides in America [adapted from Eckberg (1995)]
This looks to me as pretty solid evidence against those with an agenda of spreading fear. In case you were in doubt, I am indeed talking about all these schools that offer self-defense and mugging prevention courses at high financial price. More importantly they are doing so at the cost of general well being, by either turning their student either into needlessly paranoid individuals, or into hotheads who are actually more prone to get into dangerous situations due to the false sense of efficacy that their newly acquired skills seem to provide. Most of these schools essentially operate the same way: they exacerbate fear in people by presenting alarming statistics about the increasing levels of violence, and subsequently suggest a solution represented by whatever defense system they are selling.
If still in doubt, just think about your own standards, the general level of morality is improving with each generation, things like bullying went from being considered a mere naughty childhood game to an act of violence, capital punishment is thought in most industrialized countries to be immoral, domestic violence went from being a family matter to a punishable crime, corporal punishment at school is outlawed, being gay was once illegal while today we are marching towards equality in right and the list goes on and on.
The causes of an irrational overestimation of violence
Of course, if you have been out of the house, watched television, read a newspaper, or checked your twitter feed in the past 24 hours, you are likely to have in mind some real-life counter examples to my argument. You might even be thinking on a regular basis “what a nasty place is the world becoming!”.
The strong impression that you are under is a normal cognitive bias defined as availability heuristic, where the ease with which an occasional or anecdotal event comes to our mind is ascribed by the brain a disproportional sense of probability. Practically, it means that the more vivid the event, the more likely it will stick to our mind, and the more likely we are to think that it might happen. Now, let’s link that with the fact that unusual and vivid events such as homicides, extreme weather patterns, or disease outbreaks are the bread and butter of mass media, and that they are therefore more commonly reported upon and re-tweeted than less-newsworthy causes of death such as age and common diseases, we can then understand why in a world where journalistic reporting has never been so efficient, it is inevitable that we feel more aware of these extreme events now than before. Unfortunately, a distortion of the relative number and likelihood of these events is just an unwanted byproduct of this beneficial technological advance.
We must therefore try to distance ourselves from anecdotal evidence even though the closer it is to us, the stronger we will tend to feel about it. The mechanisms involved are pretty well described in the scientific literature and they are the same that explain why homeopathy, a remedy whose efficacy has never been supported by any conclusive evidence still gets more credit than it deserves: because we all have a relative or a close friend that seemed to be cured by it, even though in the best cases, and when the story was first hand, we established no more than a correlation and by no means proved a causation.
Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense for survival to irrationally avoid entirely a source of discomfort or pain from the very first time we expericne it (avoiding types of foods that made us sick only once, avoiding all snake even the non-poisonous ones etc.). However, what is essentially a good rule of thumb for the brain to operate upon, providing a desirable mechanism for survival, sometimes backfires and becomes a hindrance. This happens very notably in cases of agoraphobia or anxiety attacks where a natural cautiousness that would save our life in the Jungle makes us overly anxious in a setting where no rational threat exist (e.g. a packed yet awkwardly silent elevator). This mechanism also works indirectly in mammals via an empathic representation of someone else’s experience, leading us to adopt the same careful attitude as them upon seeing or hearing about their misfortune.
Nature is neither balanced, nor harmonious
Saying that violence is declining does not however mean that we are returning to “harmony”. As unsympathetic as I am with those who try to promote and sell irrational fear, I have no more patience for the opposite, tree-hugging end of the spectrum. For the sake of avoiding misunderstandings, I want to try to deflate the myth of harmony that often goes about in Aikido dojos. Aikido does not restore balance or harmony. Man, and more generally, nature, is not harmonious.
Anyone with the most basic understanding of what Darwinian natural selection mechanisms imply will know that the biosphere is working on a basis of conflicting interactions for survival that result in a constant arms race at the gene level. We evolve defenses to fight against pathogenic bacteria who in turn, develop workarounds to bypass these defenses. The cycle goes on, and on. At the level of our specie, we fight amongst ourselves for resources, habitat, and mating partners, mostly in order to ensure the propagation of our genes.
Let’s give ourself some deserved credit though, the moral improvements that we have discussed above have come mainly from the embrace of reason, order, and social organization, and it is by no means a return to a normal state. Sadly, the human brain rather ill equipped for critical thinking and to make sense of our incredibly complex world, it uses shortcuts and rules of thumb such as those explained above that are often useful but sometimes backfire. This probably explains why it took us so long as a specie to get to the enlightenment.
One has to take a distance from the anthropocentric perception that the natural world is a harmonious and perfect place for Man. We must understand that it is the theater of a constant and ruthless struggle. The only notion of balance that stands is the fact that humans have evolved through thousands of years within that specific environment, developing optimum characteristics that made it very successful in these particular conditions. However, any sudden alteration to that environment would induce new conditions and pressures that humans would be ill-equipped to face and where they would probably not perform so well anymore, a bit like a fish out of water. This also explains the massive and justified concern regarding climate change: limiting climate change is not about “saving the earth/nature“. It is about keeping the current environmental conditions as they are (i.e. just right for us). The earth and its biodiversity would do very well either way, albeit a bit differently, and species (different ones) would still be fighting for survival. In fact, there is absolutely nothing man can do to eradicate life on earth. Even the dreaded nuclear holocaust would only succeed in increasing mutation rates in the biosphere and bringing up new features, most which would be non-functional of course, but the few that would provide an advantage in this new environment would be conserved and the new mutant would strive. On the whole, things would function just as they have always been.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it rather well when he said that the entire earth was not life-friendly when you realize that “99% of the species that ever lived are now extinct, that is not the signature of a planet that is in love with life“.
With the new age concept of harmony between living organisms out of the window, we can now see more clearly why peaceful interactions between living organisms are far from normal. Of course, some levels of intra- or inter-species cooperation are often necessary for survival, and whichever genes are responsible for such behaviors will be favorably selected, but the extent of this empathy is often inly proportional to the level of kinship. The real advance as far as Homo sapiens is concerned is that this built-in empathy has, through improvements in language and communication, slowly expanded from immediate family members, to a larger group, a whole village, country, ethnic group, the entire specie, and even towards other species (pets etc.).
So the message of Ueshiba Morihei, instead of being unique and revolutionary, was rather in tune with the general post-war feeling, and in fact it was quite posterior to other efforts such as the No more war movement of 1921, which was notably supported by Albert Einstein. It is to me a source of great comfort to know that these pacifist ideals are more and more generally accepted and we should give ourselves credit for the fact that we probably did not need Aikido in order to appreciate peace. Aikido is just an expression of this advance, but not a particularly good tool to achieve enlightenment if judging by ubiquitous political struggles of Aikido organizations.
Going back to the notion of harmony and kinship with the universe, and before going further, I cannot resist sharing with you another video of Neil deGrasse Tyson where he exposes in which way we are truly one with the universe, not in a new age “post-colonial, condescending bottled-up and labeled kind of way” as Australian comedian Tim Minchin would put it, but in a true physical and cosmic way.
The reasons for the decline of violence
Using the data presented a few paragraphs above, I would say that although still not perfect, our specie has gone a long way from barbarism towards a more civilized conduct (even though barbaric relapses are frequent) and there are multiple reasons for that. The golden rule “don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you” usually kicks in pretty early on in any group setting and our specie did not need Moses’ sermon at mount Sinai to get it. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it “if we believed that perjury, murder and theft were all right, we wouldn’t have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else“. Steven Pinker provides a few more leads. He argues that law has put an end to the general state of anarchy in which one tended to preventively invade one’s neighbour before the neighbour would invade. The increase of life expectancy and survival thanks to hygiene and medicine has also provided a greater sense of a life’s worth. The non-zero sum game of goods trading and exchange of services and ideas has made the well being of a neighbour more profitable than his demise. The expansion in travel and foreign reporting has contributed to a greater cosmopolitanism, leading to a better understanding of our neighbors and therefore, a greater sense of empathy.
Aikido, the moral high-ground, really?
One of the most basic way to avoid violence is to do so via intimidation. It works very much in the way that nuclear powers assume that the possession of such weapon will dissuade external aggressors. But only works if it seems as if they are ready to use them (e.g. the French nuclear tests of 1995 in Mururoa) while in fact, they are hoping never to have to do so. Now, imagine a refrigerator-sized boxer looking as though he has seen his fair share of fights. You would be reluctant to spill his drink in a bar wouldn’t you? The guy looks, tough, he has made conscious efforts to become so, and the result is an appearance that succeeds in discouraging aggression, hence negating the need for confrontation. Now take the Aikidoka and assume that he is potentially as efficient as the boxer described above. That skill however, is not put on display since Aikido does not aim at developing a menacing body or attitude. That sense of intimidation therefore does not exist, hence it is less likely to discourage aggression. In theory, the Aikidoka is therefore more likely to have to face violence than the tough-looking guy. Funny isn’t it?
Now don’t get me wrong, even if efficacy at all cost is stripped out of Aikido training, there is in my mind a lot that can be learned from Aikido. If I did not think so I would not have dedicated my life to it. Concepts such as awareness of your surroundings, empathy through the study of a partner’s physical and moral specificities and limits, calm and even tempered reactions to unknown or surprise actions etc. This, I would argue, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is actually a pretty decent place, part of a specie that is in constant moral improvement, is a pretty good start for living a fulfilling life. In this context I can see a sense of harmony, but I cannot see any of it in the frantic preparation to an unlikely confrontation.
What then is the point of a life dedicated to Aikido?
As I explained earlier, I have my own views on the topic and I leave it up to you to answer that question or disagree with me entirely. If you decide to do so, please refrain from emailing me but instead, post a comment either below or in other forums so that other people can see your ideas and discuss. Although I am pretty confident regarding the data I presented, they by no means limit the potential applications and benefits of Aikido practice and I would be glad to hear them.
Pinker, S. The Better Angels of our Nature. Viking Books. ISBN: 9780670022953.October 04, 2011. Paperback 832 pages (in English)
Keeley, L. War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-511912-1.July 15, 2004 . Paperback 272 pages (in English).
Human Security report project (2006) Average number of battle-deaths per state-based armed conflict, per year, 1950-2005. Oxford University press.
Eisner, M. (2003) Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime. Crime & Justice, 30:83-142. The University of Chicago Press.
Eckberg, D.L. and Schneider, G. (1995) Estimates of Early Twentieth-Century U.S. Homicide Rates: an Econometric Forecasting Approach. Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 1-16. Springer.
Criminal Justice Information Services Division (2011) Crime in the United States 2011. Federal Bureau of Investigations,August 15, 2012. In English.
Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1973) Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(1), 207-233. Elsevier.
Riddle, K. (2010) Always on My Mind: Exploring How Frequent, Recent, and Vivid Television Portrayals Are Used in the Formation of Social Reality Judgments. Media Psychology 13. Taylor and Francis.
Briñol, P.; Petty, R.E. and Tormala, Z.L. (2006) The malleable meaning of subjective ease. Psychological Science 17: 200–206.. XXXX. Association for Psychological Science.
Ernst, E. (2010) Homeopathy: What does the best evidence tell us?. Medical Journal of Australia 192 (8): 458–460. MJA Group Australia.
Nesse, R. (1997) An evolutionary perspective on panic disorder and agoraphobia. Ethology and Sociobiology 8 (Supplement 1): 73-83. Elsevier.
Masuda, A. and Aou, S. (2009) Social Transmission of Avoidance Behavior under Situational Change in Learned and Unlearned Rats. PLoS ONE 4(8). PLoS ONE.
Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0192860925.October 25, 1990. Paperback 368 pages (in English)
Nesse, R. M. and Williams, G. C. Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine. Vintage. ISBN: 0679746749.January 30, 1996. Paperback 304 pages (in English)
Cartwright, J. Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. MIT PRess. ISBN: 978026253304.July, 01 2008 . Paperback 446 pages (in English)
Pinker, S. (2011) Violence Vanquished. The Wall Street Journal,September 09, 2011. In English.
Barbieri, K. and Schneider, G. (1999) Globalization and Peace: Assessing New Directions in the Study of Trade and Conflict. Vol. 36, No. 4, Special Issue on Trade and Conflict (Jul., 1999), pp. 387-404. Sage Publications.
Wright, R. The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Vintage. ISBN: 0679763996.August 29, 1995. Paperback 496 pages (in English)
Wright, R. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Vintage. ISBN: 0679758941.January 9, 2001. Paperback 448 pages (in English)