Sunday, November 20, 2016
Karate and Life: No First Strike
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the first of Gichin Funakoshi's 20 Precepts: The Way Begins and Ends With Respect. I believe that Funakoshi's ideas go beyond karate-do, that there is wisdom worth sharing in his list of Precepts. This is the second post in that series; eventually, I hope to write about all 20.
Funakoshi's second Precept is perhaps his most famous:
Karate ni sente nashi.
There is no first strike in karate.
This is often understood in the martial arts world as tactical advice, and has given rise to endless debates about the nature and application of various blocks and strikes. For an excellent review of this debate, see my friend Dan Djurdjevic's blog.
But what about the rest of us? I believe that the meaning here is far more important outside the dojo than inside it. If more of us lived by this precept, the world would be a better place.
The Japanese word "sente" means not simply "strike" or "attack", but "initiative" - in this case, "aggressive initiative". What Funakoshi is referring to here is that moment in any conflict when one party take the first aggressive, escalatory step - the moment when the conflict leaves the path of mutual accommodation and problem-solving and instead becomes a zero-sum struggle in which each side seeks to beat the other into submission.
All conflicts have this "inflection point" somewhere. A disagreement, or a divergence of interests, in and of itself does not generate a conflict. What turns disagreement into war is a decision by one side to try to impose its will on the other - to try to achieve a unilateral solution in which I get what I want and who cares about the other guy.
Sometimes this point comes right at the beginning of a conflict, because one side has already decided to take what they want away from the other. Sometimes, it comes after a period of time in which both sides come to realize that there is a disagreement which neither was aware of before. In all cases, somebody has to make a decision to take that step - to throw the first punch, to launch the first attack, to throw away any hope of negotiating a mutually agreeable solution in favor of grabbing as much as you can get.
Prior to this point, mutual resolution is always possible. There are no conflicts on earth between humans that can't be settled in some fashion. Some of those settlements may require compromise - each side getting less than it fully wants. Some settlements may even require a redefinition of interests, even a redefinition of identity. Such things can and do happen - there are no laws in the cosmos that prevent any of this.
Peace, in the sense of resolving conflicts together, is possible. We just don't do it very well.
Funakoshi's dictum is a plea to all of us - don't be the first one to take a step down that road. Remain open to mutual dialogue as long as possible. Don't throw the first punch. Because once that first punch is thrown, disagreement becomes conflict and peace goes out the window. And everyone will suffer.
Political scientists and economists have known this by a different language. In our fields there is a game called "prisoner's dilemma" (or PD). I'll spare you the details, but in essence the game boils down to a choice between cooperating with the other player or stabbing him in the back. If both cooperate, both sides get something and are better off. If I stab and the other guy doesn't, I get everything and he gets nothing. If we both stab, we're both worse off.
Games like PD are great for modeling certain dynamics, but life isn't like that. We rarely play a game or make a choice once and then walk away. In life, we make these choices all the time, over and over again.
A Princeton scholar, Robert Axelrod, set out to capture this by inventing an artificial computer world in which players ran around and bumped into each other. At each interaction, they would play PD with each other. Each time, players had to choose not knowing what the other side would do (the game is played with simultaneous choices) - but each DID remember what the other player had done before. Players in Axelrod's game built up memories over time of what other players do.
In this virtual world, Axelrod asked a simple question: what strategy wins? That is, from a selfish perspective, what could players do to maximize their own gains in these interactions, assuming that they cared only about themselves and not the welfare of any other players in the game?
The winning strategy, which has spawned a wealth of literature, was what Axelrod called Tit-for-Tat (TFT). The essence of the TFT strategy is simple:
• On the first round of an iterated game, Cooperate.
• On every subsequent round, do whatever the other player did the last round.
Here is Funakoshi's karate ni sente nashi in action. My best strategy is to start by trying to cooperate with the other side. If they cooperate back, then we both keep cooperating with each other, with both of us gaining every round. Only if the other side betrays me first do I resort to similar responses. I never launch the first strike.
Amidst all the debate among academics about TFT, here's the reality: no one has ever come up with a better strategy. In the long run, you and I and everyone else will be better off if we start by assuming that cooperation is possible.
Most of us will never get into a fistfight or a physical altercation. But all of us have interactions every day with people near to us and far away. In every one of those interactions, we have a choice: do I want to seek cooperation, or do I want to lash out? Find common ground or try to "win"? Funakoshi's advice is as simple as it is profound: don't be the first to start a fight. Reach out with an open hand. Sometimes people will return the favor, sometimes not. But we will always be better off if we do.