Friday, September 21, 2012

The Discipline of Self-Defense

A day or two ago a friend-of-a-Facebook-friend posted a harrowing tale of having been attacked in her own neighborhood. She managed to escape without injury, but was obviously seriously frightened. My FB friend, and many others, wrote notes expressing sympathy and sorrow that someone would be attacked right outside of her own home.

The post has stuck with me, even though I do not know the woman in question. What struck me was this sentence:
I have taken self-defense classes and read plenty of articles about being aware of my surroundings but as it turned out I was completely clueless
Now, I'm a big supporter of self-defense classes, although I suspect that folks that do take them (like this woman) do so extremely infrequently. Subconsciously, we think of classes like that more as inoculations - do it and then you can check it off your list.

Important side comment: I am NOT in any way blaming this woman for what happened to her, or casting aspersions on her, her choices, or her actions. The fact that she escaped two attackers, one apparently armed, without a scratch is a tremendous accomplishment and for that alone she has my respect. Her conclusion about the experience:
Aside from being the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced, it made me realize how completely unprepared I was
And here's the problem with the check-it-off-the-list approach to self-defense: it doesn't work. Defending yourself against an attacker is not like riding a bike - if it's been a while, you can't just pick it right back up again. Preparing to deal with emergencies, crises, and out of the ordinary events always involves developing and maintaining instincts over time.

Developing and maintaining instincts, of course, is a function of practice - both physical practice (forcing your body through the movements to build them into muscle memory) and mental practice (thinking through "what would I do" scenarios, and imagining your body responding appropriately). Practice, in turn, is a function of discipline.

As strange as the martial arts often appear to outsiders, this is why they have developed the way they have. All martial arts (Western or Eastern) are built around discipline and the continual practice of movements and techniques that often don't make any sense to non-practitioners. The development of a self-defense capacity happens over time; like good health, it can easily be lost through neglect.

Awareness is an interesting subset. Anybody can become aware, because awareness is an entirely mental skill - it involves nothing more than paying attention to the senses. And every self-defense workshop includes in its first lessons the importance of awareness ("your most powerful weapon is your mind" is one common formulation). But awareness, like any other skill, can only be built and maintained if practiced continually. Once the knack is learned, anyone can practice it in daily life. But very few, unfortunately, do.

The only conclusion I can draw is this: if you think you need to develop the capacity to defend yourself, don't just go to a workshop. Make it a lifestyle, a part of who you are. Don't just attend a couple of sessions and then check it off of your to-do list. Find a method of training and practice, with a good instructor and supportive peers, that works for you - I guarantee that, wherever you live, there are a half-dozen or more good martial arts schools and programs within easy reach. Go regularly. Nobody loses weight by going to the gym once a year. Nobody learns self-defense on the same schedule either.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fear is a Choice

This being a political election year, we are living through a Season of Fear. From predictions of "1000 years of darkness" to dire warnings that "the future of our children" is being threatened to the latest bit of snark about The 1%/Socialism/Radical Islam/Martial Law/End of the Family/you name it, we are bombarded with screaming messages: Be afraid! Vote for the Right Candidate or you are Doomed!

This would be easier to simply laugh off if it were a once-every-four-years carnival that nobody took too seriously. But many of us do take it seriously. And unless we want to become media-free hermits every Leap Year, the rest of us get exposed to a pretty constant stream of fear-mongering. That stream effects us - our mood, our relationships with each other, our outlook on the world.

Our inability to remember the past doesn't help. In every campaign, there are people shrieking about how Our Civilization will come to an end if the Other Guy gets (re)elected. Amazingly enough, our civilization is still here - still less than perfect, and still with plenty of problems (which, we are assured, we will always have with us) - even though somebody's Other Guy won. Nobody moves to Canada. Yet four years later, we forget and start shrieking again.

The notion that the Tidal Wave of Fear comes only once every four years is also a fantasy. What used to be called "off-year" Congressional races are now run with the same kind of national manic fervor as Presidential races. And to fill in all the gaps, Madison Avenue and news outlets have made fear a 24/7 seller. Not all products are sold this way, of course - but the debasement of what used to be "journalism" to the cycle of constant crisis has been a sad sight for those of us who remember more sober newscasts in the distant past.

Our fixation on fear, whether in politics, the economy, society, or our own personal lives, comes in ways large and small. Political and media organizations alike have spent decades figuring out how to get fear under our skin, without our noticing. Chuck Norris is notable only for being honest, and clumsy. We tend to ignore the screamers, at least those screaming for the other side.

But when all we hear is screaming, we start to become deaf. In particular, we become deaf to the vast, broad, complex tapestry of the real world. In reality, our communities are filled with joy, hope, love, hate, anger, triumph, and despair. When all we hear is fear, we miss everything else - in particular, everything that gives life value and meaning. No one gets up in the morning excited to be afraid.

We sometimes see broad patterns that should concern us - real injustice, unnecessary conflict. But we are terrible about predicting the future. Fear blinds us not only to reality, but to our own ignorance. When we are afraid, we grasp at straws and become convinced that if we just do this one thing - vote for the right candidate, buy the right product, watch the right news program, sign the right petition - maybe things will work out OK. But then there's always the next thing to be afraid of.

The real damage of fear is to shift our focus to the wrong things. C.S. Lewis put it brilliantly in the Screwtape Letters:
He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.
Lewis' devils are on very much the same page as the modern political campaign, the modern advertiser, and the modern media outlet. We spend our time thinking about things far beyond our control, instead of focusing on what is around us - what we can impact, which is where our real responsibility lies.

And herein lies our great and only defense. Fear is, indeed, a choice. We choose to listen to the screamers (and to echo their screams), we choose to think about things we can't control, we choose to ignore or neglect the things around us which we can and should be doing. Or we choose to ignore the fear-mongers and invented phantoms, to seek our own peace and to concentrate on what we can do. I choose - or try to choose - not to be afraid. What else is there to do?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Violence Speaks to Violence

Over the last few days, the headlines have been dominated by tiny groups of people who are primarily talking to each other in the language of violence. While the line between peaceful protest and violent outrage is sometimes fuzzy, it's clear that the airwaves are now being dominated by those shouting in anger. The murder of the American ambassador in Libya and the storming of embassies in Yemen and Egypt have captured everyone's attention - the world stage has been seized by the violent.

This is not only true of Muslims across the Islamic World (although most coverage is now going to protests and the potential for further violence). Here in the US, the voices that have been heard most loudly are those that lashed out in anger or disdain (as the Romney campaign did in its initial reaction to events) and, paradoxically, those that created the offending movie in the first place. The President, the Secretary of State, and a host of others have been forced to respond to this agenda of violence, anger, and hate - in the midst of the microscope that is a presidential campaign.

We are, by and large, listening to the violent and angry, and then turning to our leaders to ask "what are you going to do about it?" In so doing, we are missing a fundamental truth and we have lost our own voice in the maelstrom.

The truth we're missing is that, although violence and anger are loud, volume does not mean size. The number of people involved in making the film appears to be remarkably small - and based on news reports, some of those didn't understand what the film would ultimately be about. There appears to have been a very small handful of people whose vitriolic hatred of Islam pushed them to make and release this video. Theirs is a violence of word and voice, if not bullets and fire.

Too, the crowds that have mobbed and attacked US embassies overseas may in fact be relatively small groups of people. The group that attacked the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen numbered a few hundred in a city of two million. Reports have emerged of others in Yemen, Libya and Egypt who are ashamed of their countrymen, including some moving photos of an anti-violence rally in Benghazi. These voices are not as loud as the voices of anger and violence - but they may well be more numerous.

There is, of course, a third group: those that sympathize with the violence (on either side), that harbor the anger and support those who lash out. We don't know how large this group is, either. The lines are not clearly drawn. But I have seen enough anti-Muslim snark, even among my own FB contacts, to know that there are those who to some degree or another approve of the hatred behind the video. These are the "you're either fer us or agin' us" types whose anger is cloaked in righteous indignation, which often serves as a justification for violence or coercion.

In this kind of environment, violence and anger rule the day. They seize everybody's attention and become the dominant means of dialogue. Violence speaks to violence, while those who want peace are caught in the middle, silenced by the din.

I think that if we're really interested in peace, we have a responsibility to say so. We must first examine ourselves, and make sure we're not falling into the "fer us or agin' us" trap. There are peace-seeking people on all sides - if we want to be among their number, let us first make sure that we're not inadvertently feeding the violence and anger in our own interactions.

Next, we should find a way to speak on behalf of peace. The media probably won't listen - anger and violence sell papers and ads far better - but we should do it anyway. In particular, we should speak on behalf of peace to those around us - to our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers and fellow church-goers, our FB friends, our twitter followers - wherever we have a voice that someone listens to.

Speaking for peace also means listening. We seem to believe that other people will listen to us if we shout loud enough, or are clever enough in our snark - even though we ourselves never listen to such people. If we really speak on behalf of peace, we are willing to listen, to reflect, and to honor and respect others' voices. If a desire for peace unites us, that is enough ground on which to stand in conversation.

We should do this not because speaking for peace will silence the violence and anger, but simply because peace needs a voice. We don't know where our words will travel, or what effect they will have. But we know what will happen if we are silent. If no one speaks peace to the violence and anger around us, the violent and angry will have their way and their wars. We can do better. At the very least, we should try.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Point Where You Need to Stop Listening To Your Lawyers

Despite years of work to stamp it out, hazing remains a serious issue on many college and university campuses. The most recent case to make headlines involved the death of Robert Champion at Florida A&M in a hazing incident last year.

Note that the facts are not particularly in dispute here. The autopsy report (you can get to it through the story linked above) ruled his death a homicide. The university's president subsequently resigned.

Unsurprisingly, Champion's parents have sued several defendants, including the university. One presumes that the Florida A&M legal team has been preparing for this since day one - this lawsuit was as predictable as the sunrise.

But rather than try to reach a settlement - much as Penn State has indicated it will do with the victims of its recent scandal - FAMU has decided to fight the suit in court. And, apparently listening to the "admit nothing, contest everything" school of legal defense, they have adopted this as their primary response:
Florida A&M Blames Victim in Hazing Death
That's right - in a case of verified homicide, the university has decided that being a murder victim was the victim's own fault. Never mind the volumes of research about the psychological pressures that lead people to participate in hazing, establishing beyond a doubt that the answer to hazing has never been Nancy Reagan's "Just say no."

There comes a time, especially in extraordinary cases like this, where you should stop listening to your lawyers, fall on your sword, and do the right thing. If this lawsuit goes before a jury, it's hard to imagine a group of 12 folks - some of them likely parents themselves - accepting this line of argument. Moreover, even if they do manage to "win" the lawsuit, they will be forever known as the university that blamed the murder victim for his own death.

Frankly, I find it hard to say much more about this. This is so obviously horrible, such a clear failure of both moral vision and rational self-interest, that it boggles the mind. One wonders how the rest of the university community, or its alumni base, will react. I hope that some group - perhaps the faculty, or alumni, or students themselves - can put a stop to this madness before the current administration destroys what's left of the institution's credibility.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Do You Like Keynes or Keynes?

In this political season, we're being treated to a reprise of that great refrain from the 1992 campaign: "It's the economy, stupid." The two parties are arguing heartily over the state of the economy and, most importantly, what policies the next administration should pursue. Each is trying hard to convince us that their guy has the right answers, and the other guy is totally wrong.

The only problem with this picture is that they're both on the same side in terms of economics. Because they have to pretend to be different, this means that one side (in this case, the Democrats) gets to be honest about it while the other side (Republicans) pretend they believe something else.

The great debate in economics that the Republicans are trying to revive and use is the divide between John Meynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. For those not familiar with this argument, you can learn most of what you need to know in two rap videos here and here. Yes, I know that "rap video" and "economics" don't usually go together - but watch these. They're good. Produced by real economists!

Republicans have been talking a lot lately about the debt, and criticizing President Obama's stimulus package and auto industry bailout as having been fiscally irresponsible and counterproductive. This is a classic Hayek/Austrian School argument. Governor Romney got in a dig during his convention speech when he said, "Jobs to [Obama] are about government.".

The problem is, judging by their actions Republicans don't believe in Hayek either. In that very same speech Romney said, "I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs". This is not the kind of thing you say if you really believe that government doesn't create jobs, the private sector does.

This is also the same Republican party that, along with nearly universal support from Democrats, passed the first stimulus package back in the waning days of the Bush administration. The target of that package was the financial sector. To a Keynesian, stimulus is stimulus - you can argue over details, but pumping money into one sector is much like pumping money into another. And there is nary a member of Congress - from either party - who will oppose spending that goes to defense contractors in his or her district, in the name of "creating jobs".

To be fair, there is a wing of the Republican party that opposes all of these Keynesian efforts. That's the wing most consistently represented by Ron Paul. Paul has opposed nearly all stimulus efforts, derided the Iraq war as wasteful government spending, and called for an audit of the Fed. He managed to capture a few delegates through various primaries, but the GOP gave him no platform at the convention and effectively shut his supporters out. It's pretty clear what you party really thinks about Hayek when you would rather give the microphone to an old actor talking to an empty chair than to the most consistent spokesman for Austrian School economics in modern times.

In fact, the usual Republican vs. Democrat economics argument - tax cuts vs. government spending - is a tactical argument among Keynesians. Both tax cuts and government spending represent stimulus, just in different forms. Neither side, of course, is willing to criticize the Fed's "Quantitative Easing", which some have likened (with some fairness) to printing money on a large scale - a very Keynesian strategy.

So when you hear the parties arguing that they are fundamentally opposed to each others' economic philosophies, don't believe it. If you really think that Hayek is right, and Keynes is wrong, you're out of luck - you have no candidate to represent your views. Your choice is between one who is honest about following Keynes, and another who is trying to trick you into believing he's not on that same road. Even Richard Nixon admitted to being a Keynesian. Funny how his successors seem to have trouble being as honest as Tricky Dick.

Friday, September 7, 2012

It's a Bad Year for Humility

During last night's speech to the Democratic National Convention, President Obama said something unusual during this political season:
“While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”
This kind of expression of humility has been mostly nonexistent in this season of political bombast. Nor do I expect that it's going to become a major campaign theme for the Democrats. In American culture, humility doesn't sell, and for the most part it's not greatly respected.

This is an odd admission for a political scientist, but I avoid most of the campaigning and political "argument" I encounter. I may have to get off FB until December, just to avoid the screeching graphic memes coming from both sides (I have FB friends who are both staunch liberals and staunch conservatives). The snark, the sound-bite insults, the flippant remarks made about the other side - for the most part, these make my stomach churn, and I turn away.

Why do I find this kind of bombast so dispiriting? First and foremost, because it is the enemy of peace. Political campaigns are conducted in the language of perpetual war. When Chuck Norris and his wife spoke of "1000 years of darkness", their hyperbole was notable - but only just. Most speeches - at both conventions - have said much the same thing, simply in more diplomatic language.

This is all nonsense, of course. Most of what the candidates talk about - creating 1 million new manufacturing jobs, or 12 million jobs, or whatever number they make up next - is mostly fantasy. Government does have a role in creating a good environment for the economy. But the economy does a lot of things on its own, and the ability of any given President to "steer" it is minimal. The marginal contributions they make are sometimes important - but that's it.

Of course, nobody is going to run a campaign talking about how the Presidency isn't as important as we think it is. And politicians are always tempted to say that they, and they alone, have the solutions to all of our problems (fascinating that Romney, to take one example, can in the same speech criticize Obama for believing that "jobs to him are about government" and then claim "I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs." Do these people listen to themselves?)

Modern political campaigns - maybe, all political campaigns - are predicated on a basic Manichean argument: the world is divided between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. Our Side stands for Good, Their Side is inherently Evil. Chuck Norris was just being honest about it - but this describes the beating heart of nearly all campaigns.

The truth, of course, is that no party or politician has a monopoly on virtue. Purely unadulterated evil (the sort of psychopathy that says, I don't care about anybody at all and will cheerfully destroy you just for fun) is exceedingly rare. The truth is also that our society is far larger than one office, indeed far larger than the federal government. And everyone from St. Paul to Mohammed to Confucius to Lao Tzu knows that both good and evil reside in all of us - and that the greatest battle we fight is within.

It is unarguably true that our ability to discern Good and Evil is alway less than we think it is. The parable of the wheat and the weeds doesn't get much play most of the time. We have always been willing to inflict a little "collateral damage" in our zeal to kill terrorists, or to marginalize others' voices and choices in the righteousness of our cause, or to excuse our efforts as simply part of the "tide of history". In the name of righteousness, all sorts of evil has been done - not just in the past, but in the present. But we keep ripping up those weeds anyway.

It is no accident, I think, that cultural traditions most focused on peace - from monastic orders in the Western church to Zen Buddhist temples in the East - all emphasize humility. Without it there is no peace, because without humility we raise ourselves above others and feel justified in pushing them down when they resist. We go to war with righteous fervor, and destroy ourselves and own peace in fighting "the enemy".

It is no small irony that both political parties can argue about how many times "God" is mentioned in their platforms, yet neither seems to pay any attention to a great deal of what we think God has tried to say to us - whether we are Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu. There is no religious tradition on earth that does not view humility as a virtue, and there is no shortage of "followers" of each of those religions who treat it as a vice. Of course, atheists don't have any great corner on humility either.

So in this political season of political war and bombast, I find I cannot join the fight. Yes, I agree with some policies more than others, and I find some claims and statements more credible or agreeable than others. But with partisans on all sides out to wage a war of extermination, eager to attack the speck in their neighbors' eyes while ignoring the logs in their own, there is no space for peace. Perhaps like humility, peace too has been moved from virtue to vice, and war is now our preferred state. If so, where are the peaceful - or the peace-seeking - to go?