I was 5-years old when the bullying started. In those days you were able to go straight into junior primary school in South Africa. But my Mother thought it best that I did at least one year at pre-school before heading to ‘big school’. I think she also felt I need the socialisation, because up until that point I had been staying at home with my grandmother while my mother went off to work. In reflection, I also realize now that things were financially tough, so my Grandmother had no choice but to find a part-time job herself.
I am not sure why I was being bullied. Maybe it was because I was the new kid, with kids already having being together in pre-school for sometime and everyone had already made their little tribes and weren’t letting anyone else in. Who knows! As much as I tried to make friends, to fit in, it just wasn’t happening. I was subject to intense teasing, pushed around, tripped and so on. This mostly happened during recess when the teachers weren’t around to see. Anytime I went to sit with my lunch with the other kids they would get up and move, so I found myself alone, eating my cheese and ham sandwiches in the corner of the play ground.
It become so bad, that eventually I escaped pre-school twice, hiding away until the recess bell had rung, then climbing onto the garbage bins, and jumped the wall. Luckily for me, the two times I did manage to escape my Grandmother was home, only to completely shocked opening the front door to find me standing there having walked the several miles to get home.
Things Didn’t Change after That
The rest of my childhood didn’t change much after that. All through junior and senior primary I was bullied, and into the first two years of high school, until I snapped, had had enough, and started fighting back. Fighting back became my life’s work. For two decades I immersed myself in violence, either having to apply it as a doorman outside some of Johannesburg toughest nightclubs, or teaching others how to do the same, from surviving the battlefield, to the inner city streets. I never had an aggressive streak as a child. I was quiet, creative, and just wanted to get along with everyone. Looking back however, it is clear to me now that environment informs behaviour, so that even a timid kid like me, can become someone skilled in using violence to gain the upper hand.
Even as I write this, I am still someone who at my core disdains violence of any kind, its not in my true nature to be violent, but as I have also learned, when you are cornered by several thugs bent on smashing your skull in to the sidewalk, fighting back and winning is really the only solution.
Why The Aggression?
Pondering my observations above has left me awake at night. How much of the aggression we see in the modern world is just human nature, or how much of it is really a creation of the societies we live in? Have we always been an aggressive species, or is it mostly a byproduct of the environment we find ourselves in?
Before I explore this further, I am constantly struck by our hypocrisy especially in the West (I count myself in this too). We largely as a society deplore violence, yet much of our most popular entertainment is violent, from movies, to the sports we play and watch. If two people get into a fist fight on the street corner, one if not both are going to jail, but if we do it in an Octagon it’s perfectly acceptable. Killing someone in suburbia who has a different worldview to you is a no-no, but if your government sends you to a foreign land, killing someone who has been classified as an ‘enemy’ then it’s perfectly fine. And the list goes on. I could be here all day highlighting all of the hypocrisy with violence and aggression we brush away in modernity. Hobbes in 1651 noted that life before the state was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It was argued that when we still lived in small scale societies they were wracked by violence, disease, starvation, the constant threat of predation and natural disaster. In other words humans lived with no control over their lives or their environment. Every day supposedly was spent toiling just to survive, with barely no leisure time. There was simply no time to spend building a culture.
However over the millennia, humans gradually developed the tools to start building civilisations. The major revolution in all of this advancement was the Neolithic Revolution, with the introduction of agriculture. Agriculture allowed us to shift from living in bands of nomadic hunter gatherers, to forming permanent settlements.
But is this picture of our hunter gatherer ancestors correct? The reality is that much of this isn’t true.
We Have OUR Past Completely Wrong
Hunter gatherers ‘work’ on average 20 hours a week. Here I am talking about hunter gatherers in the Australian outback or the Kalahari Desert, not exactly plush environments. What we are calling work here for hunter gatherer’s or what anthropologists count as their work are the very things we all escape to on vacation, like hunting and fishing. Hunter gatherers in fact have fairly varied diets, and they have far more leisure time than most of us do in the modern world. In addition their social structure is highly egalitarian. All the basic needs of all members of the band are fairly easily met. In other words, no one goes without what they need to live a fulfilled life.
What about violence, and war?
Doug Fry and Patrik Söderberg, two anthropologists who specialise in the study of preagricultural societies, have noted that, “Nowhere in the actual data [on nomadic foragers] are found instances of lethal raiding for trophies or coups ” they continued by arguing that, “the worldwide archaeological evidence shows that war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence.” This all changed and the archaeological record is “clear and unambiguous” on this with the advent of large scale agricultural settlements. It was at this time that, “War developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, slavery flourished, and the social position of women deteriorated.” The conclusion that arises out of this, and many other sources of research that agree is that civilisation was not responsible for reducing the ravages of human violence, but rather that civilisation itself is the source of most organised human violence. As Brian Ferguson professor of anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark notes, “We are not hard-wired for war. We learn it.”
Violence & Modernity
This brings me back to the question I raised earlier: Have we always been an aggressive species, or is it mostly a byproduct of the environment we find ourselves in?
While of course it would be naive to argue that violence never existed among our ancestors prior to agriculture, what is clear is that it proliferated since the dawn of the Neolithic. This will be unsettling to a lot of people in the modern world, especially those invested in violence in its various guises. We would like to believe as Steven Pinker wrote in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, that life in pre-history was marked by violence and war, along with “chronic raiding and feuding… characterised life in a state of nature.” However, this doesn’t seem to hold up. Just look around you, especially in the West, people are more unhappier than ever before, aggressive, stressed out, and feeling a sense of meaninglessness. My experience surviving a childhood of violence, and spending the rest of my life in teaching others how to combat it has shown me that on an individual level, people are generally far more aggressive than ever before.
Its my position that much of the aggression we see these days among people is largely due to the scaffolding of modernity. The modern world doesn’t seem to be good for us. For most of our time on this planet we lived as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, in small bands, deeply connected to the natural world. In fact, our brains and bodies still remain the same, except now we have been thrust into a human zoo of our own making. Everything about the world around us now is unnatural, caged into ever smaller cramped spaces of concrete and steel.
Environment Informs Behaviour
To illustrate what the outcome can be when you take a species from its natural habitat and place it in an artificial one here is an poignant example. In the 1930s Solly Zuckerman and colleagues placed a 140 hamadryas baboons together in an exhibit at the London Zoo. In short order all hell broke loose with 94 adults and 14 infants being killed by each other. Initially it was thought that this violent outbreak was due to social discord, but later it became clear that it was likely due to the artificial environment that triggered the mayhem. As has been shown by other researchers captive female baboons are nine times more aggressive, while captive males are more than seventeen times as aggressive, when living in cages. In other words, environment has a deep impact on behaviour. Why anyone would think this would not be the same for humans is short sighted.
Where Does This Place Me?
Where does all of the above place me, someone who is part of a profession of violence? What to do?
I am certain my conclusion won’t make me popular. No one wants to accept that just maybe as we move further into becoming techno-sapiens things are only going to get worse. Just look around you for all the technical advances we have made, for all that modernity is said to be our saviour, more kids are committing suicide than ever before, kids are drugged up, there’s an opioid crisis, the environmental destruction, corporate greed and so forth. I am not sure about you, but this doesn’t seem to be the healthy option. I want to make it clear that my personal decisions are my own, and in no way account for those who coach my programs, and nor do I ever tell anyone how they should live. On the contrary, as a coach, I am merely a guide, sharing my personal insights, and if someone feels it speaks to them they are welcome to take what works.
But over the past several years my entire perspective on coaching martial arts has changed. Looking back, in my beginning years, in my 20s I was a part of the problem I now see. I was using violence to try to overcome the trauma I had experienced as a child. Now that I know better, I continue to train and teach martial arts but only for three reasons: self-preservation, self-development and enjoyment. Not for sport, not as a way to dominate others, and definitely not to perpetuate the violence and aggression I am seeing everywhere around me. Its not easy, as sometimes the lines between right and wrong can become blurred. But I am honestly trying my best. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Where Am I Now?
As I continue to develop my own personal practice, more than ever I believe that martial arts if approached correctly can act as a transformative function, leading each of us to becoming a more evolved self. An evolved self that by using the martial arts experience as a laboratory can overcome our own aggression towards ourselves, whilst showing up in the world peacefully. I finally get what my karate instructor meant when talking to all of us at 6-years old, “Karate isn’t to commit violence, but to end it.”
While our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have not used violence often against each other, their martial art was that of surviving and thriving. The success of the hunt, keeping the band safe, all lent to a hunter-gatherer’s character. We have always held those among us skilled in the martial way as people who (should) exhibit character traits we admire: courage, fearlessness, discipline, honesty and so forth. This is still true today. But to honour our inner hunter-gather is only possible if what we use are martial art skills for is in service of life, and not against it.