Paying the price of learning to use violence

This post is a response to this post.

In the past I was certain that I want to acquire the ability to use violence to defend myself. As a woman, I feel constantly exposed to violence. But the more I experiment with martial arts; the more I realize that there are prices one has to pay in order to acquire the ability to use violence.

One has to be able to practice the ability to use violence on others, e.g. training partners. In the very least one has to be able to exert bodily movements or to move his or her body in ways that simulate violence. Or, he or she may need to induce pain in others, or take the risk of inducing pain in others.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to pay these prices. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I want to be a good person. I feel that perhaps it is better to remain in the position of the defenseless victim than to acquire the ability to use violence.

I want to describe what I feel in my body when I’m asked to perform a movement that simulates violence. Imagine that my body is a car. I’m driving my car on the road, nonchalantly. When I have to perform a movement associated with violence, the road I was driving on a minute before disappears. Now I’m driving a car that’s hanging on a cliff’s end. I can’t drive at all.

On the one level, I know that this part of my gender socialization, and my oppression as a woman.

On the other hand, this is a part of me I don’t know if I can ever change.

Also my gender socialization has positive aspects.  I’m an extremely sensitive person. I experience many things on a very primordial, child-like level, without many filters. I think that I have a strong capacity to connect to others and feel what they feel.  I can’t watch aggressive sports because I can’t take pain or violence as a form of entertainment, even if the participants consented. Trying to watch the UFC in past had actually made me cry. Living in a society whose members exhibit greater degrees of comfort with violence then me, I often wonder what is wrong with me. But what if things are the other way around? Perhaps society would be a better place if more men and women were weak and too sensitive, like me, then if people like me would get tougher?

An update: I think this post is the mirror image of this one

Update #2 this is really appropriate to put here.

Do you breed in captivity?

Consuming documented prostitution (AKA “pornography”) means consuming the sexuality of strangers as a commodity. It is neither natural nor universal, but a social institution with concrete history. In addition to the advanced technology it requires for mass reproduction, it depends on specific forms of material and cultural power relations. To allow some people to achieve sexual gratification in the privacy of their home, without any social costs, the participants in pornographic videos suffer significant social and emotional costs, losing their right to privacy for good.

A pro-feminist male friend of mine tended to agree with my negative view on documented prostitution but said  that “then again, I read somewhere that when a few individuals of a rare kind of animal in a zoo wouldn’t procreate, the zoo personnel showed them videos of other individuals of their kind mate, and that caused them to procreate.  So, I guess that being aroused by seeing videos of individuals of your kind mate is natural”.

My friend gave me a wonderful metaphor to think about pornography and human sexuality. The animals in the zoo are locked in a cage. Either they were hunted down or born in captivity. They are deprived both of the stimuli of their natural habitat, and of the possibility to freely encounter and engage with other individuals of their kind. They are probably under continuous stress caused by being displayed to the enjoyment of people.

Whose captives are we that we have become dependent on seeing a video of strangers mate in order to stimulate and satisfy our sexual desires?

Our sexuality is not the most significant issue at stake. Our ability to truly encounter the Other and forge an ethical relationship with him or her is also at risk.  Following the research conducted by my friend and colleague, Dr. Sara Cohen Shabot, into the ethics of Simone de Beauvoir (you can read two relevant articles of her  here and here), I believe that when we encounter another human being, each of us has a responsibility to engage in an active struggle to free both himself or herself and the Other. We cannot meet the person whose sexuality has been commodifized for us, let alone strive to free him or her. In fact, by consuming pornography, we actively learn to dissociate sexual gratification from the responsibility of encountering the Other as equal and independent.

On the irreversibility of pain

Merleau-Ponty wrote about the inherent reversibility of the hand shake: both hands, both bodies touch each other and are being touched at the same time. The movement is reversible; the bond that’s created is mutual.

This is true whenever I touch another person (except when I’m using an object to touch the other person). The reversibility of the movement- the fact that both of us touch and are being touched at the same time- is essential to the bond between us.

When I induce pain in another body through my touch- this bond is ruptured.The Other  now feels an intense stimulus that takes control over her or his attention. He or she feels something very strong. What I feel becomes close to nothing. The intensity of the pain the felt by the Other minimizes my own weaker and more mundane sensations. The movement is no longer reversible. The bond is ruptured.


One of the reasons I enjoy practicing martial arts so much is that it changes me.  I often feel that while intellectual learning may grant me more knowledge, it doesn’t have the power to change me.

I was raised on the belief that physical aggression is bad and forbidden, and that displaying any form of physical aggression is primitive, shameful and humiliating.

I remember two instances in which the faintest expression of physical aggression as a child brought on such a severe reaction that I understood quite well that such a behavior is not tolerated.

This and other forms of feminine gender socialization have made me much more comfortable with being or imagining to be the target of physical aggression than being the agent of physical aggression.

Merely playing the role of the attacker during martial art class can be extremely difficult for me. I feel out of place, embarrassed, my limbs heavy.

But I adapt to it. After a while, playing the role of the attacker comes more naturally, eliciting less embarrassment. I feel relieved. This relief comes from having the opportunity to rework and change the corporeal and emotional patterns I was socially wired to in relation to aggression.

During this class, I not only became more proficient in one language of the human body (one can view different martial arts as different forms or dialects of body languages), I had also changed. When I change, I feel as though something in the world outside me has reached through to me and penetrated my soul.

The force of a flickering light-bulb

I want to feel that I truly inhabit my body. But I only experience it very rarely. When I move or execute movements automatically I’m as far from inhabiting my body as one can be. So maybe expressing doubt, indecisiveness, pondering – through the body – is one mode of inhabiting it.

This occurs in situations when you’re not sure what to do with your body or part of it. Or if you are trying to change some form of bodily habit, a former way of moving, adapt yourself to something new. Your movement is tentative, faltering. Your muscle tonus oscillates, tenderly changing, from one moment to another, like a flickering light bulb.

Regardless of your will, you now express something new with your body. It is precisely the indecisiveness and doubt that communicates this fact to you and others. You make an effort; moored in time and space, because you lack confidence and authority.

This experience is inextricably bound to imagining new ways of inhabiting ones’ body, and to a genuine willingness to change. This experience needs to be sheltered to take place. Aggression, humiliation, pressure, social or physical, dictation will strangle it like putting a glass over a little flame. When it comes to human sexuality, I believe that the spread and force of symbolical and material erotization of violence, and more broadly, of hierarchy and power relations ( along with the accompanying construction of human sexuality as genital penetration) suffocates this potential mode of inhabiting one’s body through sexuality. By definition, this mode of sexuality or eroticism, would not lend itself to commercialization or consumption.

Intimacy at arm’s length

“The arm’s length principle (ALP) is the condition or the fact that the parties to a transaction are independent and on an equal footing”- Wikipedia

I used to think that intimacy meant reducing the space or distance between you and another person until you are enmeshed, completely entangled with one another. I thought that I had no difficulty with intimacy since my two default states of being are either severe delineation of boundaries or complete enmeshment. In my everyday life, when I engage in a friendly conversation with a person and he or she touches my hand or my shoulder or come closer, my immediate reaction is to shrink back. I know that it isn’t helpful and that it alienates others, but I can’t help myself. Even when I know that the other person means well.

Recently I came to realize that, in fact, intimacy is strengthened when you are able to touch another person while maintaining a distance between the other person and you. The space between is not only spatial- it is also a “bodily” state of being. It can be conceived along the spectrum between  aggression or stiffness on the one extreme and complete looseness on the other.

Touching another person while preserving a spatial and bodily distance can establish a strong sense of intimacy. This intimacy can be intimidating and raise suspicion toward the Other:  How can I know that I’m not being judged? That I’m not being ridiculed? The intimacy in this encounter can feel extremely risky. When I feel this tension builds within me, I can destroy intimacy in one of two ways: I can either introduce physical aggression or break the balance between looseness and stiffness.

The fear of being judged or ridiculed can be dealt with by brining an Object to my encounter with the Other, like some sort of achievement, be it intellectual or physical , or a status symbol. With this third object I try to impress the other person, to defuse his or her imagined criticism or manipulate him or her. Having to approach another person, without any “third object” to bring with me, can lead to extreme vulnerability. If only I could become enmeshed with the Other- appropriating him or her- I could escape my state of being vulnerable and defenseless. But this time the Other won’t let me use aggression to break the distance. The Other will use aggression against me- pushing back, recreating the distance between us.

When intellectual learning interferes with corporeal learning

I really like doing drills with B. Even though he trains about 1/6 of the time I train, he teaches me a lot. He sees right through my errors. He told me that I think too much about the drill, and that I should just do it. He’s right.
Whenever I’m presented with a drill, and I need to  execute it or perform it, I try first to intellectually plan or go through each phase of the drill and then do it. But then I get confused. I have this kind of very strong, inner lack of trust of my corporeal learning ability. If I physically execute a drill correctly, I’m surprised. I tell him: I have no idea how I did it. But I did it.
By saying that I have no idea how I did it I actually say that I execute the drill without figuring it out intellectually. My intellectual capacities are much more developed than my corporeal learning abilities. I have learned to trust and use my intellect much more than my corporeal knowledge or learning. And in relying on the wrong brain faculty I interfere and slow down the development of the right faculty of the brain for this kind of learning.This also makes me think about the traits that a good teacher needs to have for this kind of learning process.
More than anything else, it is our body that connects us to out fragility and weakness. My inability to trust my body partly stems from the difficulty in accepting my weaknesses.

Many people find it difficult to bear another’s weakness and so they react by patronizing -denying their own weakness. Alternatively, they expect or even try to force the other to behave as they do. This may also be another way to distance themselves from their own vulnerability.