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The Mindfulness Of The Natural Fighter
A review of 'The Gift of Violence' by Matt Thornton
“Violence is natural,” Matt Thornton writes in The Gift of Violence: Practical Knowledge for Surviving and Thriving in a Dangerous World. “In fact, violence is an essential part of our nature. We wouldn’t be here without it.” Rather than a book about fighting techniques, the founder of the Straight Blast Gym and founding father of modern fighting sports has written “a training book, even if the lessons I offer are more for the mind than the body.” The reader will not become an MMA or UFC competitor this way, however. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu cannot be learned from a book. Instead, Thornton has written his book “to make good people more dangerous to bad people” through a more constructive relationship to violence.
“Stow away your moral compass for now,” Thornton says, and follow the advice of Marcus Aurelius. Violence “needs to be seen as it is, without either the romantic glamorization of adolescent fantasies or the denial and repression found in the wishful thinking of idealistic hippies.” Our violence is biological in origin, however ideological or depraved it becomes. Patterns of violence give us a measure of predictability at every scale, “and it is that predictability that gives smarter animals an advantage when it comes to survival.” Accepting this reality “doesn’t just make safer people — it also makes better people.” At heart, his message “is one simple paradoxical truth: the best way to reduce the risk of violence is to embrace the gift of violence.”
Rather than ignore violence, effective violence is the best answer to violence, Thornton argues. We must avoid both the naturalistic fallacy of excusing all violence and also the magical thinking of pacifism, which Thornton calls “a particularly dangerous form of denial” that selfishly shifts the burden of protection against violence to other people. Civilization often demands that we subdue our instincts. Modernity can be maladaptive. Our responses to violence are ineffective and self-defeating because we have not learned to test ourselves against it. Effective violence is “adaptive violence.” It improves humanity. It makes the world a better place. It makes us a more peaceful species. “Be the gentlest and most dangerous person possible,” he writes.
History is not a smooth surface, yet “each succeeding generation has become better at not acting on our violent tendencies” and the long arc of history has bent towards less bloodshed. “With violence as a whole decreasing since the dawn of civilization, we should expect to find higher rates of homicide the farther back in time we go, no matter where we are on the planet,” Thornton says, and this is indeed what archaeology and anthropology have established.
Violence, both personal and intergroup, has been a universal human experience, and not just in the Old World. “The Americas are no exception,” he explains.
If we take into account all the murders of the twentieth century — all the homicides and genocides, the two world wars, the dictatorships, gulags, and bombs — there was still less violence per capita globally pver that century than in Mesa Verde in the century prior to the arrival of the Europeans. This doesn’t mean that the Europeans did well by the native population there. It just means that the fourteenth century in Mesa Verde was more violent than the world was in the twentieth century when controlling for population size. We shouldn’t lose sight of this reality.
“You are from an unbroken chain of survivors.” We are evolved from success, including successful violence. Thornton writes that his personal evolution was “fueled by my own disillusionment with the contradictions inherent in my own relationship with violence” as a young man. His mother, a religious pacifist, nevertheless turned fierce to defend him from a bully; his father, a policeman, carried a gun, but on one occasion, Thornton observed his father using his intelligence to avoid being stabbed in the street.
Thornton discloses his own violence as a youth: the beating he took from three boys in the gym, the beatings he gave them in return. Martial arts beckoned as a way to resolve his dilemma, but he found most “traditional” modes of training useless. They were “devolutionary,” Thornton says, filled with “egregious bullshit.”
“The World of traditional martial arts, like religion, is overflowing with superstition, creation myths, miracle stories, antiquated training methods, and all manner of woo-woo,” he writes. Sold as a fighting techniques, the methods put on display for beginners are more of a dance than a fight, for the attacker is cooperating in the scene. Real fighting is improvisational.
All ideas about fighting should be tested in rigorous training. He gives the example of a friend who developed knife defense techniques that worked, a kind of self-defense holy grail, by having people “stab” at him relentlessly with magic markers. Ideas that fail on the training mat deserve to die. “People deserve respect. Ideas do not. When we afford any idea, method, system, ideology, or faith protection from criticism, we set ourselves up for disaster,” Thornton writes.
You will encounter this type of response from believers of any objectively bad idea or superstition — whether related to medical quackery, eztremist ideologies, paranormal phenomena, or religious cults. Martial arts woo-woo is no exception. The practitioners often plead for “tolerance,” which, in their case, means sheltering their bad ideas from criticism. The critics of their sacred cow are labeled intolerant, closed-minded, and cranky, while the purveyors of the deception portray themselves as enlightened, ecumenical experts who are able to rise above the fray and see the value in their dogma … The idea that tolerance is a virtue in itself is a dangerous fallacy. I am intolerant of all sorts of things: violence against children; the torture of animals; and people with bad hygiene who want to take a wrestling class. Real morality — the kind arrived at through concern for the suffering of conscious creatures — requires intolerance. Tolerance is neither good nor bad: it always depends on what one is tolerating.
Citing police violence statistics, Thornton is critical of the post-George Floyd riots as well as the “defund the police” movement. He points to soaring crime rates as evidence the approach is flawed and argues that it fails black Americans most of all, as they suffer violent crime in disproportionate measure. Likewise, training methods that fail the empirical test at the gym should be discarded.
The Bruce Lee method of cross-training helped, but Thornton’s own creation story as a fighter was a process of “sorting out what worked — that is, what was functional against strong, aggressive, fully resisting opponents — from what didn’t work” in martial arts. By the time he discovered Brazilian Jiu Jistsu (BJJ), Thornton had decided that “what the styles that work all have in common is their training method … a form of meritocratic competition — the opponent process.” Competere, the truth of combat, evolves us.
There are “four ranges of combat:” kicking range, boxing range, trapping range, and grappling range. Fights do not stay at one ranger, but progress through the four stages. Sooner or later, everyone ends up on the ground.
It is humiliating, It should be. Humiliation by another person is the point. “This form of physical activity lays the ego bare in a very different way from, say, running. When you’re running, you may be alone. In BJJ, you’re in competition with another human being who is trying to dominate you physically, just as you are trying to dominate them … Tapping out to your partner means unambiguously conceding defeat.” In a proper combat sports environment “the very process of training … causes you to grow in confidence, maturity, strength, and self-awareness and improve your understanding, empathy, and health.”
Students push themselves harder, get stronger, and gain confidence from the competition. Exposure to the stress of defeat, the sense of accomplishment from winning the point in a fair match: the ego is working out, becoming healthy rather than beaten down or inflated. “Thirty years in combat athletics has helped me become a smarter, kinder, more self-aware human being — to move the needle, at least a bit, toward the maturity end of the scale,” Thornton writes.
Immature manhood is the social ill that Thornton offers to cure. Surveying the evidence, he says that “a lack of maturity is at the heart of most problematic violence.” Fatherlessness is the biggest risk factor for young men to commit crimes because they have no model for male maturity and healthy manhood. They kill over “disrespect” because they have not learned to respect themselves. Add stupidity and desperation, the boy becomes a dangerous young man.
Juvenile folly leads to false bravado, or “boy-speak” in Thornton’s terminology, which “always signals unfamiliarity with the subject” of violence. “It represents an attempt to sound masculine, but it actually reveals that its user is insecure and scared.” Universal to young males, “it is always rooted in immaturity and feelings of inadequacy.” Training in combat sports abolishes it.
These youthful displays are often flecked with popular culture references such as Al Pacino’s Scarface. Insincere displays of violence, like insincere depictions of sex, are pornographic, he notes, whereas sincere depictions of either act are regarded as art. Their violence is insincere because it derives from ignorance of themselves. Real confidence comes from knowing one’s own strengths and limitations, Thornton argues. Combat sports instill these very lessons. “When they are done properly, they are psychologically and emotionally good for people.”
Toughness is important. “Being tough” does not require someone to be wicked, however. On the contrary, “people with character disorders don’t last long on my mat. When we notice them, they’re immediately asked to leave, and even if we don’t catch them right away, the process of learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu eventually weeds them out of the community,” Thornton explains. “When you are working in an enviroment that is based on meritocratic competition, when you tap people out and get tapped out daily, when you punch and get punched, and when you understand what physical conflict feels like, violence loses its glamor.”
Excessive force is as bad as ineffective force. A middle path becomes possible with a complete knowledge of one’s own power. Rather than reactionary blows that may come too hard or ineffective, “using your brain to its full potential and being able to determine the appropriate level and application of violence is what proper self-defense is all about.” It turns the boy into a man.
Women are not left out of this book. Thornton’s title recalls The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker, his main source material. The reader with a daughter is told to “teach her that relational aggression is a form of bullying” and a precursor to physical attack. Passive aggression sets us up for physical aggression. Our fear of being “mean” is an impediment to recognition of manipulators and effective response. Rather than nonviolence, “niceness is a strategy we hairless primates use to manipulate others. It is also the bread and butter of every con artist on the planet.”
“When you hear that voice inside your head attempting to rationalize the creepy vibes you are feeling, ignore that voice.” Do not ignore the pre-incident indicators: nervousness, too much unnecessary detail, “forced teaming” such as the use of we and us to discuss their problem, and any refusal to take no for an anwer. Do not stay around in this type of situation, Thornton advises. Never cooperate. “Either get away or fight: compliance will only end in misery.”
This all recalls De Becker, Thornton’s acknowledged source material to write about mindfulness and safety. “Mindfulness is awareness without distraction,” Thornton writes. Developing active perception skills is key to awareness, as “feeling safe and being safe are not the same thing. You can feel safe, even though you may be in danger. And you can feel unsafe, even when you’re quite secure. Without a proper education in violence, you may not be able to distinguish between the two until it’s too late.”
He calls this state, an intelligent development of our evolved heuristics, Aliveness. “Strength and knowledge are never at odds” in this process, Thornton says. “They are synonymous” because intelligence itself is an evolved trait.
The fact that primal instincts are involuntary, they are ‘choice-less,’ is one of their greatest advantages. Like all forms of intuition, primal instincts always occur in response to something and always serve your best interests. The most important thing you can do to become more attuned to these natural survival instincts is to practice not ignoring them.
Remembering to lock all the house doors, engaging in banter with strangers to defuse situations or detect threats — these are the skills of the survivor. Violence always has context. We are keenly interested in that context when we witness violence. Safety lies in detecting, and avoiding, violent contexts. Only then can we act with decisive strength.
Decisive action — effective, successful violence — is “the least understood, and as a consequence, the most fetishized” kind of violence, Thornton writes. Wise violence is appropriate, but it “isn’t about fairness. The art of intimidation depends solely on people knowing that you’re not only capable of harming them but also willing to harm them.” In other words, when we are dangerous, we deter predators. They sense it, for they too are operating on honed instincts for the easy victim.
Predators are lazy. Nature is harsh, so the lion goes for easy prey. “Almost all crime is opportunistic,” Thornton says. Of the three types of criminals — the moralistic, the greedy, and the character-disordered — it is the last group that poses the greatest threat to children and vulnerable adults.
Usually male, this criminal “operates from a place of desire and manipulation,” presents a false persona, fails to take responsibility, exhibits a sense of entitled victimhood, and reacts to challenges and setbacks with childish aggression. Consistent attempts to manipulate through covert aggression are a big, red flag. They are setting up the context for violence.
We create our own context with the subtle signs of our self-assurance: posture. Gait. Expression. Tone of voice. ‘Body language.’ All of them signal that we are not going to freeze, or fawn, or fumble around, that we are more liable to fight than flee.
“To be attacked and not fight at all can be emotionally debilitating,” Thornton writes. Pride is not the point, though. Survival is. To survive, he advises us to make our decisions about violence before we act and give no warning of our violence. Threats, bluster, words — these are “boy-talk,” a sign of weakness. Our violent actions should speak for themselves.
Awareness of when to escalate, and how, makes us better at violence, therefore safer from violence, therefore better as a species. Matt Thornton does not reach this conclusion by starting from any other ideal than survival. His argument has this merit, that every one of us is indeed the result of an unbroken chain of survivors. Evolution does not judge us for our violence; nature has evolved humans that do violence to one another, and then judge each other for it. We can only evolve further by seeing this for what it is.
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