Dictatorships are invariably self-destructive. They are, by definition, a failure of society to function in harmony. When absolute power is centralized, be it in a single person, a group, or a dogma, the ability of the society to function, grow, and adapt becomes crippled. But dictatorships continue to arise throughout the world. Even the most celebrated liberal democracies are not immune to the threat of autocracy. Even rebellion itself can carry the weeds of tyranny.
So, when even the revolution itself brings about the very oppression it presumes to supplant, how can we protect ourselves against this pernicious pathogen?
The internal conflict and divisions that inevitably accompany dictatorships can be found in each and every one of us. As humans, it is in our nature to go to war with ourselves, to fail to heed the wisdom of others, and to allow emotion to rule our decision-making. Fear, pride, and passion are the tools and motivation of autocrats. These are also the poisons that can ruin our own lives.
Whether we are talking of the politics and security of nations, or of the mind and body of an individual, the process is much the same.
Martial art schools frequently enlist students who are seeking power, respect, and glory. They think that these things will give them happiness, security, and something to be proud of. Nations often elect or appoint strongmen for much the same reasons.
A nation or a person who is oppressed, will sometimes seek martial or political power so they can dominate a long-time enemy, or seek revenge for past abuse. Such was the case with Nazi Germany, for whom the WW1 had never ended. Such is the case with many a youth who seek revenge against a schoolyard bully.
The desire for vengeance can be a tool of any totalitarian dictatorships, whether it exists on a global scale, or within the body of a single martial artist. Revenge is a popular theme in popular fiction, particularly in action films. It is like a drug that is fed to the audience. But the movie almost always ends without recognizing the ultimate consequence of such vengeance. An action film allows us the intoxication without the hangover.
Vengeance, in reality, is the act of following the enemy into the abyss.
An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.Mahatma Gandhi
Populist leaders, particularly totalitarian strongmen, will invoke fear and hatred of a supposed enemy, and work to dehumanize them in the minds of their followers. They stoke the “common-sense” response of an unqualified demographic that is untrained in art of deep and subtle thought. They then offer simplistic solutions to complex problems.
When I hear people claim they are using common sense, I find that they usually mean that they have not bothered to think deeply enough to understand the situation. In a martial art, the enemy’s common sense is exactly what you use to defeat them.
In an authoritarian regime, it is emotion rather than logic that motivates the followers. Greed, narcissism, and insecurity, on the other hand, are what motivate the dictator. To that end, the dictator discourages any opinion which challenges their own narcissism, or which calms the populous.
As individual martial artists, we are prone to the same disfunction. Our ego, insecurity, and selfishness are prime motivators. It is human nature to be driven by things like selfishness, fear, laziness, pride, and emotional satisfaction. However, if we do not learn to overcome our selfish nature, then any efforts we make will be self defeating. As we mature, we learn that we are part of a greater world. We also learn that success is a balancing act. We succeed better in harmony than in conflict, but we benefit by being challenged. We learn to disagree non-violently, and to seek out people who will challenge us.
A martial art is a science. Scientists thrive when surrounded by smart people who are willing to disagree with them. Scientists know that the scientific method is not about being smarter that other people. Rather, it is about getting other people to check your work, and challenge your bias. Science benefits from having agents all around the world, of every religious, political, and cultural background.
A single stationary eye does not see depth. True perception requires multiple viewpoints in space and time. But the beginner is always tense, seeing only one point of view, and perceiving the attack as external to the reality that they seek to preserve. This is why beginners spend much of their time beating themselves up, or handing the opponent the means to victory. Mastery is the process of letting go of the ego, realizing that there is no enemy, and seeking to manage the balance of the whole rather than pitting the self against the universe.
In popular fiction, the avenger aims to break the enemy. The goal is it to enjoy seeing the enemy experience suffering, regret, and pain. This is presented to the audience as a form of justice.
This is not the way of a martial art. A martial art is not the art of violence. It is the cure for violence. The martial artist is to violence and revenge what the physician is to illness and disfunction. The student of a martial art will learn to replace their own suffering, ego, and rage with understanding, compassion, strategy and tactics. While vengeance seeks to break the enemy, a martial artist recognizes that the enemy is already broken.
One might ague that a surgeon must sometimes amputate an offending limb, organ, or tumor. But the ultimate goal of medicine is to pre-empt the need for such drastic action, and to heal the body before there is any need for such drastic and desperate measures. Likewise, the martial artist cultivates awareness of the enemy, of the situation, of the relationship, and of the self. One learns to see the conflict inherent to existence itself, and to resolve the problem before it becomes a threat.
For a martial artist, the higher the level of skill, the less likely the conflict will be. This is why most martial artists don’t seek to become the best fighter in the world. They only seek to be better than the sort of person who would attack them. They know that the best martial artists are not a threat.
zhībǐzhījǐ, bǎizhànbùdài; bùzhī bǐ ér zhījǐ, yī shèng yī fù; bù zhī bǐ, bù zhī jǐ, měi zhàn bì dài
It is often said that to know your enemy and know yourself is to win every battle. To know yourself and not your enemy, is to be uncertain of victory. If you don’t even know yourself, you have already lost.Sunzi
Through training, we discover that we can never learn anything about anyone by hating them. We learn that the more we cling to anger, the more that anger will serve the enemy.
Autocrats seek to control by force, and Machiavellian manipulation. They like clearly defined borders, and will try to expand their empire to a geographically defendable position, they attempt to weaken their neighbours for their own benefit. They preach distributive economics. They build walls and plant dynamite in the bridges.
They incite division, fear, and anger. They preach the narrative that the foreigner hates them, and that anger toward the foreigner is justified.
A martial art teaches us that justification of anger is irrelevant. If you are holding onto anger, you are losing the fight.
But anger is merely the hatred of hatred. All hatred is self-hatred. Hatred leads inevitably to violence and self destruction.
Violence is thus the failure of awareness – both of the neighbour and of the self. We might ask why some foreigners harbour such animosity toward us. We might say, “Why do they hate us? We don’t even thing about them.” It is that very lack of awareness that caused the problem.
Such failure is the inevitable result of autocracy. The more we try to dominate the world, intimidate our enemy, and control our country or ourselves, the more lazy, ignorant, corrupt, and cowardly we become. We don’t listen to ourselves, much less other people. The dictator is insulated from criticism and critical analysis. Thought and creativity are suppressed, and the nation is crippled by its own dogma.
These comments are not merely to promote some sort of idealism. I am discussing tactical and strategic principles born of experience and analysis. The more we oppose our opponent, the more it costs us. But if we understand what the enemy wants, and can find a way to give it to them without compromising ourselves, then the war never needs to happen.
Martial art forums often involve a discussion about the need to test a martial technique against a resistant and non-compliant opponent. But this is the wrong way to look at it. In real hand-to-hand combat, if I find that the opponent is resisting my technique, I know it is the wrong technique. Rather than expending more energy to an ineffective technique, I should find another technique, or change my method entirely. The most effective technique is the one with which the opponent is complicit. As one of my students so wisely put it, “I am just looking for the part of their mind that wants to fall down.”
This strategy is like taking integrative negotiation to the mat. As we learn to use cooperation for self defence, we will learn to develop combat skill to the level where combat is unnecessary. That is why the best fighters never fight. They learn to see the cause of the enemy’s motivation before it leads to conflict. Harmony becomes the best defence. Tactics lead to diplomacy. The highest level of skill is a state of awareness we call “no enemy.”
To paraphrase Laozi:
Autocratic strongmen pit followers against each other, and profit from corruption. When the people overly esteem great men, then the people themselves become powerless. The powerlessness of the people will serve the dictator in the short term, but fails the nation.
If you fill their bellies and empty their minds, the people will be easy to govern.
The dictator hopes to give the people their basic needs, while limiting any extra ambition for possessions, technology, or knowledge. This limits complex thought, and apparent opposition. It is also impossible in the long term, because it requires a closed system, and any closed system will inevitably come into conflict with the rest of the universe.
To “keep their bellies full and minds empty” is seen by some leaders as the ideal…at least for the short term. However, such a lazy government is not good government, and societies which are run this way will inevitably fall to pieces. Autocrats are almost always poorly informed, in no small part because they often shoot the messengers and discourage disagreement. The population also becomes increasingly poorly informed and poorly educated. The workers, the soldiers, and the intellectuals are discouraged from acting autonomously, while simultaneously learning to distrust experts. Everyone ends up passing responsibility both up and down the chain of command. In short, the stronger the authority of the leader, the sooner the country will have no one who is actually in charge. This happens to individuals in the same way that it happens to governments. Martial artists who tense up and try to overpower every situation will become like a block of wood, with all the body parts incapable of working either independently or in concert with each other. Instead of being fierce and agile like a bear, they become a like a cowering turtle. Then they become turtle soup.
Good government is difficult. Its greatest assets are the intellectual and cultural diversity of the people. A free society, with a free press, encourages the chaotic but respectful exchange of ideas. A free society is one where joy is found among smart people who disagree with you, without animosity…This is what strengthens and preserves a society and a people.
This model of good and open government works on every scale, from global politics to personal cultivation. The battle against autocracy begins within.
For the beginner student of a martial art, their journey begins as the struggle for control, and the need to become stronger, more dominant, and more secure. The student trains to become “strong like bull and smart like tractor.”
But the search for mastery takes the student on a journey of self awareness. Many student are unprepared for how much the path of self-awareness can be like the male offspring of a female dog.
When they are confronted with various aspects of the self, many students will quit out of frustration or fear. The more they practise, the worse they get, or so it seems. This can be traumatic for some. A common temptation for the student is to latch on to one particular aspect of personality, like fear, or pride, or humility, or anger, and give primary or default control to that one trait. Any characteristics that contradicts it is suppressed. Some will learn to switch from one personality to another in different situations. They might be a victim at work, a bully at school, a lover somewhere else. Each aspect of their personality will fight for dominance, taking turns as the dictator. Rare is the warrior who can civilize their inner demons, dress them up, and take them all to dinner.
There is a point in every student’s journey when self awareness meets self loathing. This is where one must learn the first rule of martial arts:
- Don’t beat yourself up.
Once you learn to accept your own failings without recrimination, you will learn faster, and will also learn to be more magnanimous toward others.
2. Fight the battle when necessary. But don’t fight the enemy.
More specifically, understand Newton’s laws of motion as they apply to objects, strategy, tactics, and emotions. Instead of merely engaging the enemy’s strength like bulls butting heads, become like a hot knife cutting through the mist. Learn when to be a fulcrum instead of a class-three-lever.
An inexperienced martial artist is always tense, even when they deny it. “But I am relaxed,” says every student, at some point. Often they insist for months or years that they are relaxed. Then, one day, the student says, “Wow! This works so much better if I just relax! Hey, teacher. You won’t believe what I just figured out. I’m a genius!”
By contrast, a master is constantly relaxing and adapting, even when they see tension everywhere. Every experience of force is an opportunity to relax, and pivot. Every act of aggression by an enemy is an opportunity to avoid adding weight to it.
To be relaxed, present, and aware requires great courage, especially in the face of external conflict and violence. This is why we practice these skills when we are not fighting, so that we can find them when all hell breaks loose. Balance is not only what we fight for, it is what we fight with. A good constitutional democracy has structures in place for the smooth transfer of power. Such a system is adaptive and this give is stability. A dictatorship changes leaders chaotically. An individual martial artist learns what it is like to lose, and to lose unexpectedly. This teaches one to accept that identity is not the fragile identity that breaks when the world falls apart. The self is not the ego, or pride, or possessions. The self is much greater than the petty things we identify with. In discovering this, we are liberated, and do not need to fight for things that are not real, or essential. We do not need to identify ourselves in opposition to other things, or people, or ideology.
We lose when we become the enemy. Strategy begins when we realize that the enemy is us. We win only when there is no enemy.
All conflict is internal conflict.
So, when we look at our “free society” with its free press, and freedom of expression, we need to find a way to do so without hatred, or fear, or filter bubbles, or partisanship, or recrimination. Can we cut through the anger and misinformation currently being sold to us by partisan broadcasters, social media algorithms, dogma, and our own fear?
It is said that, in the modern social-media environment, the consumer becomes the product. The algorithms do that by selling us fear, pride, hatred, greed, and ignorance. These are the very things that a martial art teaches us to conquer.
Try a martial art.
Practise making peace with yourself, and spread that peace to the world.
Then, perhaps, we will be able to cultivate a rich, intelligent, exciting society capable of find balance with the world, and navigating the challenges ahead.
Ian Sinclair is a teacher of tai chi, qigong, martial arts, and meditation in Orillia, Ontario, Canada.
To cling to anger is to lose the fight. To cling you hate is to become the enemy. To cling to tension is to be ignorant and blind.
If your technique requires force, it is the wrong technique. If you need to dominate the enemy, you will never convince them that you are correct. There is no religion without freedom of religion, no intelligent debate without freedom of thought, no justice without reconciliation.
Consider all the things that we must seek in order to form a better society. We must find them within ourselves if we wish to find them anywhere else.I.S.
“Be the change you want to see happen.”Arleen Lorrance
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”Mahatma Gandhi