May 28, 2008


Funakoshi's shrine in Kamakura, courtesy of wikipedia.

The venerable Okinawan karate master Gichin Funakoshi left behind the essence of his teaching in his master text, Karate-Do Kyohan. The book concludes with a chapter titled "Maxims for the Trainee," which consist of proverbs, ethical advice and sayings from ancient sources.

One line in it puzzled me for years:

A gentleman should be gentle and never be menacing; close, yet never forward; slay, but never humiliate...

I got the gentle and close part, but it took a while to digest the part about slaying but not humiliating. Obviously, he wasn't advocating slaying since he constantly preached non-aggression and respect for life, even though he taught that one should be prepared for any emergency. The saying was meant to convey not the thinkability of slaying but the unthinkability of humiliating someone.

This wasn't just idle talk--it was almost a taboo. A traditional karate dojo drums respect and courtesy into a student from the first minute they step on the floor. (The student had better bow before doing that, by the way.) Respect is even--or maybe especially--to be extended to one's opponents. And people are expected to act that way in and out of the dojo. Funakoshi's mantra was "karate begins and ends with courtesy."

It was only after I made a study of the nature of violence that I came to fully understand his wisdom. As Dr. James Gilligan argued in his 1996 book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, shaming, disrespect, degradation, and humiliation are precisely the pathogens that transmit violence:

I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo the "loss of face"--no matter how sever the punishment, even if it includes death...

The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence whether toward others or toward the self. Shame is a necessary but not sufficient cause of violence, just as the tubercle bacillus is necessary but not sufficient for the development of tuberculosis. Several preconditions have to be met before shame can lead to the full pathogenesis of violent behaviour. The pathogenic, or violence-inducing, effects of shame can be stimulated, inhibited, or redirected, both by the presence or absence of other feelings, such as guilt or innocence, and by the specific social and psychological circumstances in which shame is experienced.

The different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are motivated (caused) by the feeling of shame. The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride, thus preventing the individual from being overwhelmed by the feeling of shame...

I'm presenting his conclusions rather than the case he makes to support them, so check out the book for that. I will say that he worked for decades with violent offenders in prisons and mental hospitals and has also studied the effects of structural violence such as inequality.

In my experience in trying to prevent or reduce violence, I've often noticed how the smallest incident which someone perceives as shaming can set off all kinds of consequences that can spin totally out of control and harm innocent people.

(All the carnage of the Iliad, the reader may recall, happened because someone degraded someone else by taking away his prize...)

Study and experience have convinced me of Funakoshi's wisdom. Sometimes struggles happen and when they're on, they're on. But they are more easily prevented and have more chance of eventual resolution if one refrains from humiliating one's opponents. It's a powerful preventive measure in containing the toxin that contributes to violence.

HUNGRY COUNTRY. Rising food prices are cutting the value of food stamps even as more Americans turn to them. This one is from the Washington Post.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE FOOD PANTRY, costs are climbing along with demand.

MORE CHEERY NEWS about what the Iraq war has done to global energy costs can be found here.

One more thought...our industrialized and globalized food system is based on cheap oil, both for transportation and for fertilizers.

YOU MAY NEED A WEATHERMAN. A new stuudy of climate change predicts major disruptions in water, agriculture, and forestry.

SAIL ON... El Cabrero is sad to report the death of labor folksinger and Wobbly Utah Phillips, who died in his sleep on May 23. He "taught" me several classic IWW songs, which I still occasionally plunk out on guitar when the mood strikes. Here's hoping he really does get pie in the sky.



The EDG said...

el Cabrero, you have outdone yourself. Your insights and commentary are always valuable, but this week you are probing a serious issue rarely discussed and certainly often misunderstood. Thank you for your commitment to this issue this week. The idea that violence is a public health issue, and that its pathogens are both identifiable and cureable is one of the most important concepts I think you have put out there in a long time. I hope you will do more with this week's work beyond the blog, and consder putting together a speaker's panel or other prolonged method of educating the public on this persistant plague.

El Cabrero said...

Thanks for the comment! I'm kind of fascinated by the topic and keep going back to look at it from different angles. I don't want to deal with all violence all the time, so I put it aside for a while and then go back to it.

I think Gilligan's ideas make more sense than most other things I've run across. Too bad his book didn't get as much attention as it deserved. I think that's because of his emphasis on structural violence and the need for economic justice that I wrote about last week. It's easier just to lock people up (until they get out again after being shamed for several years).

I like the idea of some kind of event where we can discuss the issue from that angle.

BJM said...

El C: #1 grandson is adorable, and most definitely a LIVE WIRE!! I've never seen so much energy, and I have 11 grandkids to compare him to.
And #1 daughter is as beautiful as ever. We are looking forward to a "Doctor" in the family. Makes us all proud.