Self-Protection and Machiavelli

A requirement I maintain for my Black Belts is to read certain books from a list that I have found over the years to be wellsprings of knowledge concerning self-protection. While I do require some of the traditional tomes such as the Hagakure, much of what I require my Black Belts to read was never intended to be read from a traditional martial arts context. One such book is The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. 

At the onset, if Machiavelli were still alive today, there is substantial doubt that he and I would see eye to eye on many topics, most notably religion. He did however understand the role of violence in human relations, or lack thereof. He understood that civility has its limits. He was far ahead of his time in understanding that social contracts are anything but binding. Among the many assertions made in The Prince, one is meritorious in our society as we watch it disintegrate before our very eyes. 

“People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”

I can hear the gasps from here. Why on Earth would someone teaching people to protect themselves from harmful elements in society espouse such aggressive ideologies? The answer to that question is rather straightforward and simple. If you are one that has asked  the aforementioned question, have you turned on a television in the last four weeks? Have you been ensnared in a rapidly evolving cultural exercise in the American inner city referred to as a protest, the burning buildings notwithstanding? 

Bravado is part of the American lexicon. “You may start it, but I’ll finish it.” This rather simple statement of self-identified gallantry begs one question: To what extent will you finish it, whatever “it” may be? Is that a bloody nose? A bruised ego? To expand on these possibilities, now ask yourself if the bruised ego or bloody nose will be sufficient to repel an assault from one of the cultural ballets that entertains us on a frequent basis in America. 

Recently, I have had some animated conversations with many people close to me in my personal and professional life. Each individual related to me what they were willing to do in order to protect themselves, their family, and their sacred treasure if confronted with a throng of roving hordes of protesters. The question then becomes, what is driving them to make such statements? To examine this question, we return to Machiavelli, who stated that men are driven by one of two primary impulses, which are fear or love. 

I mean this with as much love and respect as I can muster, but in the vast majority of cases, almost all cases actually, even the highest trained martial artist, marksman, or security conscious citizen stands ill-equipped to confront savagery in its most raw form. I will go as far as to say that most law enforcement officers that patrol our neighborhoods daily are ill equipped to look into the abyss. The reason for this is not because they are guided by one of the two impulses mentioned by Machiavelli. It is because they are governed and driven by both impulses simultaneously. We are terrified by the thought of losing what we love. 

Being ensconced in the criminal culture, one thing that has not escaped me in my research and my professional travels is that the most violent people in society act on impulse, not rote reaction to stimuli. They are hyper-focused on the task at hand. They have little regard for short-term or long-term consequences that may result from decisions surrounding pleasure versus pain. They have been trained by doing, not by rehearsal. Their thought process does not stray into musings regarding things of value and endearment. They simply revert back to a natural state devoid of morality and become killing machines. 

I asked several close associates of mine recently what things would go through their mind if confronted with a life and death situation that would likely result in the necessity of utilizing lethal force. The usual emotional suspects were resurrected, which were thoughts of their families, safety, their livelihoods, and the potential liability that could endanger their acquired treasure. In these cases, the individual in question has already lost the encounter because their focus has been diverted from the threat to their emotional or tangible sustainability. They are not seeking victory that will be made manifest through violence. Rather, they are seeking not to lose by holding on to the things that cannot help them survive in the moment of truth. 

I am quickly becoming cognizant of the fact that many of my students and clients are not adapting to the “new normal” in American society. I detest that term by the way because it connotes the defining of normal by unknown, future facets of life that we can neither predict nor control. But it does have merit in our present circumstance because the new normal in America has strayed from peace and prosperity to angst, distrust, and barbarism. As martial arts instructors and self-protection teachers and mentors, we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and teach antiquated methodologies and mindsets. To do so is simply turning our clients and students into cannon fodder. 

Our neighbors in the law enforcement community often make reference to a use of force continuum. This continuum dictates how they use physical violence to protect themselves or citizens during the unfortunate circumstance of a confrontation. To varying degrees, these continuums are made up of variables such as officer presence at a scene, verbal commands, and the use of various physical implements that can cause physical pain. The continuum also includes the use of tools that by their nature are lethal and can cause death or serious bodily injury. 

My business partner and I make clear distinctions between martial artists and practitioners of self-protection methods and strategies. Self-protection practitioners learn skills and tactics that aid them in the detection, deterrence, and defeat of criminal threats against their well-being. Martial artists also share this skillset, but it is light years ahead in terms of refinement. Martial artists study violence and war and apply it accordingly.

We teach our clients to flee at all cost if conditions warrant. These conditions may include social elements such as crowds, or it may encompass physical elements such as terrain. The physical or emotional capacity of the person must also be taken into account. What may be justified for a physically fit adult male in his forties may not be conducive for a man confined to a wheelchair, and vice versa. If confrontation results, we teach our clients to “fight to flee,” meaning we do enough damage to ensure a safe retreat out of the clutches of the aggressor. 

We now live in different times, in which mass gatherings can arise out of a very limited time and space continuum. The spaces that used to be safe for many Americans are now a battleground. What then do we teach our clients in a social climate where the social contract has come undone and savagery is the new soup du jour? 

We teach a three-pronged approach to self-protection. First, principles of environmental and situational awareness are now paramount. It is simply not enough to be aware of situations. We must now be ever mindful of our environment. The places we used to think were safe may devolve into hotbeds of activity in an instant. Second, we must change what may be termed our emotion set instead of the mindset. Thoughts of loss, grief, and anxiety must be placed into the proper context in life at that specific moment in time. When teaching women, I reject the idea of not fighting back because it has taken her agency and dignity away from her in return for a future that will be wrought with uncertainty and memories of horror. 

Finally, we must refine our training methodologies to include malicious tactics without malicious intent. It is at this point that teachings of Machiavelli come into play. In situations where one’s life hangs in the balance, there is no room for second guessing or the fear of judgment by others. A common complaint amongst law enforcement officers is the mischief associated with the Monday Morning Quarterback. The same holds true for a person that is truly in fear for their life in a circumstance that evolves quickly. If a student is truly in fear for their life in a scenario witnessed on television far too frequently today, we are not being honest with them when we teach them to fight with rules as they are being ravaged by those who have no regard for the rule of law. If your life hangs in the balance, give your adversary no room for retaliation. The difference between the criminal and the righteous citizen lies in the condition of the heart, not the act itself.

I hope one day to be able to retract this shift in focus. Social and political movements tend to swing like pendulums. We are witnessing an extreme swing to one side of the pendulum at present moment, and eventually it will move in the opposite direction. We must prepare our clients and students for what lies on each end of that spectrum as well as the middle. 

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