Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.

— C. S. Lewis

You can’t go around making the world a better place for people.  People have to make the world a better place for people, otherwise it’s just a cage.

–Esme Weatherwax, in ‘Witches Abroad’ by Terry Pratchett


I don’t think there is a martial artist in the world who hasn’t indulged in a daydream where they use their phenomenal combat skills to rescue an attacked innocent, foil a bank robbery or cripple an international terrorist organisation.  It’s what happens in pretty much every martial arts movie, anyway, and, let’s face it, that’s what got most of us interested in this strange hobby.

So…hands up who’s actually done it?  Nope…not very many.

Personally, in twenty-five years of karate training, I’ve had no cause to use karate.  Not really use it.  On a few occasions some drunken twerp has taken a swing at me, but inebriated fools who have taken offence at my jacket or my refusal to magically become a member of bar staff and give them another drink simply do not deserve everything that karate has.

Karate developed as an empty-handed defence against an armed attacker, with the will and ability to actually kill you, and to enable a response in kind.  You just can’t go around punching people to death in this society.  Not if you hope for a ‘self-defence’ plea to stick.

Mostly, what I’ve done when attacked in this way is duck and dodge until they get bored and tired or fall over, and even then I feel a bit wrong and dirty when it’s all over.  There is no glory for the warrior in humiliating the untrained.

Most of the people who are likely to end up reading this essay live in the safest civilisation, in its safest period, that the world has ever seen.

Modern news media gleefully dwells on the outlying incidents; murders, riots, and terrorist attacks keep us glued to our televisions and newspapers, because, of course, the purpose of news is not to inform and educate but to keep us buying the news, but the truth is that the chances of being a victim of, or even witnessing such an event is extremely small.  Far smaller than, say, your chances of being killed in a car crash, but we all ride in cars every day, because car crashes are so common they barely make a ripple in the news pond.

Sure, some of us are door supervisors, or police officers or soldiers, and meet real violence with greater frequency than the rest of the population, but the very fact that these jobs exist has contributed to the drastic reduction of violence in western society, allowing the rest of us to go about our daily, incredibly comfortable and safe, lives without the need to act as self-appointed punching-sheriffs.

Justice is a highly subjective concept.  The number of people who think ‘I am evil, I am the baddy, and I am deliberately setting out to make other people miserable’ is vanishingly small.

No matter what people are doing, from tax evasion to genocide, the perpetrators will, in the main, have rationalised their behaviour in such a way that it makes them the good guys.

Those of us who live in the west will be well acquainted with the notion that our ideas of democracy, progress, and human rights represent, if not the real pinnacle of civilised values, then at least the right direction for civilisation to move.  We are also aware that there are people within our society who are not sure that it’s all it’s cracked up to be.  You may even be one of them.

Whether we feel that our society is too left-wing, too right-wing, too religious or profane, no one with a dissenting opinion considers themselves the bad guys.  The Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS, Anders Breivik, Britain First, Anjem Choudary, Sovereign Citizens, and whichever other group of extremists taking actions or having opinions that are beyond the pale of mainstream society all genuinely believe they are acting in the interests of justice, saving the bad world from itself.

The Nazis thought they were doing the right thing; the Crusaders thought they were doing the right thing; the Confederacy, going to war for the right to own people like you own a tractor, thought they were doing the right thing; Guy Fawkes thought he was doing the right thing; Osama Bin Laden thought he was doing the right thing.

Being a conscious servant of evil is the preserve of the truly unhinged, the Geoffrey Dahmers and Ed Geins of the world, and they are few and far between.

The society we live in necessarily informs our notions of what is and is not ‘just.’  If there weren’t other societies in the world in which the definitions of ‘justice’ were different to our own, we wouldn’t even have the word.

Without incidences of ‘injustice’ to point at and decry, it would be impossible to define ‘justice,’ just as without light it would be impossible to define darkness.

Even my own instinctive, culturally acquired notions of what is just and what is not colour my examples of the outliers.  An author with a diametrically opposed ethical basis might list Greenpeace, Hope Not Hate and My Stealthy Freedom as wrong-uns who think they are on the side of right.

Societies attempt to enforce their own definitions of justice through law, and levying punishments upon those who break those laws.  It would be ideal if ‘legal’ and ‘just’ were synonyms, but it doesn’t take a great deal of thinking about the legal systems of one’s own and other societies to come up with plenty of examples of things that are legal which are not just, and things which are just but are not legal, and once again the nature of which is which remains highly subjective..

Cultural relativism is a philosophical position which seeks to acknowledge that ideas of what is ‘good’ and ‘just’ vary between human groups, and withhold judgment of a society or group as good or bad according to our own cultural norms. While this is simple in theory, in practice it becomes trickier.

Consider a primitive tribe which cooks and eats a recently deceased member of the tribe, as a funeral tradition; we may blanch at this custom, but with an effort of intellectual will we can understand that it is at least as efficient a way of returning granddad to the carbon and water cycles as any other, and refrain from striding in there with our sociocultural size nines and telling them that their customs are terribly wrong.  However, we may find this attitude harder to support when we discover that on the first new moon of the year they throw the three youngest members of the tribe off a cliff to appease the Storm God…

So, it’s practically impossible to objectively, definitively state what is just and what is not, and you run into major problems if you think you can.  Much of the conflict in the world today is, superficially at least, between people who think their own world view, be it social, religious or geopolitical, is the right one and the world would be a better place if only everyone agreed with them and lived by their rules.  Unfortunately, others are equally certain of their moral position and resent interference…and before long, people draw battle lines, sometimes literally, and people start to suffer.

The fact that the men who started the conversation about what is right and wrong three thousand years ago had the leisure to sit around the agora in their togas talking about morality because they had slaves to do the real work, neatly encapsulates the problem of ethical philosophy.  Now, as a result of the discussion those men started, it’s pretty well universally agreed that owning other humans like chattel is not okay.

Because of this morass of subjectivity and disagreement, ethical philosophy is only really able to state two nominally concrete conclusions, and they are only concrete insofar as they state the vague nature of the subject.

The first is ‘treat other people as you would expect them to treat you;’ this has been so often stated and restated in religious and philosophical texts over the last few millennia that it is generally called the Golden Rule.

The second is that anyone who claims a direct line to objective ethical truth deserves extreme suspicion; absolutist notions of what the world is, or what right and wrong are, very nearly always lead to someone being oppressed, and when we the oppression originates from someone who is utterly certain that they are doing the right thing the oppression is complete.

On this basis, becoming a righteous supporter of justice is a matter of taking the centre ground.

To choose the side of ‘white’ and dedicate oneself to destroying ‘black’ is to attempt to unbalance the universe – you cannot have white without black – and ultimately makes one the oppressor.

Hard, lonely and cold is the place between, where peace trumps victory and tolerance, even of the intolerant, defies contention.  It takes courage and compassion in equal measure to stand there.

Developing that courage requires venturing outside your comfort zone, physically, mentally and socially.  To understand the basic assumptions of one’s own culture, one must investigate and understand the basic assumptions of other cultures.  To understand one’s own limits one must push beyond them.

Traditional martial arts are not the only way to test your limits; but it is one of the most easily available to ‘ordinary’ people.  You don’t have to climb a mountain, or circumnavigate the globe solo; you just have to turn up to training  and engage in the practice.

Sincere budo requires the ego be dethroned..  Many martial artists don’t realise that the hierarchical behaviours and modes of address, rituals, bowing, and all the rest of it are not intended to boost the ego of the ‘Master’…along with the hardships of physical training, they erode the ego of the student.

With the ego diminished, or at least under control, it becomes possible to surrender fully to the discipline of budo and find it’s deeper truths; further, it becomes possible to step calmly outside one’s assumptions, prejudices and emotional wish to dominate, right or wrong, into the area of compassion and tolerance where right is a compromise that works for everyone.

Truly supporting justice is not piling headlong into the evil doers. It is realising that the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys are the same, and cannot be defined as such without each other.  Once an enemy is removed, another must be found or it becomes impossible to define good.

The Budoka chooses his battles with care, fighting not to eliminate evil, or protect his own ego, but to maintain the balance that is peace.  Better still to support that balance without fighting at all.