Fighting: It Cannot Be Explained

(The Shiner | Norman Rockwell, May 23, 1953)

(The Shiner | Norman Rockwell, May 23, 1953)

Fighting is fighting. Everybody gets it. It shouldn't need explanation.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

(Author's note: Though I wrote this essay on Nov. 2, 2015, it may be more relevant now than it was then.)

I'm sitting here with a bunch of "sophisticated" types for lunch. They are lost in some conversation about algorithms, the best private preschools, and whether they should order quinoa salad or not. Then there's this young guy walking down the street. An average-looking kid, one could say almost meek-looking. My cohorts haven't noticed him yet.

He passes by a basketball game in progress. Tall, athletic street-ballers. This suburban kid, in jeans, walks in and they confront him. Something interesting might happen here. I get up, not because I'm going to save him, but because I want a better view. But, alas, nothing happens. Wait, but now he's playing a game with them. They pass him the ball, and he's got skills. The game is quick and fast, the kid scores — a lot — and then, like that, he leaves.

There're some old Russian dudes playing chess. The kid sits down across from one and they begin to play. It's fast. They are attacking, going back and forth. Just like that, the kid wins. I grip the table, thinking the old dude is going to get up and teach him a lesson — old-world style —

— but instead, he shakes his hand. Disappointment again.

The kid walks into the liquor store. I lose sight of him. I get back to my table, and we're talking about stuff that has no basis in ordinary day-to-day reality. A question about everyone's favorite NPR show. This American Life is mentioned. Then their love of Bill Nye. I'm suffocating in conformity. Save me.

The kid steps out of the liquor store. He has something in his hand. Looks like a lottery ticket. He scratches it and then nothing. A long nothing. Then excitement. He's won, it seems. I look over at my table. Tumbleweeds. No interest.

Another guy walks up to the kid. He wants his ticket. And what's this? Wait for it. I'm waiting patient. That's it. A fight! It erupts, and this kid is beating the hell out of this dude. My table, as if compelled by some sixth sense, knows something is up without seeing it yet. They get up. Their bubble has popped. We all run to the fight. The whole street runs to the fight.

So why did we get up? The other day, one of my academic friends asked me about fighting. Let's call him Mario. Why fighting? Why my interest? Why are people interested, in general? What do people get out of it? He asked, wouldn't we live a more fulfilled life if we avoided conflict, as that creates more suffering? And looking for conflict only begets more conflict? Also, what utility does fighting serve? He was looking for meaning — a utilitarian purpose. And because of the bias of the self, he assumed, because he suffered from conflict, everyone else did as well. But the thing is, I know Mario would also get up and run to a fight if one were to break out. Even his dismissal of conflict creates conflict. To think you can speak for others creates conflict. Is he a hypocrite? Yes, and that creates conflict. But we are all hypocrites. And the search for constant profit-based utility makes us all miserable.

Boxing analyst Max Kellerman once told the president of the UFC, Dana White:

If you take four street corners, and on one they are playing baseball, on another they are playing basketball and on the other, street hockey. On the fourth corner, a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They all go to the fight.

Mixed martial arts legend Frank Shamrock said in an interview with Mike Straka:

Everybody gets it. It doesn’t need languages. Fighting is fighting.

This is a whole philosophy of thought, that the description will never describe the described. That language can only misconstrue experience. How can you put into words the physical viscera of nature? The standard answer has always been: You have to see for yourself. It's a raw experience, as a spectator and as a participant, depending on how close you want to get to this truth.

Intellectualism took centuries — one person had a thought, then another person added to that thought until, eventually, they realized that experience cannot be adequately addressed through language. A fighter like Frank Shamrock, likely unaware of this work, came to this understanding after a few punches to the noggin. Socrates, too, had a rough-and-tumble history, which shaped his critical thinking. The physical was an essential part of his curriculum. It was the bare minimum for philosophy to flourish. Otherwise, you didn't know anything — not the least, yourself.

Philosopher Avital Ronell warned of the search for too much meaning. Ronell was walking through Central Park while being interviewed for the Examined Life. She came upon some dogs playing, which is to play-fight, and the dogs were in bliss. Ronell made this observation on the state of nature:

Everyone wants something like meaning. But when you see these dogs play, why reduce it to meaning rather than just see the arbitrary eruption of something that can’t be grasped or explicated, but it’s just there in this kind of absolute contingency of being. To leave things open and radically inappropriable and something — and admitting we haven’t really understood is much less satisfying, more frustrating, and more necessary...

Fighting is prior to man's search for meaning. Long prior. Or one could say, it is man's first and most natural way to examine life, along with procreation. Make love to it or fight it, or, more honestly, perhaps both. Fighting or lovemaking for the sake of pleasure isn't rational, but rather, it is natural. Where we get bungled is this idea that rational and natural are enemies or friends when they are neither. It is natural to fear death, but is it rational? Probably not. But who will argue that we shouldn't fear death because it is irrational or that it brings about suffering? You could do this, but that, in itself, would be irrational. We only know experience, and we cannot claim to know what we have not experienced, so experience is the only knowledge. Animals fight and make love, and thus that becomes the primary source of their knowledge.

According to Viktor Frankl, meaning, itself, requires a fight. When man struggles, they fight to live. But in a first-world society, self-harm and suicide become the new struggles.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how one cannot predict conflict, it just arises, just as we rose from chaos. To further that sentiment, from that chaos, comes organic progress through trial and error. Fragility, then, is the inability to gain from disorder.

Evolution does not rely on narratives, humans do. Evolution does not need a word for the color blue.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fighting is fighting. Everybody gets it. It doesn't need language. It shouldn't need explanation. Where self-deception happens is when people pretend dislike is the same as not understanding. You don't like it, or perhaps it is better to say, you don't want to like it, so you pretend you don't understand it. Somewhere, we taught ourselves that we cannot dislike something we understand, and we cannot like something we don't understand — but there are no such rules. How many ills come from these misunderstandings? Protecting oppressive institutions because we understand them, hating others because we do not understand them. We have much more ability to live in a just world if, when appropriate, we can say, "Hey, I don't get it, but to each their own," or, "Oh, I get it. Which is why I know it is wrong."

An important clarification must be made here, a fight requires consent, and without it, it is an assault. Like sex and rape, the act can look similar, but that does not mean the ethics are the same. This fundamental misunderstanding of consent is why some rapists say they didn't know, and why some people can't tell the difference between an assault and a fight. Because we base it off of what we see and not consent, and that is dangerous. How often are we oblivious to consent? Taking pictures of people without permission, even children, and posting them online. Or arguing with people who ask you to stop. To make someone do something. To try and control someone else's thoughts. To tell them what to think. To tell others who didn't solicit advice, what to do. Imagine a voice like Ira Glass, reporting a story, then constantly telling you what to think about it. What if there is some version of that everywhere? Constantly lecturing you, talking down to you. How long can people put up with that before there is a major backlash? Is putting up with it indefinitely even humanly possible? I do not fear the fighter who can make these distinctions, I fear the pacifist who can't.

In 2002, rather than pay a minor penalty for failing to notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that his Suzuki was no longer on the road, 60-year-old Leon Humphreys of England invoked the ancient right of trial by combat. He told The Telegraph, "It would have been a 'reasonable' way to settle the matter." For someone like old Leon, he would have been much happier to fight than pay some crummy ticket. For Leon, fighting is not suffering. (We sometimes presume otherwise, as if our assumptions about others are facts. This is irrational.)

Now a fine, that's suffering. We all get that. See, you can't explain to a guy like Leon with 5-dollar words. It's like explaining what it's like to be a lion. (Leon is Greek for lion.)

I was willing to fight a champion put up by the DVLA, but it would have been a fight to the death.
— Leon Humphreys

Leon's claim was later denied, and he was further fined. Though I do admit the DVLA punishment to be unjust, not fighting to the death was for the best. However, the unusual situation and possible scenarios captured our imaginations. This is why the story went viral. (The same reason we love Game of Thrones.)

Even a well-to-do writer for Esquire isn't above fighting. Chris Jones writes about getting into a fight with a guy who was not only bothering him but also spit on him.

Yet to appease us, we’ve also been told that what goes around comes around. What kind of contradictory horseshit is that — that one day, accounts will be settled, but by the universe? I like karma as much as the next guy, but lately, watching my city behave more and more like an Internet comments thread in the midst of a flame war, I’ve grown tired of waiting for the planets to balance the ledger. ... I would submit, Your Honor, that if someone is doing something demonstrably asinine, and I ask them to stop it, please, and they say, ‘Make us,’ they’ve entered a binding oral contract whereby I am permitted, even obligated, to try to make them.

And so, before I wiped his spit off my face, I grabbed Jericho by his beard and dragged him outside. By the time I had him squared up, I saw all that I needed to see to know that I’d found a new habit: the regret on his once-smiling face. I was surprised by how good it felt, and I stopped for a second, frozen under the streetlights, satisfied that Jericho was about to make like the walls of that bitch city, and that I was about to settle my own accounts.
(Rough Housing | Alan Stephens, 1892-1969)

(Rough Housing | Alan Stephens, 1892-1969)

I have no real answers for Mario who asked me, why fighting? Trying to be rational with the natural is irrational, though it may take Mario a few punches to the head to see that. However, it's a good way to see past all your biases. It is, as the saying goes, "As real as it gets." Many professional fighters, when asked why they fight, they come to eerily similar conclusions, "It's the closest I can get to truth," "It is the truest expression of myself." Who is the phony, the fighter or the person who never fights? Or put another way, who is phonier, the person who tests their reactions and must embrace whatever truth they reveal of themselves, embarrassing or not, or the one who denies any opportunities to see who they really are, not who they wish to be? Fighting shatters our preconceptions of what we think is allowed, impossible, and normal, not just of ourselves, but of our reality. That in this reality, yes, believe it or not, people get punched. You might think you know that until it happens, then, when you are washed by a completely new experience, not only your nervous system, but intellectually as well, and you realize decorum is just a construct, you will ask yourself, how many things I believed to be fundamental were just constructs? Is the world not in my control as I thought, and am I less powerful than I believed? It is ego and mind shattering. That you are not an identity, you are an experience. It's why some people hate it, but, that same experience is why some people love it. And it's why there is a certain kinship and trust between people that are willing to be that vulnerable. To experience together what happens, or the cliché, to flow. While others who must manicure and manufacture all their experiences and strictly define their roles and identities.

Gloria Steinem said of nature:

Why are females of other species as fierce in self-defense as males — except for female humans? ... Female elephants, lions — all are just as fierce in self-defense as males. Only our species is taught to be ‘feminine’ and defenseless.

It has been some time since Steinem said this of women, but what was once considered a restriction for women is becoming the norm for society. Fairness and equality has become being equally restrictive. The rational is supposed to be rooted in the natural, but when reason is no longer grounded in the natural, then what the hell is reason? Other than fancy-sounding nonsense. My argument is this: Sounding smart is easy, being smart is tough, but it's always smart to be tough. So if you are not tough, how are you smart? Seriously, how is that smart?

In Charles George Gordon, William Francis Butler writes:

The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.

Military service schools, like West Point, have some of the highest ratios of philosophy majors. When in the worst of hostile environments, you need critical thinking. They are not adversaries, conflict and intellectualism, they give birth to one another. General James Mattis attributes his leadership qualities to his study of philosophy. When there are no rules and you are waist deep in the cantos of hell, the General told his men:

Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

I can't speak for all, but maybe I like fighting, not because I like conflict, or see the world as adversarial, but just because I like fighting. Just like some kids naturally turn to dolls and dress-up, myself and many other kids, including some "smart" ones, were attracted to playing with sticks and roughhousing. Educated elites don't judge the former, regardless of sex, but they have problems with the latter. Yet both are just as natural, and crucial for the development of the imagination — except the latter is older. That's a fact, not an assumption.

Just as we shouldn't put limits on what it means to be a boy, whether showing emotions, self-expression, and even crying if they want — the same should be said of girls.
Let them roar, play with sticks, and breathe fire if they choose. Let girls be girls. If they want to play with dolls, fine. If they want to learn to assert their strength and be more than a type of attractiveness, let them! Let them set boundaries and teach them to defend them.
Who are we to pigeonhole them. Let them be rad if they want.

Why do I like fighting? What purpose does it serve? Why does Mario like frisbee? What's the utility in that? I could argue practicing fighting would serve better utility. And why does Mario like violent video games? When, as a martial artist, I see no point in them? He likes what he does because it's not real, I like what I do because it is real. It's a hypocrisy of tastes, of thinking one's tastes are better than another's. A kind of smugness one might get smacked for. If that is hard to imagine, then imagine having your grammar corrected incorrectly. How annoying would that be? Well, that's what it's like. Being asked to assimilate to something inferior.

I spend several hours a day on the tatami mats. Asking why I like fighting is like asking why I like daydreaming. Some say it's a waste of time, but for me, it's my favorite part of the day.

And how did I meet Mario? We met as kids, playing with sticks — friends ever since. (And we turned out fine.)

We are so concerned with what others think, it overrides all of our natural behaviors. But even the most refined and matured pacifist, put a stick in his or her hands and when they think no one is looking, they will wield it as a sword — slaying imaginary foes.

Off to adventure. Can you still imagine it?

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