How do I know when the violence is going to start?

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Short answer? If you’re worried about the answer, then it already has.


Most people view violence like they do hard-core porn* – they can’t define it, but they know it when they see it. So give it a try … what is violence? Can you define it?


Perhaps it’s not quite what you think …


Before violence starts, there’s usually a communication stage. Sometimes this is where the mugger makes his demands, sometimes this is where the guy asks you “the fuck you lookin’ at”. If things go badly at the communication stage, then it can end in violence. Makes sense right? Except that what I just said is bullshit (in some ways).


Violence is just a tool

Violence itself is not good or bad, it just is. A hammer hitting a nail is not “good” or “bad” either, it just is. It’s a tool. It’s what it’s used for that we should judge. If we see someone hammering a nail to repair a child’s toy, we label it (i.e. judge it) “good”. If we see someone hammering a nail into someone’s head, we label (judge) it “bad”. Most often we associate our emotional judgment of “good” or “bad” with the hammering of the nail, instead of judging the person and his aims. (Shades of “ban guns” anyone.)


Violence has solved many, MANY things

A common parental bullshit saying is “Violence never solved anything.” Really? – ask a hungry caveman who caught and killed and ate himself a rabbit (I bet he didn’t kill it with kindness). Ask a victim who hit the bully back. Ask a protestor who threw a rock through some store owner’s window (made him feel better – so it solved that problem, that angst, for him – the putz). Ask a carpenter if using violence helped him hammer that nail in place.



Violence is a tool of many uses, so let’s look at it in terms of violence between people. How is violence used between people? What purpose does it serve?


Violence lies on the communication spectrum

When talking about the different levels of force, communication is often put fairly low down on the ladder (as in, it’s a “low force” option). But communication isn’t something that happens before violence starts – rather, violence is a form of communication, it’s one of many tools of communication. A light slap is a way of telling your distracted teammate to pay attention if words didn’t work. Torture is a way of telling someone how much hatred and anger and loathing/fear you have for what they represent. A very strong way of communicating, but violence is a way of communicating. (Al Capone: “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”)


It’s a spectrum

If the question is “what is violence”, then the simplistic answer is “hitting someone”. But let’s try one of those thought experiments Einstein was so fond of.


So you’re at a pub, playing pool, having a few drinks with friends. And this dude sitting in the corner is staring all angry at everyone in your group. Then you’re about to take your turn at the table when he walks up and says you’re hogging the table. Then it becomes “What’s your problem asshole” as he steps up real close to your face. Then he pokes you in the chest, maybe shoves you. It’s at this point that you become intrigued with how much his nostrils are flaring – just as he swings on you.


At what point did the violence start? Was it when the guy hit you? What about when he poked his finger into your chest? Or when he shoved you? Or when he threatened you? Or what about when he was screaming in your face? The point I’m getting at is this is all violence, the confusion comes in because we all choose to label his actions as “violence” at different points.


We all have a different point at which we say “he’s being violent”, but how do you explain your’s? If you don’t know what your line in the sand is, then how will you know when it’s time to hit the BG?


Using another example – if a man uses implied threats and a raised voice to make a woman co-operate so he can rape her, is it violence? Even if he never threaten her and never hit her or used physical force in any way? Abso-fucking-lutely it is. But at what point is she supposed to know that he’s being violent? At what point is does she magically know it’s ok to hit the dude? Well here’s the answer – it was violence before he even walked up to her.


It’s a road of violence

(thanks to Marc MacYoung for the much better analogy)

When did the violence start? Well for the guy looking to rape the woman, or the guy at the bar picking a fight, I’d reckon he got on the road of violence long before he ever walked up to you. He was just driving on the road at a fairly low speed before he walked up to “talk” to you. The violence never “started” in the sense he crossed some line in the sand, it was always there for him.***


The same goes for a mugger walking up to you. By the time a mugger walks up to you, he’s already on the road of violence, he’s just at a low speed – for now. If he decides you’re suitable to rob (he Interviews you) then he “speeds up” and what people think of as “violence” begins.


If violence is a tool of communication, then we can see that the BG in our bar fight situation was trying to communicate from the word go. He was throwing out hard stares at you, hoping that you’d realise what a big asshole you were being and leave (this is him driving slowly on the road of violence). When that didn’t work he “sped up” and walked up to you to tell you to stop hogging the pool table (because obviously it was the pool table that made him angry, not his boss yelling at him because he’s a lazy worker with entitlement issues). When that didn’t get his message across he went a bit faster and called you names. Then he drove faster still and poked you in the chest ..


By the time he hit you it wasn’t some big decision of “Now I’m going to commit violence”, it was just another escalation of the road he was already on. When he shoved you he was driving along fairly fast, it was just a tiny bit too slow to actually hit you. So for him, punching you wasn’t a big deal, he just pushed the accelerator a fraction harder than he already was.


What’s so confusing for you is that you weren’t on the road to violence. So now you not only have to go find your car, get in and switch on, but quickly accelerate to get to where he already is. What some people refer to as “flipping the switch”. So stop trying to figure out when it’s going to turn violent and realise that it already has (for him), he’s just not going fast enough to punch you (yet).


So it’s not something to prevent (it’s too late for that), instead it’s for you to either slow him down (de-escalate), get out of the situation entirely (you escape or he gets so distracted he’s taken an off-ramp to a totally different road) or get your car up to speed, with your foot a moment from flooring it when you decide that slowing him down or escaping isn’t going to work. This is why Kelly McCann says “When some guy walks up to me, mentally I’ve already hit him.” – he’s just waiting to confirm he can’t escape or de-escalate.


The road of violence (some speed levels)

Is there a difference between punching someone and giving your kid a harsh stare for not cleaning her room? Well, yes and no. “One’s violence and the other isn’t” – well, not really – one’s just a much slower speed on the road than the other one.


Some examples of different speeds:


  • You offer your kid an ice-cream (just to stop the screaming tantrum) [5 kph – or mph if you prefer]
  • You emotionally blackmail your child into wearing clean clothes to the shops (moaning at them, making the whole thing about how horrible it is for you when they ignore you)
  • You intimidate your kid into picking up toys (loud voice, physically posturing) [20 kph]
  • You grab your kid’s arm when he walks away from you
  • Somebody pokes a finger into your chest to emphasise their point [maybe 60 kph]
  • Some guy shoves you
  • Your team captain slaps you lightly to get your focus
  • Somebody slaps you up the back of the head
  • Some dude punches you [90 kph]

  • Some BG stabs you [200 kph]

  • Some sicko tortures and rapes you [>275 kph]

(Obviously there’s a huge variation in where each point lies on the road of violence, many things affect it. A mugger slapping you up the back of the head is very different from your brother doing the same for very different reasons.)

What’s the difference between each of these (besides that judgments I implied in the different examples to make it more persuasive)?


If we look at things in terms of judgments and values, then there’s a huge difference. It’s “understandable” when your kid needs to clean her room (BTW, huge amounts of your worldview are exposed in just that sentence). It’s regrettable, but sometimes you need to wrench your kid by the arm to get his attention (not really, but that’s the judgement). It’s not ok (i.e. acceptable to you) to poke someone in the chest or shove them. And torture is fucked up and sick. These are all judgements, and none of them help you understand when violence is going to start. In fact, they get in the way of effectively defending yourself.


BUT, if we ignore the values and judgements, and look at violence being a tool to accomplish something else, just a tool (of persuasion/communication), then we see that all of the examples above are trying to do the same thing, just to different degrees. (See how quickly you started judging? Kids cleaning rooms isn’t the same as torture! How dare I say that!)


The difference is in the speed you’re driving on the road of violence. In every example it’s already a “me vs. you” (conflict) mindset, so someone’s already on the road of violence. It’s just a matter of how fast the person’s driving.


The parent who wants to “make” the kid clean the room is in a conflict mindset, the parent wants to make the kid do something (just like the guy poking you in the chest wants to make you stop hogging the pool table – it’s all communication/persuasion). It’s all about “making” someone do something (i.e. force). A parent asking the kid how best they can solve the problem of the dirty room together is not in a conflict mindset, it’s an “us”, not a “me vs you” perspective. Now go back and re-read the list of examples to make sure I’m not bullshitting you.


Getting answers to problems vs understanding the problem enough to solve it yourself

I usually like to give specific answers and solve specific problems when I write. Today however, I’m giving you a new way of thinking (the analogy for which I stole from Marc MacYoung – I used to use the continuum of a number line, but speeds on a road is more intuitively grasped). Today is to get you to think about the problems in a new light. Because sometimes thinking about the problem is better than a specific answer to a narrow question.


I suppose you could say that today’s problem is to solve how we think about violence. Quoting/paraphrasing Einstein: “If you give me an hour to solve a problem, I’ll spend the first 55 minutes figuring out what the question is.”


* – that and they use it when they “need” to, but condemn others for doing the same.


** – The rapist found that intimidation, i.e. a lower speed (lower level of force) was needed to make the victim submit (he would’ve just escalated to a faster speed/higher level of force if intimidation didn’t work) – but the court better understand the road of violence (and not pass judgement calls) when you try explain why you stabbed someone who didn’t so much as hit you..


*** – the road of violence begins as soon as someone wants to make someone do something. It’s that “make” that is the violence. The violence/force may come in differnet flavours and be harder to spot, but that’s the essence of it. (Puts government “laws” and a lot of “traditional” (i.e. feudalism and onwards) parenting in a different light.)

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