I beat up a guy and now I feel guilty

He was in the wrong, but now I don't even enjoy martial arts anymore

Published August 27, 2009 10:26AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You and your readers helped me out with an issue a while back, and it worked so well I thought I would run something else by you.

About six weeks ago I was out with a group of friends at a club. While there, we ran into a group of people my friends and I knew or were acquainted with, including this one guy I'll call Matt. Matt and I have never gotten along. I've always found him to be a belligerent jerk. He thinks I am a snob, or so I am told.

In any event, Matt had had a few drinks and he was giving me a hard time. I tried to ignore him, but I know my annoyance was showing. Eventually my friends and I decided to leave, and as luck would have it, Matt and his friends were leaving at the same time.

Matt continued to hassle me and I lost my patience. I told him exactly what I thought of him, in blunt language, and apparently one of the things I said struck his friends as funny because they began to chuckle.

Matt seemed to feel he'd been mocked in front of his buds and began to push me and threaten to kick my butt. I put my hands up and told him I didn't want to fight. Not good enough. He shoved me a few more times, and I could feel he was maneuvering me towards a cluster of parked cars. I didn't want him hemming me in, so I stood my ground, pointed a finger at him and told him to stop. He took a swing at me.

And I beat him down. The fight lasted maybe 10 seconds, but when it was over he was on the ground, screaming about his shoulder. There was blood from where he'd gone headfirst into the pavement.

The truth is, I have an advanced degree in a martial art. I am not a black belt, but I am close. My friends know I train, but they have always seen it as kind of funny because I am by no means an intimidating, tough looking guy. I think they've always seen it as me compensating for something. I do it because I like learning a complex skill, it's a way to stay in shape and (until recently) it was great stress relief.

The problem is the guilt I feel about what I did, and I don't know why. Matt was out of line. Even the bouncer working the door of the club said he'd vouch for me. I did everything I could think of to avoid the fight once Matt started threatening violence. It is clear Matt thought I would be easy pickings, and I shouldn't be responsible for his bad choices.

But I am mad at myself for allowing myself to get into that situation. I am mad at Matt for provoking the situation, and then I feel like a jerk about it because he's the one that got the worst of it. I am mad at my friends for the way they've reacted to this -- some look at me like they don't know me anymore, and some think what I did was cool.

It isn't cool. I don't like remembering Matt screaming or bleeding, and I remember it a lot. I don't enjoy training anymore. I feel like I should be learning something from this and I have no idea what that something is, other than to say that revenge fantasies aren't so great in real life.


Not Jason Bourne

Dear Not Jason Bourne,

I think what you can learn from this is that it is indeed possible not to fight. It is possible to simply turn away.

A fight is not an inevitable thing. It is a social ritual. It occurs in a context in which all the participants agree that the fight is OK.

The actual violence is only one element. The "fight" is the climax to a dance of escalating provocations and insults. The denouement is the lying on gravel, bleeding. Each phase in the dance of escalation involves conscious choice.

You chose to fight. You participated in the dance. Perhaps that is why you feel guilty. At any point in the sequence of events you could have dropped the role. This was not self-defense. This was engagement; this was acceptance of challenge. From the moment you say that you disliked this person, it is evident that there was some payoff in fighting him. You knew you had the skills and perhaps, too, were eager to test them out.

You participated and you won. But now you feel guilty. Why? Because you did what you wanted to do? Because you withheld knowledge about your martial arts training to lure him in to a fight with you? We cannot know.

Police reports say things like, "Words were exchanged." The dance of escalation often involves such "exchanges." The clinical distance, the absence of subject and object, skirts the issue of choice. Certain men choose to say certain words to each other toward a certain unspoken but obvious end: furthering the dance of violence. They know what the words mean. We all know. The words exchanged in the dance of escalation are a choice. Silence is also a choice. Some choices lie outside the norm. That does not mean they are not choices.

"Words" need not be "exchanged." "Words" may be proffered but not returned.

We assume that certain words are "fighting words" but that is just our agreement. There is no basis for this other than our belief that individual men have the right to maintain their standing in a group by resorting to violence if, for instance, their mothers are mentioned in a sexual way.

So a fight is a rhetorical procedure. The actual contact is just part of the procedure of allocating social resources and status among a group of males who have been drinking and are outside a club. Fights are orchestrated outside a club on gravel where cars are parked. Cars form the stage set. Cars are also witnesses; young men fight before an audience mainly of cars and concrete block walls, security lights and asphalt; that is the stage. A few friends are present as actors; they are not the audience; they are the chorus.

He shoved you and you put your hands up but you did not walk away. We take shoving to be a provocation after which one is justified in committing violence. But kids shove. Brothers shove each other. We can shove each other. A shove is nothing. It is just a shove. There is no logical reason why it should lead to violence. It is perhaps technically battery. But the rules and laws around battery and assault, I would argue, are also formed around our the cultural assumptions of a fundamentally violent culture. We all know the dance.

Why could not two men simply have a harmless shoving contest? It would be funny.

Consider what the shove actually says. What the shove says is, I love you and I want to feel the violence of my love for you by having some contact. The shove says, I want some pain inflicted, will you please engage in some mutual infliction of pain? I need some pain. The shoving says, here, look at what I am willing to do: I am offering myself to you, to be beaten. Will you please attack me so I feel whole again? Here, look, I will shove you again. That is my request. The shove says, "I want you. I want you to beat me."

The shove can be ignored as certainly as a telemarketer's phone call can be ignored. The shove is meaningless without the belief system attached to the shove. Yet we refuse to take the extra step to say that nonviolence is possible after a shove.

Fighting is great. Who doesn't want to fight? We all want to fight. Who really wants nonviolence? Nonviolence requires us to renounce what we love. It requires us to actually sacrifice something.

But you proceeded with the reenactment. The narrative of permissible violence states that if words are exchanged and then mild physical contact ensues, a man is justified in using swift, overwhelming violent force to put another man on the ground. If the man then stays on the ground, the play can be concluded. If the man arises from the ground, however, a second round of swift, overwhelming violence is also permitted. After the second round of overwhelming violence, the loser's seconds check him for life-threatening injuries. After that, he may proceed if he requires more pain. But this whole thing is just a dance in which all the parties know the moves.

This is the enactment of a sanctioned superstition. There is no actual harm in one man telling another man that his mother sucked his cock the previous night. It is just an invitation to dance. He might as well say, you know, I really love you and want to be intimate with you by fighting. Will you join me in a fight? Will you please slake my thirst for violence? I am attracted to you; I think it would be a deep, erotic pleasure to be beaten by you. Would you please? May I have this dance of violence?

And so it is on.

To pretend that this is not a matter of choice is simply to lie. It is a matter of choice. It cannot be anything else. To say it is not a choice is to say that a man has no control over his body. If a man were to shit his pants we might say he has no control over that bodily function. But unless a man has a neurological disorder, then even when drunk he has control over his limbs. He has choice.

Gandhi made choices. Martin Luther King made choices.

The choice has a cost. But are we so selfish that we are unwilling to spend a little status in order to further the cause of nonviolence? Are we so fragile that we cannot allow ourselves to be seen as possible cowards? If we know we are courageous why should we care if we appear to be cowards? It would not be cowardly to simply turn your back on him and walk away, or even to be kind to him, to apologize for somehow offending him, to be gentle to him.

It would, however, displease the audience, which has come to watch a pageant. Some parking-lot onlookers might feel you had cheated them by not offering the violent conclusion to the dance that they wished for. To walk away would be rude.

But think of what a victory it would be. It would not only save the trouble of the fight, and prevent the emotional trauma that you are obviously feeling after the violence, but it would signal that there really is another choice for young men.

So I say if you are committed to nonviolence then commit nonviolence flagrantly. See how far you can take it. Show how utterly fraudulent is this belief that every man must participate in the dance.

The argument may be made that a man must show he is willing to fight or he will be a victim. That may obtain in prison. But prison rules should not obtain in a free society. If a man is unsafe because he is not feared, then there is something wrong with the agreements that obtain in his social group. He then has a choice of leaving that social group. If nonviolence is to take hold in the world and stop war, then a man must be willing to leave his social group if its belief system is mired in the perpetuation of violence. It is a high price to pay but those who have changed the world nonviolently have paid a high price.

Some might say that the maturation process of a young man requires that he leave his social group.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Since You Asked