When I started my training I assumed that martial arts would teach me to fight instead of flee; would teach me aggression; would instill in me that killer instinct, that willingness to seize the initiative and attack. This springs from a very common misunderstanding of the so-called “fight or flight response:” a failure to see that the human response to anxiety principally involves a third element that we share with most animals, the freeze response. The options are fight, flight, or freeze, and it is really this last response that is the great barrier to self-defense. Yet, this aspect is the least studied feature of the human anxiety-response. You see, that sinking feeling in your gut that signals the redirection of blood from your stomach to your large muscle groups, that crushing feeling in your chest of adrenaline being pumped into your lungs, and that overwhelming of higher thought-processes are all adaptations that ready you to fight or flee, but only if you can overcome that third interpretation of what to do: freeze sucka! The martial arts will train your fight response, updating those instincts considerably, but the most important lesson that it can teach you is to control your breath, your heart-rate, and the panic-feeling of blunted thought-processes, so that you can unleash that fight response if needed. Furthermore, regardless of how re-trained your fight response, how perfectly you have honed your skills, one of the deepest lessons to be taken from training is that perfectionism too is an obstacle (see Hick’s Law); that the right answer is always ‘do something,’ which usually just means ‘HIT’!
The Psychological Dimension:
Though any seasoned martial artist has realized and fixed the above misunderstanding, the sad part is that so too have all alpha-male-bullying-types, whether they are conscious of it or not. They capitalize on the freeze response, toying with an already anxious and compromised animal, often engaging his intellect or pride right before attacking, all to stun his prey, or force them to lose face and back down, a strategy that renders this approach all-too successful as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Swagger in with bravado and aggressive language as if you are top dog, and usually you get your way because rational, peaceful people would rather eat their pride than deal with a hospital bill. Sadly, these people are often left with no good option whatsoever.
Part of Barlow’s (2002) description of an adaptive alarm model suggests that a freeze response may occur in some threatening situations. Specifically, freezing — or tonic immobility — may overwhelm other competing action tendencies. For example, when fleeing or aggressive responses are likely to be ineffective, a freeze response may take place.
Tragically, the alpha-male strategy exploits this reality, as the bullied person feels his body undergoing an anxiety response, but doesn’t want to give his antagonist the satisfaction or confidence of knowing how unsettled and disarmed he feels, so he fails to breathe heavily, further starving his system of oxygen just when it needs it most. This leads to the feeling of panic: feeling “weak-kneed,” woozy, and robbed of courage. Had this person simply laughed heartily, or exhaled forcefully with a defiant “hah,” he might have received enough oxygen to instead feel strengthened by the adrenaline dump.
Army psychologist Dave Grossman thinks that the single biggest fear for modern humans, the “universal phobia,” as he calls it, is that of facing aggression and the resulting shame of either cowering or getting dragged down into the mud with the animals. Think about it, there is no winning strategy for avoiding shame, as fighting back is rather undignified as well: being forced to fight tooth and nail over some trivial social slight or because of someone’s insecure narcissism is hardly the picture of enlightened heroism. Wouldn’t we all prefer to stun this opponent with just the right words over a head-butt? Geoff Thompson suggests you have a bag of tricks ready-made for these situations. For instance, reflexively respond with a non-sequitur: “don’t I know your sister?”. In his investigations into the world of pick-up-artistry, Neil Strauss played with some alternative solutions that involve essentially bringing this canine psychology out into the open, like saying “can we compare dick size later? I’m kinda enjoying this girls company.” I would like to write an entire book investigating this approach!
The Moral Dimension:
One of the most insidious elements of the alpha-male-bully-strategy is that it places the sucker in a moral dilemma: get punked and lose face, or fight over something trivial and beneath his true dignity. That is, the strategy saps any good, conscientious person’s will-to-fight. Part of that unsettled feeling in ones stomach has to do with vaguely knowing this moral dimension, as well as forecasting the various moral and legal ramifications of fighting back. A good person has a strong and spirited will-to-fight when he sees a child being beaten, or a woman about to be raped, but some cocky loudmouth getting his jollies by giving you the “cold shoulder”? This hardly incites ones fighting spirit to descend upon that loudmouth with the wrath of god. Sure, it pisses you off, but the true hero in you should be looking for a verbal, non-violent solution; that is what would really rescue your dignity in this situation. The genius and the evil of the above bully is that he effectively drags you down to his level, thwarts your ability to think and respond with wit and verve, and even if he fails in the latter, he can always force the issue with a shove or a punch. At this point, once force is involved, one’s fighting spirit should issue forth, but with how much force and justification? Is it justified to blow this guys knee joint apart or jab his eyes, the most effective counter-measures? Probably not. So again, the moral dimension can freeze you up or make you uncertain even when all bets are off and the punches are flying! One really needs to work out two fighting modes: one for life and death; one for the bully or the friend who has had a few too many at a wedding reception.
The Cognitive Dimension:
I would like to conjecture that this freeze response actually has a unique role in the development of conscious awareness in humans; a theme I briefly explored in Consciousness: Breakdown Or Breakthrough. Jonathan Shay explains that the body codes a moral threat as a physical assault, accordingly mobilizing the fight/flight response. However, as we have seen, there is a crucial third option. The possum reflex allows that animal to dissociate from its will-to-live and appear as dead, but I conjecture that the human equivalent is what allows us to dissociate from ourselves and adopt an allocentric (not-egocentric) view of the world. That is, neither the will nor the ego know what to do, and the result is a reflective pause and the collection of information from an objective viewpoint. I call this the ‘deeeeeep gut-check’ (calling all ancestors! anyone home?). Humans might have exapted this freeze response to ponder a question in the murky and ambiguous realm of speculation and hypothesis. I wonder how many times in human history a stymied silence has saved a person’s life. Because our mythology and personal metaphysics protect us from the fear of death, it is so unsettling to run into someone with differing views that it feels like a moral, and thus physical, assault. Think how unbelievably difficult it is to “keep your thoughts on ice” in a debate! But once your will has been called forth and you are impassioned and “hot,” one can avoid the two strategies of forced conversion (fight) or dissimulating retreat (flight), and instead opt for that third option: contemplation (freeze). If one is conscious of this, he can take a few deep breaths and turn that freeze-out into staying-cool, while still utilizing passion to motivate thought, counter-argument, and a creative response that doesn’t involve flight or fight.
Certainly you do not want to be philosophizing while a physical altercation ensues, but the routine practice of “staying cool” in debate can help your mind stay calm during such an altercation, subverting the freeze response. Furthermore, this practice will render you less susceptible to various baiting strategies meant to cloud your thoughts with anger or embarrassment, while subverting the above mentioned freezing that comes from being morally conflicted or metaphysically uncertain.
To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. -Bertrand Russell
I would add that philosophy can also teach a man that his soul or spirit is best defined by the Greek word ‘thumos,’ or “the energy of spirited honor;” that occupying the moral high ground gives you strength; and that honor emancipates fighting spirit.