Sunday, February 05, 2012

Fighting Words, Testosterone, and Honor

I attended a one-day Isshinryu seminar yesterday. It was a good outing as I picked up a lot of useful information and techniques. After all these years it's humbling but good to realize there are more lessons to be learned. Several attendees tested for shodan and at the conclusion one of the chief instructors recounted a road rage incident that he was able to defuse earlier this week. His point was that if someone flips you off at a traffic light, shrug it off, don't think you're a badass because of that black belt you just got. You don't need to prove yourself. Preventive measures, such as simply walking (or driving) away from a verbal altercation that could escalate to the physical is considered noble in the martial arts. Easier said than done if you're a man, especially if you're a young man.

In 1882 a twenty-three-year-old Sokaku Takeda was strolling past a construction site when one of the workers made a mildly offensive remark that resulted in the former cutting down a dozen construction workers with his sword. Takeda was acquitted, had his sword confiscated and was told by the judge to take up something more socially acceptable like jiu-jitsu.1 Takeda eventually took the advice but for his troubles spent the remainder of his long life looking over his shoulder, having his students sample his food for poison and sleeping with weapons under his pillow.2

What causes people to behave more aggressively that others? Men clearly are the pugnacious gender, but biologists are still wary of blaming the male hormone testosterone for aggressive behavior. In men, research has shown that testosterone will increase in anticipation of competition with other men and will continue to rise during the match. Men with high levels of testosterone smile less, play rougher and have firmer handshakes.3 Testosterone will generally increase with the perceived rank of the male, whether at the job, in social settings, or quite likely immediately following a promotion to black belt in a martial art. Testosterone levels also tend to be high in males who embrace a culture of honor.4

The willing to fight to protect one's honor has long been embedded in American folklore. Honor is also an integral part of the feudal Japanese code of ethics, Bushido, as well as the way of chivalrous knights of medieval Europe. These days though, "honor" is more about saving face than anything else. Police often report that people will fight to the death over the most trivial slight, like a dispute during a card game or quarters on a pool table. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker offers, "When gentlemen agreed to a duel, they were fighting not for money or land or even women but for honor, the strange commodity that exists because everyone believes that everyone believes that it exists."5

1. Donn Draeger 1974. Modern Bujutsu and Budo. Wheatherhill, Inc.

2. John Stevens 1997. Invincible Warrior. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

3. Steven Pinker 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The Penguin Group.

4. Ibid.


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