Police Brutality and the Tao

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A friend of mine in the Midwest once noted that there is hardly any difference between the police and gangsters — they are just on different sides of the fence. The mentality is similar and the blood thirst is the same. The core issue, I believe, is how we define masculinity. “To protect and serve” is a good ideal for the police. But how often is this practiced? When racism enters, the matter further complicates.

There is perhaps a dangerous assumption held by many that because the criminals are a rough bunch, the policemen have to be their match in terms of meanness and ruthlessness. This is the idea of using violence against violence, cruelty against cruelty. It seems intuitive. But it is exactly such sentiments which encourage police brutality, misconduct and abuse of power.

What is the alternative? There is, in fact, another paradigm used in Asian martial arts. It is the role model of the gentle warrior. Mr. Miyagi, the modest martial arts master in the movie The Karate Kid is a good example. He is not an exception. The same gentle warrior ideal is taught and practiced widely in all circles of East Asian martial arts — Chinese, Japanese and Korean. In fact, one common form of Japanese martial arts, judo (柔道), is literally “the way of gentleness.” One fundamental principle of judo is “softness can overcome hardness”(柔能剛制). Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, explained this principle as follows:

In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones. This is the theory of ju yoku go o seisu.

Clearly, such principle of combat is very different from Western boxing. Instead of relying on might and brute force, judo relies more on strategy and intelligent use of force. Here, we should note that East Asian martial arts have deep connections with Buddhism and Taoism. It is a tradition where the warrior’s art is tied to mindfulness and the conquering of the opponent cannot be separated from conquering the self. It is also a tradition where discipline is considered the foundation of the art. In addition, East Asian martial arts prizes the feminine. The Tao Te Ching says, “Superior good is like water.” Water never operates through brute force. Water yields and adapts to its environment.

In face of the American history of police brutality, I would say that the East Asian model of martial arts should be considered as a vital alternative. It is not just about fighting skills. It is also the meditative mindset, the ancient wisdom, the strict discipline and a moral code as exemplified in Bushido (the way of the warrior). The Bushido practiced by Japanese samurais includes eight virtues: (1) Righteousness, (2) Courage, (3) Compassion, (4) Respect, (5) Honesty, (6) Honor, (7) Duty and (8) Self-control. It will make a big difference if the standard for manliness is based on such virtues instead of the willingness to use violence and brute force.

Police brutality will continue as long as the model of manliness is based on toxic masculinity. The police urgently needs an honor code. The time to make a change is now.

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