When I was in second or third grade, I made a drawing in response to a prompt we were given in school. The prompt was:
I have a dream that one day. . .
My response, which you can just see in the top left of the picture of my bedroom wall, was:
I can do what Martin Luther King did.
Although I have fallen considerably short of that dream, Martin Luther King’s quest for racial equality has long been an inspiration to me. I still keep a postcard of MLK near the computer monitor in my home office, a subtle reminder that the cause for which he fought is still a cause, and the dream for which he died is still a dream.
Of course, the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience was central to my understanding of King’s work. But over time I came to learn that King was not always a complete pacifist; he was known to keep a gun at home and applied for a concealed carry permit due to the constant threats he faced. And even a young Rosa Parks once threatened to throw a brick at a white boy who was bullying her.
I have lived my entire life largely free of physical violence. I was in one poorly conceived and executed fistfight in middle school, but otherwise I have managed to avoid the need to defend myself from or use violence.
This continues even within gun culture, as I have been strongly influenced by those who preach avoidance as the best defense (as Michael Bane does in his TV show of that title). As the saying goes, “The first rule of gunfighting is don’t be there.” In other words, “You can’t lose a fight you’re not in.”
Enter Tim Larkin and his provocatively titled book, When Violence is the Answer.
There is much more to the book than this, but the essence can be summarized in the first sentence of the book (p. 3):
Violence is rarely the answer, but when it is, it’s the only answer.
Avoidance and making good life choices — often referred to as observing John Farnam’s “rules of stupid” — will mostly keep you safe from violence. As Larkin writes, “for most of us, violence is an anomaly — a black swan event whose likelihood is as predictable as its consequences, which is to say not very. Most people will go their entire lives without experiencing serious violence” (p. 5).
Because black swan events are rare, Larkin later explains, “they’re relatively cheap to hedge against, but they’re so unlikely that most people don’t bother to hedge at all” (p. 134).
But here’s the catch: “those who do [experience violence] will feel firsthand its power to drastically change, or even end, lives. It only has to happen once” (p. 5).
The balance of the book explains Larkin’s approach to addressing violence through understanding both why and how people engage in violence against innocent people (Part 1) and how innocent people can think about and use violence to defend themselves (Part 2).
Of interest in Part 1 is Chapter 5 in which Larkin discusses times “when violence isn’t the answer.” Which is to say, most of the time. Bracket your ego, swallow your pride, avoid confrontation, or if it begins, just walk away.
In Part 2, I found particularly insightful his discussion in Chapter 7 of how “your brain is your deadliest weapon.” He begins by stressing the importance of tuning into rather than ignoring fear. Nothing new here to anyone who has read Gavin de Becker’s work on The Gift of Fear. But Larkin takes it a step further by arguing, “Mental training is . . . about learning how to channel fear into action” (p. 187). People need to train their brains to switch decisively from a defensive mindset to an offensive mindset when the circumstances dictate.
There’s more to When Violence is the Answer than these snippets and maybe I will do a complete review one day. But for my money, the starting point alone — that there can be a time when violence is the only answer — was worth the price of the book.