Part 2 of The Art of Violence Series
Read Part 1, Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, here

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has grown interested in the topic of violence, which is driving us back into some old wisdom. If the CDC could avoid politicking, it could show that human violence in general is a contagion. Otherwise it’s just more political theater.

Credit: The Trace

In my article Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, citing Gans and Girard, I claimed that human violence is unique due to our complex mirror neuron systems and our (perhaps related) ability to use tools. This categorically differentiates humans from animals. Our tendency to escalate violence to extremes leads to one of two outcomes – a standstill, or total destruction.

Blood = Violent Contagion

The ancients were very sensitive to human violence. Any sign of it signaled to everyone that a crisis was at hand. One clear indicator of violent contagion was blood. Armor was ritually washed in Torah after battle. As a sign of contagion, blood from child birth and menstruation was quarantined to prevent further outbreak. This was a ritual common to most, if not all, parts of the world, enforced by both genders. It was not to eliminate bacterial contagion (even if that was a side effect), but violent contagion.

Menstrual shed in Nepal. Credit: NPR

Violent contagion is commemorated, or ritualized, in various ways. Bloodbaths are simulated without casualties in La Tomatina. The sight of red doesn’t result in mass warfare because the safety release valve of the ritual, a booster shot, inoculates the crowd against future violent outbreaks. Early depictions of Holi indicate that the primary color for the celebration was red, though the Indian diaspora seems averse to using red.

If we’re going to try and think like ancients, then we can’t look at the taboo against blood and its related rituals purely as ignorant superstition. Red color has real meaning: sometimes taboo, sometimes fortune, but red is never meaningless.

La Tomatina – Simulation of Blood. Credit Wiki

Ritual is a virtual simulation of violent contagion. The ritual injects information into our mirror neuron system, which counteracts the gradual build-up of (often violent) intentions that we unconsciously download from others over time. Ritual unhitches our intent loads in a cathartic release, putting us back in right-thinking. (Its addictive qualities result in some interesting changes over time, which we’ll touch on later.)

The total destruction of society is too risky for any organization of people, so in the past we come up with some interesting ways of dealing with this. And we still use all of it, just with different coats of paint.

Case Study: A Territorial Dispute Leads to Murder

To begin, let’s simulate a situation common to all time periods: territorial dispute. Abe claims his property line includes the cedar tree. Bert claims his great grandfather planted the cedar. Abe builds a fence and encloses the tree. Bert knocks it down. The two shout. There’s an escalation. Intent loads escalate to extremes.

Image result for people arguing fence

Abe has a knife in his belt. Bert anticipates violence. So he hits Abe in the head with a pickax and brains him. (Read Njáls Saga for an Icelandic example.)

In a functional, modern legal system, Bert gets arrested, tried, and goes to jail for second degree murder. But not long ago, Bert instead incurred blood debt. There are lots of ways of describing blood debt: “the ground demanded Abe’s blood”, “Abe’s blood cried out from the earth“, etc. Abe’s family would then collect the blood debt from Bert by demanding some form of payment: financial compensation, killing Bert, or Bert offering the life of someone from his family. Trumbull records this in his 1885 book Blood Covenant:

Hence, in the event of a depletion of the family by the loss of blood—the loss of a life—the goel had a responsibility of securing to the family an equivalent of that loss, by other blood, or by an agreed payment for its value. His mission was not vengeance, but equity. He was not an avenger, but a redeemer, a restorer, a balancer. And in that light, and in that light alone, are all the Oriental customs in connection with blood-cancelling seen to be consistent.

… Von Wrede, says of the custom of the Arabs, in concluding a peace, after tribal hostilities: “If one party has more slain than the other, the shaykh on whose side the advantage lies, says [to the other shaykh]: ‘Choose between blood and milk’ [between life, and the means of sustaining life]; which is as much as to say, that he may [either] avenge the fallen [take life for life]; or accept blood-money.” Mrs. Finn says, similarly, of the close of a combat in Palestine: “A computation is generally made of the losses on either side by death, wounds, etc., and the balance is paid to the victors.” Burton describes similarly the custom in Arabia.

Trumbull, Blood Covenant (1885) p. 89-90

Blood accounting and the feud are not-so-ancient concepts that we have to wrap our heads around if we want to understand ritual combat (and action choreography by extension). Without it, we’re left with a useless emotional reaction to sports combat and other ritual acts of violence (bloody MMA bouts, fist fights in Hockey) that thrive in modern pop culture. My hypothesis: ritual violence is a blood accounting simulation.

Emotional Reactions to Blood

An emotional reaction to blood is normal and healthy. This is a legacy function of our brains which creates a stress response when blood is present, signaling a real risk of violent contagion. There’s no need to resist this healthy impulse. The difference is that our ancestors had proper action understanding surrounding blood – they dealt more readily with open wounds, fought each other more often, saw a lot of human death, and killed a lot of animals with their bare hands. Most of us don’t have this kind of comfort with blood, but we don’t need it.

Nonetheless it’s critical that we understand violence so we don’t react emotionally to it. This helps us think clearly during violent threats and analyze the ritual violence of our ancestors fairly. Without some level of understanding, then violent experiences become locked behind an emotional firewall, preventing their rational discussion.

Take this cliche argument between an academic and a fighter. The academic argues from emotion. The fighter is ready to fight. The academic is coaxed into punching the fighter in the nose, drawing blood. The two might trade blows until the academic, having now built up just a little bit of action understanding, can suddenly speak and think rationally. The violent intent load has been released from behind his emotional firewall, giving the rational part of his brain access to it. This is also how EMDR claims to work. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether to proceed, because it gets a little bloody.

With that, here’s the Blood-Ritual Spectrum.

1. THE BLOOD FEUD

Icelandic bloodfeud
  • Blood-heavy
  • High risk of contagion
  • Rapid response to unplanned violence
  • Examples: Icelandic Commonwealth, Albania, Death Penalty

On the bloodiest side of the blood-ritual spectrum is the blood feud, a stripped down duel whose aim is to balance the blood debt. The concept is that once payment has been made, the feud is over. On a local level, this seems to have “worked”. It survived for a third of a millennium in the isolated “anarchist” Icelandic Commonwealth a thousand years ago. It’s not an ideal form of tort law, but it also didn’t seem to destroy everything in sight.

The death penalty is the only remaining remnant of the blood feud, whereby revenge is prevented via the police. Until recently the death penalty was a public affair which drew large crowds, with the implicit warning to onlookers that they were to “keep the law or this will happen to you.” Today, the death penalty in the USA is a mostly private, bloodless affair, which minimized violent contagion. They even sterilize the needle for a lethal injection. The old mindset believes that violence and plague share the same contagious channels. To them, this level of sanitation makes sense.

One problem with the blood feud is that it doesn’t function well with outsiders. Neighboring tribes may not have the same sentiments about blood accounting that we do. Perhaps have different views on revenge, or what weapons should be allowed in the blood feud. If we can’t agree on the terms, then either we have endless war, or one side subjugates the other. The blood feud is a disaster in a global economy. A single assassination can kickstart an entire world war.

Another issue with the blood feud is the contagiousness of it. Blood feuds often spread like wildfire to the loser’s next of kin and beyond. It was in everyone interest to put up some boundaries to confine the conflict between the two parties. This became “the duel”.

2. THE DUEL

Musashi vs. Ganryū
  • Usually bloody
  • Honor-based
  • Lower risk of contagion
  • Examples: Samurai, Western Gun Duels, later Icelandic sagas

The duel is a humanitarian response to the blood feud. If revenge spiraled out of control, boundaries were erected to reduce or eliminate the spread of contagious violence. At the same time, participation was mandatory. A combatant did not back down from a challenge. In Japan it was better to kill one’s self than to forfeit a sword duel. Icelanders called them níðingr (nithingr), or the lowest form of cowards. European gun and sword duels functioned the same way.

The anticipation of a duel, with death hanging in the air, was a good incentive for others not to let disputes go this far.

Nonetheless, after a duel, a bloody corpse usually remained. Blood contagion was still a factor, just less so than the blood feud. Revenge against the victor was taboo, but not unheard of. The observers might be contaminated by the duel and unleash their own violence in a later, unrelated event. There was an effort to clean up the ritual while still maintaining the dueling elements.

3. FIST FIGHTING

Crib vs. Molineaux (Wikimedia commons)
  • Moderate blood (broken noses, busted lips and knuckles)
  • No casualties
  • Longer, more exciting battles
  • Dramatic
  • No weapons
  • Minimal wear-and-tear
  • Examples: Irish fist fighting, Takanakuy, BKFC, Russian boxing, Lethwei, Hockey

The bare-knuckle fighting Wiki page says the first recorded fist fight was in 1681, but that wasn’t the first ritual fist fight. From the moment we realized we could sort out our differences without the fear of death, we fought bare-knuckle brawls. Fist fighting is a critically important institution in America (Dawg Fight, 2015), Ireland (Knuckle, 2011), and anywhere else where warrior classes are legally obligated to abandon their arms and sort out their differences in the arena. They resort to bare knuckle fights because they’re the next-best option to dueling. Peru’s Takanakuy requires combatants to shake hands before and after the fist fight.

Takanakuy – Peru’s fist fighting festival that takes place every Christmas

Academics criticize bare-knuckle fighting for its supposed “barbarism”. This concern stems from the preponderance of blood in the sport. Common injuries include face cuts and broken hands, fingers, and teeth. However, there are myriad benefits of bare-knuckle fighting over its sanitized cousin boxing.

Bare-knuckle fights are fast and result in only surface injuries. The risk of a broken hand incentivizes contestants to throw strategic shots. By contrast, boxers’ hands are protected by gloves, incentivizing them to punch more often. Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) fights last a maximum of 5 rounds, 2 minutes each, for a maximum of 10 minutes. Boxing fights run 12 rounds, 3 minutes each, a maximum of 36 minutes. More shots thrown and longer rounds in boxing result in far more head trauma than in bare-knuckle fighting.

Artem Lobov (L) vs Paulie Malignaggi – June 22, 2019, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships, Florida State Fairgrounds Entertainment Hall in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

Academics-turned-lawyers have tried for centuries to outlaw bare-knuckle fights and enforce the use of gloves. This comes from an emotional reaction to the sight of blood, an element that is permitted in the sport. This confirms that blood contagion at the sight of blood is real, even to an academic.

But bare-knuckle fighting has its limits. The audience will demand a longer fight. They’ll want variety beyond just using one’s hands. A fight promoter doesn’t want a corpse on his hands, and we might try and clean up the blood a little more. This was the introduction of free fighting. (Kyokushin Karate and some other contact sports and competitive martial arts fall somewhere within this category and the next.)

4. FREE FIGHTING

Muay Thai, Thailand (credit: Tiger Muay Thai)
  • Less blood thanks to gloves
  • Longer rounds (3-5 min.)
  • Multi-limbed combat
  • Examples: UFC, Savate, Muay Thai, Sanda

The free fight is a little cleaner than the bare-knuckle fight and is far more marketable. It’s often characterized by the use of gloves and allows the legs as weapons, and sometimes includes throws and grappling. Gloves, mouth guards, and groin cups allow the fights to run longer than the bare-knuckle fight. Early UFC fights featured no gloves and unlimited ring times, but the introduction of grappling meant fights sometimes went beyond 40 minutes, and the audience hated it. The UFC has continually re-written the rules to strike a balance between portraying realistic combat and keeping the fight entertaining for the spectator.

Bloodied mat in UFC 189 McGregor vs. Mendes (Credit: Sports Joe)

Blood is allowed to flow in the free fight. It’s common for UFC fighters to bloody the mat up, and it’s extremely rare for fights to be stopped due to blood. Still, free fighting is just less visceral than bare-knuckle fighting.

There’s always the potential that a ritual combat league or combat sport will transition into a cleaner category. The Masvidal vs. Diaz fight was stopped due to a standard cut over Diaz’s eye. Many claim the state-employed doctor who made the call was inexperienced and responded emotionally. This was no surprise to UFC fans who have known New York ti be particularly hostile to MMA, beginning with its 1997 ban in the state.

If stopping UFC fights due to blood contagion were to become standard practice, Dana White would be forced to transition the league into a cleaner category. But this is unlikely given the audience’s backlash from the decision. And if the UFC were to be cleaned up, leagues in other countries would quickly take its place and soak up all the fans. And given President Trump attended the Masvidal vs. Diaz fight, there’s no indication that the American (or New York state) government will make a move to clean up the biggest free fighting organization in the world.

But cleanups happen. That’s how you get boxing.

5. BOXING

Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz Jr – 12/07/2019 – Diriyah, Saudi Arabia (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
  • Restrictions on blood
  • Very long fights (up to 36 minutes)
  • Extremely limited set of movements
  • Examples: Boxing, fencing, kendo, airsoft (see bottom of section)


Boxing is universally recognized and understood. Equipment: shorts, gloves, mouth piece, groin cup. 4 moves: jab, cross, hook, uppercut. 3 minute rounds, 12 rounds. If they can’t stop your bleeding, you lose. Boxing is where ritual combat becomes very clean.

Aug 26, 2017; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Floyd Mayweather Jr. lands a hit against Conor McGregor during a boxing match at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The world loves boxing. We’re drawn not just to the combat, but to the stories and the rivalries. Our mirror neurons immediately sync up with Pacquiao and Mike Tyson, who went from nothing to global superstars. We become stars ourselves as we watch them rise to the top. Their rivalries sync with our own interpersonal feuds. Boxing’s lack of blood is compensated by the human interest dramas that accompany each fight.

The combination of reduced blood contagion and entertaining human interest stories is why boxing is one of the biggest commodities in the entire world.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has made boxing something of a political hot potato in the West. Gloves protect the hands but not the head, incentivizing combatants to throw more strikes. Gloves reduce blood contagion, instead causing cleaner injuries. A bloody bare-knuckle punch destroys the teeth, but a boxing punch destroys the brain. MMA fighters face brain injury too, though for different reasons and probably less often.

Perhaps MMA’s cathartic bloodletting will bring it to the top of the charts. The UFC is creeping up on boxing in terms of PPV sales, and McGregor tops the list, undoubtedly for the same reasons. It’s no wonder he challenged Mayweather. But for now, boxing is the “gentleman’s sport”, not because of the behavior of the combatants, but because the rules, which reduce the fighter’s arsenal to a very limited set of movements, naturally enforces gentlemanly-ness.

Riot following Bowe vs. Golota stoppage, 1996

When we watch boxing, our mirror neuron systems is constantly loading the intents of the fighters. We unconsciously simulate the fight in our brains. The intentions are absorbed and either released later in our boxing gym, or maybe they erupt on the spot. Boxing, and combat in general, clearly has a tendency to rile up the audience. Theoretically, if striking were removed from the equation, you’d have an even cleaner form of ritual for our combatants.

Many other combat sports fit the cleanliness, limitations, and aggression of boxing, but employ different weapons and rules. Kendo and modern fencing require skills that are beyond the average person, so they could be considered cleaner. Others, like airsoft and SCA, might be categorized as bloodier.

6. WRESTLING

African wrestling. Credit: Vice
  • Very low chance of blood
  • No striking
  • Examples: Judo, Jiujitsu, Sambo, Senegalese wrestling

By removing striking and only permitting throwing or grappling, the audience is deprived of the cathartic punch of the Boxing ritual. Wrestling, by contrast, is a far cleaner affair. The audience’s violent contagion should be restricted to some broken bones, with minimal blood contagion.

The fantasy of living in a warrior society devoid of blood contagion has prompted some interesting films such as Johnny To’s Throwdown (2004). Compare this to the grim reality portrayed in a very different grappling film like Mamet’s Redbelt (2008).

Can we go cleaner? Do we need to? Can wrestling get out of hand and grow bloody? It can. Can we keep the clashing bodies, but eliminate the combat component altogether?

7. CONTACT SPORTS

NFL
  • Rare chance of blood
  • No fighting (except hockey, in “fist fighting” above)
  • Heavily rules-based
  • Examples: Rugby, American Football, Roller Derby, Kabbadi

Contact sports are on the very clean end of the blood-ritual spectrum. The rules for fighting vary within these sports. Charging the mound has fallen out of style over time. American Football has low rates of fighting, likely because the clashing of bodies lets off more than enough steam for the players. And football/soccer has a hilarious incentive system. Takraw is a conduit for non-violent sparring.

FC Lokomotive Leipzig fans before their team’s encounter with SG Dynamo Schwerin in the East German FDGB-Pokal in 1990. Credit: Wiki

Sports players aren’t the problems in sports. It’s the fans who get out of hand (even the winners riot). Football Hooliganism (literally the name of its 8-mile long wiki page) is a global phenomenon. It reveals that a clean, non-combat sport like football/soccer will still have a massively contagious element.

Perhaps we’re so far from the blood end of the spectrum that the sporting event itself causes more problems than it solves. Or maybe guys will fight over anything, and football happens to be what they chose. We could still maximize the cleanness by totally departing from aggressive competition.

8. THE WAR DANCE

Chinese Wushu
  • Zero blood (except some WWE)
  • Combat is choreographed or friendly
  • Movements can be applicable
  • Controlled storytelling
  • Examples: Wushu, some Kung Fu forms, WWE, Lucha Libre, Pakistani Kabbadi, Kalaripayattu, Capoeira

In 1958, the communist party of China determined that the traditions of kung fu distracted the individual from his duty to the state. The Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports then created Wushu, a performance art combining kung fu and military poses, but emptied of kung fu’s more traditional, sacred elements. (Communist states tend to try and wipe out the sacred center, replacing it with the state itself. Strange things will often happen.)

Wushu, one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet, is on the clean end of the spectrum. While the combatants attack with fists, feet, and weapons, the movements are entirely scripted like an Olympic gymnastics routine. Wushu is as white-washed as combat gets. Nobody riots after a Wushu performance.

WWE’s Steve Austin and Vince McMahon

Ritual arts have a long legacy in their respective domains. Pro wrestling leagues around the world like the WWE, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Lucha Libre feature choreographed moves and scripted character drama. The stories before and after the match are an integral part of the fights. Pro wrestling is the ultimate stage drama because writers determine the narrative. Peking and Cantonese Opera function the same way. (The WWE isn’t always clean, however.)

The clean end of the spectrum might be home to some outliers. Capoeira isn’t scripted, and while its moves can be used in combat, the roda is a mostly friendly affair, and the movements of Capoeira call back to a significant part of Brazilian history. Wing Chun Kung Fu also has some application, but much of the ritualization in the art centers comes from its history. Animal styles of kung fu feature a similar sort of physical storytelling.

The Blood-Ritual Spectrum Overview

Bloody: Paying down blood debt despite high risk of violent contagion.

Less Bloody: Strict rules of battle reduce spread of violent contagion.

Clean: Cathartic entertainment with heavy restrictions on blood.

Cleanest: Ritualized storytelling without fear of violent contagion.

The audience plays a huge role in this. Cathartic entertainment is what they came for, but the intents they load have to go somewhere. We’ll cover this in the next post.