Roles are Martial Arts for Agency

A long time ago I thought that Mar­tial Arts sim­ply taught you how to fight – the right way to throw a punch, the best tech­nique for block­ing and coun­ter­ing an at­tack, etc. I thought train­ing con­sisted of rec­og­niz­ing these at­tacks and choos­ing the cor­rect re­sponses more quickly, as well as sim­ply faster/​stronger phys­i­cal ex­e­cu­tion of same. It was later that I learned that the en­tire pur­pose of mar­tial arts is to train your body to re­act with min­i­mal con­scious de­liber­a­tion, to re­move “you” from the equa­tion as much as pos­si­ble.

The rea­son is of course that con­scious thought is too slow. If you have to think about what you’re do­ing, you’ve already lost. It’s been said that if you had to think about walk­ing to do it, you’d never make it across the room. Fight­ing is no differ­ent. (It isn’t just fight­ing ei­ther – any­thing that re­quires quick re­ac­tion suffers when ex­posed to con­scious thought. I used to love Rock Band. One day when play­ing a par­tic­u­larly difficult gui­tar solo on ex­pert I nailed 100%… ex­cept “I” didn’t do it at all. My eyes saw the notes, my hands ex­e­cuted them, and no where was I in­volved in the pro­cess. It was both ex­hil­arat­ing and creepy, and I ba­si­cally dropped the game soon af­ter.)

You’ve seen how long it takes a hu­man to learn to walk effortlessly. That’s a situ­a­tion with a sin­gle con­stant force, an un­mov­ing sur­face, no agents work­ing against you, and min­i­mal emo­tional ag­i­ta­tion. No won­der it takes hun­dreds of hours, re­peat­ing the same ba­sic move­ments over and over again, to at­tain even a ba­sic level of mar­tial mas­tery. To make your body re­act cor­rectly with­out any think­ing in­volved. When Neo says “I Know Kung Fu” he isn’t sur­prised that he now has knowl­edge he didn’t have be­fore. He’s amazed that his body now re­acts in the op­ti­mal man­ner when at­tacked with­out his in­volve­ment.

All of this is sim­ply fo­cus­ing on pure re­ac­tion time – it doesn’t even take into ac­count the emo­tional ter­ror of an­other hu­man seek­ing to do vi­o­lence to you. It doesn’t cap­ture the in­de­ci­sion of how to re­spond, the paral­y­sis of hav­ing to choose be­tween out­comes which are all awful and you don’t know which will be worse, and the surge of hor­mones. The train­ing of your body to re­spond with­out your in­volve­ment by­passes all of those ob­sta­cles as well.

This is the true strength of Mar­tial Arts – elimi­nat­ing your slow, con­scious de­liber­a­tion and act­ing while there is still time to do so.

Roles are the Mar­tial Arts of Agency.

When one is well-trained in a cer­tain Role, one de­faults to cer­tain pre­scribed ac­tions im­me­di­ately and con­fi­dently. I’ve acted as a guy stand­ing around watch­ing peo­ple faint in an over­crowded room, and I’ve acted as the guy tel­ling peo­ple to clear the area. The differ­ence was in one I had the role of Cor­po­rate Pleb, and the other I had the role of Guy Re­spon­si­ble For This Shit. You know the differ­ence be­tween the guy at the bar who breaks up a fight, and the guy who stands back and watches it hap­pen? The former thinks of him­self as the guy who stops fights. They could even be the same guy, on differ­ent nights. The role it­self cre­ates the ac­tions, and it cre­ates them as an im­me­di­ate re­flex. By the time cor­po­rate-me is done think­ing “Huh, what’s this? Oh, this looks bad. Some­one fainted? Wow, never seen that be­fore. Damn, hope they’re OK. I should call 911.” en­forcer-me has already yel­led for the room to clear and whipped out a phone.

Roles are the differ­ence be­tween Hufflepuffs gawk­ing when Neville tum­bles off his broom (Pro­tected), and Harry scream­ing “Win­gardium Le­viosa” (Pro­tec­tor). Draco in­sulted them af­ter­wards, but it wasn’t a fair in­sult – they never had the slight­est chance to re­act in time, given the role they were in. Roles are the differ­ence be­tween Min­erva or­der­ing Ha­grid to stay with the chil­dren while she forms troll-hunt­ing par­ties (Pro­tec­tor), and Harry stand­ing around do­ing noth­ing while time slowly ticks away (Pro­tected). Even­tu­ally he switched roles. But it took Agency to do so. It took time.

Agency is awe­some. Half this site is de­voted to be­com­ing bet­ter at Agency. But Agency is slow. Roles al­low real-time ac­tion un­der stress.

Agency has a place of course. Agency is what causes us to de­cide that Mar­tial Arts train­ing is im­por­tant, that has us choose a Mar­tial Art, and then con­tinue to train month af­ter month. Agency is what lets us de­cide which Roles we want to play, and prac­tice the psy­chol­ogy and ex­e­cu­tion of those roles. But when the time for ac­tion is at hand, Agency is too slow. En­sure that you have trained enough for the next challenge, be­cause it is the train­ing that will see you through it, not your agenty con­scious think­ing.

As an aside, most ma­jor failures I’ve seen re­cently are when ev­ery­one as­sumed that some­one else had the role of Guy In Charge If Shit Goes Down. I sug­gest that, in any gath­er­ing of ra­tio­nal­ists, they be­gin the meet­ing by choos­ing one per­son to be Dic­ta­tor In Ex­tremis should some­thing break. Doesn’t have to be the same per­son as who­ever is lead­ing. Would be best if it was some­one com­fortable in the role and/​or with ex­pe­rience in it. But re­ally there just needs to be one. Any­one.

cross-posted from my blog