J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

The Joy and Beauty of Consensual Violence

I’ve been thinking about why I love to watch people fight. Especially if both combatants are skilled and each has a good chance of winning. A big part of it is the vicarious thrill–imagining myself in the ring. But sometimes I wonder…am I just bloodthirsty?

I don’t enjoy watching people get beat up (by cops, bullies, boyfriends, etc.). That kind of violence makes me sick. But when two fighters compete, and each think they can win, and the chance of permanent injury or death is low, and the fight is as fair as possible–count me in. That’s thrilling.

Consent is the difference between combat sports and assault. And not every fighter knows the difference. Some are gentle outside of the ring, others are brutes and bullies. But inside the ring (or on the football field or wrestling mat), there’s enthusiastic consent. Human beings who want to test themselves, with high stakes.

Even consensual violence should be regulated. Children shouldn’t be allowed to play tackle football, or kick each other in the head during martial arts tournaments, and kids don’t know enough to give proper consent (and they’re too vulnerable to pressure from peers, parents, and coaches). There’s too much of a chance of permanent brain damage. But I’m glad MMA, wrestling, jiujitsu, football, and boxing are legal for adults.

For me, 2017 has been a great year, but it’s been rough physically. My broken foot is healed, but I still get the odd twinge of pain, and my skateboarding days are over. My stomach is mostly healed as well, but I’ll probably be a cautious eater the rest of my life. Even without combat sports, life beats us up.

But combat sports teach us to fight, and to think clearly when the stakes are high, and to not give up even when we’re hurting.



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  1. Mark

    Interesting topic. I find it tough to resolve some cognitive dissonances around this one. Specifically around the risk of permanent brain damage (especially thinking about this not as “you never recover from one acute injury” but rather “your brain is not the same after this cumulative trauma adds up”). The NFL is obviously under heavy scrutiny on that front at the moment. I don’t know the exact science or statistics, but I can’t imagine that boxing or the MMA fare any better. MMA in theory is safer when tending towards ground fighting, but there are still plenty of super gnarly headshots. And judging by the highlight reels, it’s the big headshot takedowns which are the most thrilling crowd-pleasers.

    One difference from the NFL is that it’s pretty obvious that boxing or MMA is going to do a fair bit of damage. No one would imagine that repeated strikes to the head and concussions aren’t going to mess you up. So we implicitly assume anyone going into these sports is “eyes wide open” on the risks and making a choice. Whereas football with the pads and helmets and all that offers a veil of deniability.

    The other troubling thing there is demography. Again, I don’t have any statistics to cite, but it seems like there are economic correlations with who gets into high-risk sports in the first place e.g. my sense is that wealthier parents do not allow their children to play football at the same rate (though maybe my glasses are California-tinted, wouldn’t be surprised if this varies regionally).

    At the end of the day, I think we probably are a bit more bloodthirsty for the coliseum than we’d like to admit to ourselves. But we can only enjoy it with the seasoning of some checks in place on the ethics (e.g. brains are being damaged for our entertainment, but reasonable safety measures were taken, there was consent, etc.).

    Interestingly, I think this is going to be an interesting tension for extreme sports to confront. Which is an interesting comparison because those sports are actually pretty non-combative and non-violent. But as the stakes for “going big” get higher and higher, they’ll be more and more concussion-prone.

    • Thanks for the comment Mark. I share these same concerns. For MMA, it’s high time for some kind of fighters’ union to protect health, add economic security, and generally advocate for fighters’ rights and interests.

  2. The work of Bruno Caverna is an interesting approach to play, movement, contact and fighting. https://www.play-fight.com/

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