Sunday, October 14, 2007

Te, Part II

The more I see, the less I know for sure.
- John Lennon

So I had an interesting encounter on the subway yesterday, one that I've had to reflect on and as of yet haven't fully resolved. Funakoshi's 3rd precept of karate is perhaps the easiest to appreciate yet the hardest to implement: Karate stands on the side of justice. Doing anything well requires unity of thought and action, of theory and practice. It isn't enough to just know the right thing and do the right thing; what is right must be done in the right way. Yesterday I had an opportunity to see firsthand just how difficult living by this philosophy can be.

I was on my way downtown on the Yonge Subway line, and upon getting onto the subway car, I noticed a homeless person sitting in a nearby section of the car. He yelled something meaningless aimlessly and then paced the nearly empty subway car briefly before sitting again. He didn't seem to be a particular bother or threat to me, so I occupied myself with my karate binder.

As we approached Eglinton station, I began to smell the noxious sweet smell of nail polish remover waft throughout the subway car. I didn't look up from what I was doing, but it seemed apparent that the homeless man had spilled some of the liquid from his own personal collection onto one of the other subway-goers, who had moved away from the man without confronting him or taking any further action. The smell was unpleasantly pleasant in that way that such chemicals are, but I'd smelled much worse in subway cars and in Downtown Toronto, so I ignored it all, still relatively unaffected by my surroundings.

Upon stopping at Eglinton was when the situation escalated. Another subway patron approached the homeless man and began to speak to him in an increasingly belligerent and loud tone. The fellow was a Black man, light to medium build, and possibly drunk from the uncoordinated way his rant unfolded. Soon he'd begun yelling at the homeless man and, after repeatedly saying to the effect that he wanted the homeless man off the train, he took the homeless man by the arm and physically removed him from the train. The homeless man was outmatched and didn't seem clearminded enough to resist and didn't, and was removed without further violence.

One of the other subway patrons was piqued with this act, and spoke out against what he perceived to be the unfair treatment of the homeless fellow. The Black gentleman (I'm being generous with that description) then turned the adrenaline he was feeling from the confrontation on the outspoken patron and the rest of the car, swearing and hollering in his broken English as to the cowardice in confronting the homeless man and how they should be thanking him and so forth. His rant continued on until we reached Davisville station where, his adrenaline high waning, he noticed a Subway security officer walking his way down the car, and promptly sat down and remained silent.

I had remained silent the entire time, quietly listening to what was going on around me. I was aware that the situation was escalating, I was aware that I might have to defend myself, I was aware that given the physical and psychological disposition of the people involved I could probably make short work of anyone who confronted me. But I remained paralyzed not so much with fear as with indecision. Karate stands on the side of justice. What was the right thing to do here? I consciously decided not to engage in the confrontation because I genuinely didn't know what I should do. Should I defend this homeless man with words, with force? Is protecting the weak necessarily the side of justice? Should I have acted against the homeless man, as the other patron did, for inconveniencing the rest of the people on the subway? Should I have acted as mediator between two people neither of whom were capable of listening to reason? I thought all these things, sitting there trying to figure out what was right - what was just - and came to no conclusions.

I felt an intense need to do something for the sake of being able to say that I did something, but I'm still at a loss as to what that should have been. I've been thinking about Plato's understanding of justice as outlined in 'The Republic' - Justice is when people occupy themselves with that which affect or concerns them and not with that in which they have no personal stake. I had no personal stake in this confrontation; was doing nothing the right thing to do? To study Karate is to be a Peacemaker, isn't stopping violence something you should go out of your way to do?


Blogger Melodie said...

Hullo buddy,

While I don't have eloquent quotes to draw from at this moment, and if I find one later I'll pass it on... (cuz I know if I put it off now I won't end up commenting anything at all...) But in that situation, something that might have been possible to do might have been... at the moment when the Black gentleman was confronting the homeless man rudely, if I had had enough courage to do it, I might have gone to stand beside the homeless man and assuaged the confronter's rageful fit by saying something like, "It's ok, he's with me, we'll get off at the next station together and I'll make sure he's ok, so you don't need to be upset anymore. I'm sure the spill was just an accident. (gesture politely for him to sit back down.)"

Not that I'm at all sure I might've had the courage to do that with two irrational people with one of them waxing dangerous. The less confrontational approach might've been to get off at the same stop as the homeless man and make sure he's ok from the encounter (emotionally/ physically/and has someplace safe to go... or maybe just sharing a brief time of coffee or water and offering a moment to show revalidation of his humanity... (Just an idea, though not in any way saying that I've been able to do this all the time too.)

Not having the benefit of a eloquent quote or thoughtful academic or activist to draw from at the moment, maybe justice is like taking a stake in something that is injust that someone else has a personal stake in, and standing in solidarity... So even if the issue isn't immediately personal, a relationship with someone (however fragile) can make it personal, by association. "Personal" is subjective. So is empathy, one of the seeds for solidarity in injustice.

- mel

4:51 pm  
Blogger Melodie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:51 pm  

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