Do you think little or a lot about self-defense? Either way, you’ll live a better life when you consider self-defense from two perspectives: the practical and the legal. The different schools of self-defense training agree on many things. Similarly, the law of self-defense agrees in many ways across jurisdictions, cultures, even history. And though practical self-defense training and the law of self-defense have different perspectives; they share much in common. Consider dominance, escalation, and deception in the defense context.
Whether people accept a legal defense of self-defense depends upon their reconstruction of the defendant’s situation at the time; a totality of the circumstances. Inevitably jurors, judges, all of us will compare what we believe the person being judged did, with what we imagine we would have done in those hypothetical circumstances.
“Better judged by twelve than carried by six.”
The aphorism: “better judged by twelve than carried by six,” captures the law’s uncertainty The person who needs to use force in self-defense faces a two-fold threat:
- first surviving the physical attack; and
- second surviving the potential legal threat of being wrongly accused of a crime.
Dominance, Escalation and Deception
Some physical attacks are part of a robbery, a rape, a riot, or planned.
But let’s look at the other sort – attacks that spontaneously rise from anger, conflict or a sense of having been treated disrespectfully by someone. What are some strategies and tactics that can be used to good practical and legal effect?
The Social Reality
Humans are social animals. We have always lived in groups, each with our roles within the group. Like other social animals, we have orders of social dominance, and individual competitions for dominance ranking. We order social dominance with:
- coercion (such as laws and law enforcement) as well as
- the actual use of force – lawful and unlawful.
Generally we are unaware of our social dominance orders and roles.
But when it comes to self-defense, awareness is a powerful tool to help us avoid trouble. Awareness helps us avoid both physical attacks as well as legal attacks.
A person may present to you their subjective belief that you have treated them unjustly or wronged them.
How can you use dominance, escalation and deception to avoid trouble?
When animals compete for social dominance, they display an escalation of threatening physical posturing. And sometimes they follow with an attack and fight. They know what they are competing for – social dominance, a recognition by the other of their superior position.
At some point one of the competitors may back down and show surrender. And this submission will cause the winner to cease the attack. Then, the dominant animal will not normally hurt the submitting one. One great story about this in literature is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
Your humility may not be as deep and sincere as you might like. But you can still use some tactical deception and adopt an attitude of humility. If backing down helps avoid a conflict, you win. You can’t stop someone from baiting you. But you can refuse to take the bait.
Though humans can’t always be trusted to stop attacking a person no longer competing for dominance, the strategy sometimes works. So if the conflict is about perception of honor or justice; conceding dominance, and de-escalation of conflict tactics may resolve it. Or at least enough so that you can leave the situation, and move on.
Asserting dominance, escalation of conflict, can be just the thing
When a person or group threatens attack or attacks as part of a plan, like robbery or rape; conceding dominance and de-escalation of conflict tactics are unlikely to work. In these situations, the aggressor is a predator with a goal, acting with rational purpose not just emotion.
Here, asserting dominance authoritatively, escalation of threat displays and the use of force may be best. Why? Predatory behavior seeks an easy target. To ward off predators, be a hard target. Show strength, confidence, and dominance. Lead the escalation of conflict. To the extent that the predator is primarily opportunistic, they may be deterred. Where not discouraged, the predator may be effectively disabled by force.
Evade, Escape, Engage.
Where practical, it’s best to avoid a potential physical concentration. No one wins a fight, when everyone gets hurt. This could mean crossing the street, walking the other way, driving away. Or taking any way out of there, away from the threat.
Sometimes it’s not a reasonable option to retreat. For example, retreat is not an option when the threat is already close. The threat can simply attack you from behind if you turn and run. But in unarmed combat especially, creating distance can increase safety. Even when the attacker is armed, creating distance can sometimes reduce risk of harm.
Make the Attacker Consider the Price
In many traditional martial arts disciplines, for example Wing Tzun, we do not initiate an attack as a general rule. This idea, dating back hundreds – perhaps thousands of years, is not based on any legal considerations. It’s a fighting tactic to either avoid a fight by not initiating; or forcing the opponent to physically commit to an action that can then be exploited with various combative counter-techniques.
This forces a choice for the opponent. Will the opponent pay the price for escalation of the conflict to physical attack? If so, we want to be ready — very ready. But one type of readiness is continuous attempts at de-escalation. And if the opponent attacks, we take advantage.
This practice of not initiating a fight will also help in the event of legal trouble. And it helps the legal defense of self-defense.
Before and once an attack is underway, we assess the threat and seek to bring a proportionate, reasonable response. We don’t want to respond disproportionately, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.
See our related article: Disparity of Force and Self-Defense.
Too little force for an effective defense could result in serious injury or death for ourselves or loved ones. Too much could lead to legal trouble. Those who judge us from outside the situation have the stress-free benefit of hindsight. They have hindsight bias. The arm-chair quarterbacks often think they could’ve done better, even though they weren’t there.
Stop the Threat
After conflict escalation to force, when should it stop? Self-defense systems generally teach that you should use necessary force until the threat is no longer a threat.
Most people have zero training in self-defense. Their information comes from entertaining but wrong films and television shows.
Unlike those stories, the lawful self-defender does not seek to hurt or to kill. But rather she seeks to disable the attackers – to stop the threat. Our goal is to stop the threat. That is our intent. Harm or death is an unwelcome, collateral consequence.
If an attacker is hurt that is an unintended consequence of the only goal of self-defense – to simply stop the threat.
Once the attacker is fully disabled from continuing the attack, the use of force against them should also stop. But, we must be aware of the risk of multiple attackers.
After the use of force in defense of self or another
Once you stopped or disabled the threat, if safe to do so (beware of third parties and weapons); consider rendering First Aid or other assistance to the now disabled attacker. And contact the police if possible.
We’ll look at how to handle police contacts in the future (what to do, what to say and when). But what you do, and knowing what to do, before police contact stemming from the use of force in self-defense is far more important. Prepare yourself by learning and training in self-defense – not only for your sake but for the sake of your family, co-workers, and those around you.
Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.
His practice includes asserting the defense of self-defense and defense of others on behalf of clients.
Comments are welcome below.