Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective? Often strength is seen as the same as being unemotional (not just being able to hide them) and not being ‘soft’ at all. Empathy, kindness, patience, etc, are considered weaknesses. Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the only mediums I have seen that places some value on these traits even when the characters fight. Is there room for these traits in real life martial arts, other combat, or militaries?

Put. The. CW. Down.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only example which comes to mind you either need to broaden your horizons or reevaluate what you’ve been reading/watching. You don’t need to expand beyond the YA, where this attitude flourishes, but you may want to read some better material or chase Avatar’s actual genre. Avatar: The Last Airbender is part of the martial arts fantasy adventure genre, known as wuxia in China, and for that genre it actually lives in the shallow end of the pool for the material its discussing.

I challenge you to go watch Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, M.A.S.H, Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Black Clover, Claymore, That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Full Metal Alchemist, read Protector of the Small, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey to the West, or countless other novels, manga, and comics which delve into this topic at length, and tell me they promote the idea of the emotionless combatant. Oh My General is on Amazon Prime right now. You can watch Ice Fantasy, Eternal Love/Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, A Korean Odyssey, Violet Evergarden, Mr. Sunshine, Train to Busan, and many others are available on Netflix. I mean, watch Captain Marvel and Captain America: The First Avenger. Neither of these two are emotionless drones. I mean, have you watched The Two Towers? Aragorn and Legolas were in the process of becoming unglued at Helms Deep, they started yelling at each other in Elvish so the Rohirrim wouldn’t know how scared they were in order to maintain moral.

I’m not sure where you’ve gotten this perspective from. Though, it is a common misread of combat discipline, compartmentalization, and that someone must not have emotions if they don’t outwardly show their emotions in performative way or let their emotions rule them. The emotionless drone plot is one that does occur in many East Asian narratives, but its not presented as a strength. The plot revolves around the individual running away from a traumatic experience and giving up their humanity as a result, this is treated as a display of weakness rather than strength. You need your emotions, we make some pretty shitty choices without compassion, kindness, and empathy. You need your emotions like anger to give you purpose and to drive you. You need your frustrations to dig deep, to find the strength to overcome. You just can’t allow them to control you.

At the beginning of your question you asked,

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective?

These three words are not the same, they do not share the same meaning, and to combine them is to misunderstand the difference between being emotionally distant or withdrawn and being emotionally stunted. You then go on to combine being stunted, withdrawn, and distant with the idea of having no emotions at all.

Someone who is emotionally distant has emotions, but is choosing not to connect to other individuals in the moment. This is a choice.

Someone who is emotionally withdrawn has exited their emotions from the situation. They are unreachable, and are trying to protect themselves.

Someone who is emotionally stunted is someone who has not actually developed their emotions, and as a result experiences them in an often explosive and immature way. Emotionally, they are a child in the body of an adult dealing with adult emotions. They are more likely, rather than less, to be controlled by their emotions.

Someone who is unemotional, is someone who does not feel at all and that is different from all of the above.

None of these are a person who practices combat discipline because combat discipline is a necessary survival mechanism for keeping yourself and your friends alive. Combat discipline doesn’t negate your emotions, but uses them for motivation while keeping the mind clear. They are able to review the situation logically, and make rational decisions. Combat discipline doesn’t necessarily follow someone out of a combat scenario. They can and do emotionally engage with others outside of violence. (They can emotionally engage with someone during a combat scenario also, however their emotions are not the basis of their decision making.)

Your emotions are positive and negative, and both can be manipulated by your enemy. They can also manipulate you. You can use your emotions to justify narcissism, use your anger to justify harming others, and can make incredibly poor long term choices for the good of others based on short term gratification. The desire to feel like a good person can be destructive when that desire blinds you to the reality of the situation you’re inhabiting, when your life and the lives of others are riding on that decision. There’s a lot more to violence than technical aptitude. There are a lot of ways to kill someone, many which involve maneuvering someone into a position from which they can’t defend themselves. An easy way to do that is by manipulating your opponent’s emotions, their desires, their anger, their greed, their compassion, their kindness, and their empathy. If you approach a situation blindly, you can fall.

There’s a combat tactic called a honeypot, where you specifically wound an enemy soldier and leave him/her out in the open. When the other soldiers come to rescue them, you kill them.

This is a tactic which specifically preys on the human desire to help a comrade who is suffering. The trap relies on you to jump based on a knee jerk emotional response, to act without thinking.

This is where your emotions can get you into trouble and why combat discipline is a necessary skill to develop. If you don’t, then even a high school bully can bait you into acting against your own interest and maneuver you into a bad situation.

Read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and you’ll start to get an idea.

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. – Sun Tzu

You want to reduce the opportunities someone has to take advantage of you. Only by shoring up your mind and seeking clarity, can you defend yourself against an enemy’s mental attacks. We like to imagine that battle takes place only in the clashing of bodies, but strategies and tactics are provided by the mind. A clever enemy will strike at you in all the places you are weak, often in those you do not expect.

The mistake is assuming this means the character cannot have any emotional connections at all, that they must have no emotion and must be a drone to save themselves. Many writers have taken this direction on the assumption the emotionless approach is the best way to secure victory, even if it’s a self-sabotaging one which exists only in the fantastical.

The emotionless drone is also a misreading of Taoism/Daoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions; just as Avatar also misunderstands the philosophies of the material it draws from. The search for enlightenment and transcendence has nothing to do with giving up your emotions, giving up what matters, and going to live on a mountaintop away from anything which can threaten your inner peace. Aang cannot give up Katara because Katara is not an object Aang can control or possess. Giving up your desires is code for giving up your illusion of control, giving up your preconceived notions of who someone else is, and realize only when you have given up the illusions which blinded you can you see clearly. The distinction between Aang’s love for Katara and Aang’s love for his idea of Katara is important. While the Avatar narrative is steeped in these themes of enlightenment and transcendence, it never delves into them and, as a result, the martial arts component of the fantasy becomes a prop. Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of Avatar: The Last Air Bender is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.

It is important to remember when asking questions about the real world and real world martial arts, that the bending martial arts of Avatar are based on four distinct Chinese martial arts: Baguazhang (Air), Tajiquan (Water), Hung Guar Kuen (Earth), and Northern Shaolin (Fire). All these martial arts have a real history, with real philosophies, ones that are often contrary to their use in Avatar. Baguazhang and Tajiquan are what are commonly referred to as “soft” martial arts in the West, but better definition for them is “internal”. They are meditative, philosophical, and introspective martial arts with a focus on Daoist transcendence.

Part of Avatar’s problem is the idea that only specific people are born with the ability to bend, and therefore only specific people practice the martial arts rather than manipulating the elements being the result of interest, hard work, and training. This piece of worldbuilding is in defiance of all the martial arts and genre conventions it utilizes, such as Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers. Bending should be attainable to the average person even if they’re not born with natural talent, but isn’t. Transcendence through enlightenment, harmony, and understanding of the natural world is barred based on the luck someone has when they’re born. Avatar has the same problem as Star Wars after the introduction of midichlorians.

Compare to Naruto, which as a shounen manga/anime has a far better grasp of chi/qi/ki baked into its world building, where the distinction for the average person becoming a ninja is access, and where the discussion about the place of emotion in warfare is contrasted with individual loss and suffering and the prejudice which results from it. There’s also a lot of ugly crying in that first episode. Never let it be said real men don’t cry.

Most of war, shounen, and other martial arts fantasy narratives discuss the importance of relationships, of the bonds created between people which give them motivation to survive through horrific circumstances, through trauma and loss. How those bonds cause pain which can destroy you, and how they can save you in the hard times, how we can mistake one emotion for another, how feelings are an important component of what it is to be human.

The idea of characters being emotionless is mostly just a cheap out to avoid needing to write the characters as having difficult emotions which can be hard to express, are frightening, make us ugly or unlikeable, self-obsessed, or, in romantic stories, letting in that one special person who awakens their long buried feelings. In poor writing, kindness, compassion, patience, empathy are the province of certain characters rather than regular human traits because possessing empathy makes those characters look better.

So, no, being emotionless doesn’t make someone a better warrior. Giving up your emotions is the coward’s way out, it’s a means of escaping difficult feelings and pain, and repressing so you don’t have to deal with them. Facing your feelings takes real courage.

The truth is someone can go to war and return fine without any trauma, not be damaged, still be a loving parent, sibling, child, husband/wife, even after they’ve ended the lives of others. This can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Likewise, compartmentalization can be hard to understand. They don’t have to find the act of killing hard, usually they take more exception to losing those they care about.

-Michi

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One thought on “Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness”

  1. Michi,

    What does CW mean in the first line?

    In this blog post, you talk a lot about specific ways emotions can be used against a fighter, but not a lot of specific ways emotions can be used for good in combat. Can you go over some specific ideas on how having emotions can help a fighter?

    Sincerely,
    Tiffany

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