Spheres of Violence 1: Overview

Real talk: Your experience probably isn't relevant. Here's how to strip it to its parts, and use what is to solve the toughest problems.

December 23, 2020

Spheres of Violence

Violence needs no introduction: it is a constant component of our lives. From rape and murder to the movies and music we watch, we don't go a day without seeing some sign of violence's signature on our society. What often gets overlooked is a subtle, but critical aspect of violence:

It's real, it happens with regularity, and it happens to people who are entirely innocent.

In short, violence doesn't have to explain itself to us and we don't choose when it happens.

In "Spheres of Violence", we will dissect this reality and turn a critical eye towards the architecture of violence. Specifically, we want to bring awareness to how individual experiences with violence shapes perception and how those perceptions shape the way we expect violence to unfold. Once we do this, we can establish an understanding: Violence is stochastic and beyond the basics, it's very hard to guess at how it will unravel. If we have a firm understanding of the Spheres of Violence, we can quickly adapt to the situation, whether it's a terrorist bombing at a concert hall or an attempted rape.

First, let's discuss the "how and why" of violence.


In discussing how violence unfolds, it's critically important that we don't project our expectations others.

If you get jumped, don't expect the person who's jumping you to think like you do. One of the first things we learn in viewing the world is projecting our values and expectations on to others. Think back to elementary: What was the golden rule?

The golden rule assumes that children will behave rationally and will develop social values. The truth is: "do unto others" isn't learned at school. It's learned at home and no matter how hard we try, there are two obstacles we can't overcome:

  1. Not all people are reasonable or rational, and;
  2. Not all people share the same values.

For some cultures, it's cowardly and shameful to "turn the other cheek". They actively teach their children to respond to insult with violence and often, those children themselves are targeted with violence if *don't* respond to 'disrespect' with violence. So, while you may be teaching your kids how to adjust to normal socialized life in the West, are you also teaching them that it is necessary to fight back? Have you told them that you can't always expect other people to act reasonably? That there won't always be an "adult" present to tell?

This isn't an article about raising kids, but the conditioning we receive as we develop primes us to expect others will act the way we do. As we hope to show, thats fine until it's not.

Paradigm shift

Now, we need to condition ourselves to acknowledge that rationality and reasonability are not universal and violence is a possible result, whether or not we want to believe it.

This young man was randomly attacked, robbed, and shot. Why?

So, acknowledging this:

  • - Makes us face the 1st reality of violence: It doesn't owe us an explanation. We can't always explain why it happens.
  • - It makes it possible to honestly assess the likelihood that we will be impacted by violence. Violence has been studied exhaustively and there is a lot of good information on how victims are selected; from genocides to muggings.
  • - It forces us to confront the fact that we don't know as much about it as we think.

Drawing on what we know from Understanding Emergencies, the type of violence we're looking at is, at it's core, a Type I emergency: a direct, physical threat to you or your loved ones. We have a pre-established template for dealing with these threats: skills, equipment, and mindset, so keep that in the back of your mind as we work forward.

The Root of the Misunderstanding

There's a common misunderstanding in the training and martial community that's the direct result of projection:

We expect the things that make us reconsider decisions - threat of consequences - will work on other people.

This isn't a matter of ethnicity, class, or national identity. It's a matter that if you've never been desperate, you don't know how desperate people think. If you see a Rolex, you might think "nice watch". You probably don't think "I could bash his head in, and pawn that thing for $800 and why should that guy have it anyway?"

To punctuate this misunderstanding, let's evaluate this. It's common to hear people use variations of the following:

‍A robbery is going to look less like a guy standing 3-7 meters away with a gun pointed sideways as he asks for your wallet, and more like this. He won't behave like a cardboard cutout.
  • -"I keep my wallet here and my gun here, so when a robber asks for my wallet, I can draw my gun." (Robbers don't "ask", they demand, and usually from a position of advantage).
  • -"Never pull your gun unless you plan to shoot."
  • -"The sound of pumping a shotgun will make them s*** their pants!"
  • -"I carry my pistol openly so people will see I'm armed and pick some other target."'

These are problematic because while they might impact a 'normal' socialized person in that way, criminals aren't scared or intimidated by the same things you are, and their tactics don't include negotiation the way a regular person's might.

The Spheres of Violence

Violence exists in two loose dichotomies: Institutional and interpersonal, and can be Social or Asocial.

Social violence is about establishing yourself as the cock-of-the-walk. It's the Monkey dance in which two parties knowingly engage in some sort of pageantry that could end in violence. Social violence is also almost totally avoidable. This is the type in which de-escalation works well. It's ego based and takes shape as the violence that settles petty squabbles. This kind of violence often lurks in the shadows as Domestic Violence, which is undoubtedly one of the most insidious and common forms of violence.

Asocial Violence occurs when one party selects a second party to attack. For this reason it does not require justification or acknowledgement from both parties. It's possible that the victim is unaware that they're involved and the objective is less about settling differences between two individuals, and more about establishing turf, resources, or dominance against an outsider. The Active Shooter is the most infamous example of Asocial violence, but robberies, beat-downs, and turf related violence fall into this category as well.

Interpersonal Violence occurs between two parties without consideration of their affiliation. Typically, this means it occurs between individuals or small groups.

Institutional violence pits factions against one another for broad reasons; in this context, violence is less about you and more about what you stand for.

Punnet Square displaying types of violence

The institutional sphere is broad-ranging and takes into account a complex array of relationships. Soldiers on the battlefield, however, experience institutional violence differently than the police officer apprehending a suspect. There can be some grey area, but loosely these spheres can guide our understanding of how violence unfolds, similar to how we Understand Emergencies.

Defining the Spheres

Military/Contractor: Institutional Asocial

Warfare is the least complex. For the soldier or contractor, it's unusual to feel any real connection to the enemy. Typically, they are split by culture, language, ethos, or religion, and don't come from the same communities.

This is not to diminish the contribution of the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine, given that the anonymity of warfare can cause a sense of doubt that can leave veterans with a lingering lack of ultimate justification regarding their experience.

Law Enforcement: Institutional Social and Asocial

Where as military violence is often a collision of forces, violence for law enforcement is far more asymmetrical and because of this, police officers must be more generalist than their military counterparts. Police officer's duties can vary between performing health and welfare checks, to responding to a MASCAL terrorist incident.

Law Enforcement Trainers tend to have more to offer citizens in that their culture requires that they engage with regular people in a complex swirl of cultures. The more militarized the unit, the less applicable their experience will be. Conversely, the more covert their work, the more similar it will be to the citizen's problems.

Citizen: Interpersonal Social and Asocial

For the citizen, the interpersonal sphere of violence combines the worst aspects of institutional violence with little (or subjective) legal authority to act. Interpersonal violence ranges from tribal warfare to intra-family violence. There is no legal tailwind to aid the citizen in making a decision in the interpersonal sphere of violence, therefore Citizens often face a "zero sum game".

In this predicament, no matter what we do, winning is not likely… the objective becomes lose as little as possible. The citizen must be able to navigate the widest variety of problems with the least support. This is why we exist: to help you to always be an asset, regardless of the nature of the problem.

So now that we can identify the spheres of violence, let's look at the "how and why".

Violence: How?

Let's be blunt: regardless of who you are, or what you think your background is, you can't be switched on all the time. Criminals aren't stupid, they aren't TV fall guys and they aren't looking for some martial competition. They're looking to take your stuff and get away with it. If they think they can, don't be surprised if they do... because they're not going to step in and play by your expectations.

Because of this, it's necessary to point out that to have a reasonable opinion on how to stop this from happening, you've at least have to attempt to think like they do. How?

Let's be blunt: regardless of who you are, or what you think your background is, you can't be switched on all the time. Criminals aren't stupid, they aren't TV fall guys, and they aren't looking for some martial competition.

Asocial, interpersonal crime generally unfolds when a motive is met with an opportunity. It's an unlocked door or window. It could be the kid shuffling his feet while searching for music on his phone. It's the woman with a cell phone pinned between her ear and shoulder with a purse loosely hanging over one arm and a kid in the other. What is it about these people that make them victims?

It may be surprising but one of the most reliable ways to identify potential victim is way a person walks.

Visually, your athleticism - or lack there of - is displayed by the way you walk. If your foot rolls smoothly over the ground, and your the brachiation (movement of the arms as you walk) appears synchronized, you indicate good physiological control, coordination, and you're sending a non-verbal message that your body can readily be launched into action. Conversely, if your feet are slapping the pavement, you advertise a lack of physical readiness and capability. If your arms or dangling, or your hands tucked in your pockets, you're sending signals that you're vulnerable.

While other factors, such as awareness, fear, and task fixation, can influence who is selected, it's important to understand how physiology plays into criminal target selection.

At this point, it's a good time to illustrate how things change between spheres. While physical fitness may de-select you for asocial violence, it often creates social conflicts. We call this the Monkey Dance: it's all about establishing dominance. This illustrates that violence occurs largely on the fringes... If you stand out, expect to be noticed.

If you'd like further reading, "Marked for Meyhem" in Psychology Today gives particular insights into how the violent criminal actors choose who to target, and should be read by anyone serious about self protection. "Why They Kill", by Richard Rhodes is also an excellent study in the conditions that create violent behavior, or violentization.

To the perpetrators, this isn't criminal. It's a way of life. Just like a job, or a trade. How about you?

What's violence to you?
This New Jersey woman was savagely beat by a home intruder/Burglar. Note the little girl to the left trying to hide behind a pillow.


So why do criminals do what they do?

There's always someone grumbling about how their job is just to shoot them, not understand them.

We want to pull this idea out by the roots because we focus mainly on the citizen's response to violence. Understand that violence for citizens is a zero sum game; you can't win, all you can do is mitigate how much you lose.

During the 1950's, a brilliant psychologist called Muzafir Sherif devised an experiment, coincidentally along side William Golding's writing of "Lord of the Flies". Both men had seen the horrors of World War II and wanted to understand the root cause of conflict. Sherif took a group of boys and introduced resource scarcity, identity, and came out with "Realistic Conflict Theory".

For our purposes, let's just say that it is a component of why violence occurs predominately from the socioeconomic 'bottom up' is due to the 'othering' that occurs when social groups are alienated by resource competition. A few points on that before we go on:

  1. We believe this is a natural, irreconcilability, and eternal component of human society. It cannot be solved by collectivism.
  2. It accounts for the vast majority of crime; petty crime, theft, burglary, robbery, and even violent crimes like assault and murder. For example, gangs largely target rivals, who are also "others".
  3. There are truly evil people in this world who don't fit this profile.

We're not asking you to pity 'othered' groups. They don't pity you and they'll put a brick upside your head or shoot your face without thinking twice. Just understand the root of the issue.

This needs to be considered because undoubtedly some of our readers will say something like "Well, I'd like to just talk to them and solve the problem without violence."


You should do that. But let us tell you something up front, from personal experience: The time to do that is not when you've been selected as a victim. Get involved in your community and outreach programs. Don't think you can buy a coffee and discuss feelings with someone who's got a chrome-plated Jennings .25 to your grape.

Always seek to negotiate from a position of strength as the unarmed demand nothing of the armed.

Violence and Self Protection

What most armed professionals know but few mention is that the unpredictability violence skyrocket the more you introduce the 'variability' of real-world problems. Most of the time, the situations in which they've experienced violence are totally different from what a citizen experiences. Therefore, what you're relying on is their credibility as a professional and the chance that their experiences are relevant to you.

Let's talk about that.

  1. Do you have a logistic supply chain?
  2. Organizationally issued weapons and training?
  3. Laws and Organizations that protect your decision making?
  4. Legal organizations who represent you if you do need to use force?
  5. A organized effort to back you up if you're in an engagement?

If you can check yes to all of these, you're in a different Sphere of Violence than the citizen, and if you're a professional instructor who checks those boxes, your training should reflect this fact.

We tend to focus on what's common between these spheres, which means:

  1. Marksmanship
  2. Some Tactics and Protocols (post fight actions, some clearing tactics, awareness)
  3. Guns and weapons

We have a hard time moving beyond this, because it's incredibly hard to teach the things that are important and don't easily translate between the Spheres, such as:

  1. Applied Situational Awareness (we have different levels of responsibility and environments; what's important for a Contractor in Iraq is not the same as a Policeman in Hood River)
  2. Fitness, which is universally important. Functional, applicable fitness.
  3. Decision making and observation.
A good instructor should test you on the material under full pressure, analyze your performance, and give actionable, meaningful feedback. Craig Douglas is one such instructor.

Most training fails to reenforce the important things, because:

1. Force on Force is expensive, requires facilities and time, and;

2. It’s almost impossible to “train” people on decision making, because of market forces and the complexity of the topic.

Said another way: Most people want to feel cool and badass, not humbled and insufficient. Furthermore, because crime really isn't all that common for most people who seek training, it's not obvious when you're "doing it right" with regards to awareness. You can tell if your shooting is improving.

3. It's tough to find realistic scenario-based training and to know it when you see it.

Knowing how violence works is the first step in avoiding it altogether, and recognizing when it's not avoidable.

This brings us to our main point:

Know your Sphere

Let's kill a sacred cow: the procedures used by military protocols usually don't translate to the situations encountered by armed citizens or police. Some principles do, and we'll discuss them as we move forward, but generally we don't need to be focusing on dynamic room clearing with a stack of dudes and a carbine.

Think of this: who are the people in society most likely to be victimized?

If you're reading this, statistically, you're probably not the target demographic. If you are (awesome) we want to make sure you have relevant and actionable information. This means things like:

  1. Understand threats and threatening behavior.
  2. Assess your risk based on facts, then tune them for your circumstances.
  3. Understand that equipment and classes can help, but unless they're 100% non-compliant, you're not getting a realistic look at how a fight will unfold.

So, be cautious about accepting credentials as 'proof' of contextual comprehension. While it might be cool to say you trained with a dude who was Murder, INC in the military, does he understand what threats you are likely to face?

A good instructor from ANY sphere can make the information relevant... Just don't expect that they will. Even very "high speed" types succumb to a sort of paradigm paralysis or institutional tunnel vision. Their purpose is to give you tools that worked for them.

The critical thinking that makes those tools useful is entirely on you.

A Scenario from a Navy SEAL

Let's look at the following example of a SOF Operator who does a poor job of adapting to a new Sphere of Violence or contextual relevance.

The question he's trying to address is "What do you do if someone attempts to kidnap your child from your back yard?"

The answer is not "Pull out your finger Glock," firing rounds into the concrete, as the video demonstrates.

As we've discussed, this guy might know all there is to know about how to kick in doors in Iraq or Afghanistan, but he's projecting what he knows about war onto a very specific type of criminal and he is out of his depth in manufacturing this approach. His advice is bad and he's irresponsible to offer it to a parent looking to prevent or address situations like this. Avoid this kind of pageantry.

Pull out your finger "I don't have any idea what I'm talking about" and get ready for some tactical pageantry!
Stop Thinking like a "Good Guy"

Let's circle back around to our introduction and think like a bad guy for a second.

Here two possible courses of action that are, in my opinion, more likely from the bad guy's perspective:

"I've just botched a kidnapping, and daddy's coming after me with a gun popping off rounds"

  1. I can drop her into the path of his gunfire and escape.
  2. I can hurt her and use the distraction as an opportunity to escape.

Best Case if you're the SEAL, you're getting cuffed and thrown to the ground for torching off rounds while the police try and figure out whats going on. Meanwhile, your crying daughter is put into a cruiser, and the guy is still on the loose. If you kill him, get ready for the criminal and civil circus. If you wound him, get ready to spend years hearing how he was confused, off his medication, thought he was in his own back yard, and on and on.

Worst case scenario: your daughter's bleeding out. You've got your Glock, and the police will be responding to a call of "shots fired". Hope you've got your med kit, because until that scene is cleared, no EMT's are coming in. Oh yeah, and expect the DA to file charges for discharging a firearm within the city limits, especially if you're in metro.

This SEAL's approach to this problem is no different than thinking racking your shotgun is going to make the guy soil his drawers in fear. It's simply out of context for the citizen.

This is the abductor's hustle, he knows it better than you and I. He knows better than a Navy SEAL. So pay attention to contextual understanding. Can your instructor think like a bad guy, or is he guessing at half the story?

Scenario Revisited

Let's revisit that situation that situation without pulling out our finger Glock. Simply rushing to the situation is probably going to force the following decision tree onto the abductor:

1. I can drop the girl and possibly escape, or;

2. I can fight the father.

The second option is a lose/lose and it costs time. The first option makes the most sense. I doubt homeboy is going to hop that 6' wall with a 50 pound girl in his arms. He's not a cheetah.

Further, as a father, I'd rather go hands on with the guy knowing he's starting from an initiative deficit... running away and holding a child. This doesn't introduce the risk of accidentally hitting my daughter with a stray bullet, the liability of firing rounds wildly, or force the abductor to get creative about a situation that went from a kidnapping to a lethal force encounter.

Now, after playing "Armchair Quarterback", let's discuss the reality of kidnapping: it's probably not going to happen in a way that allows you to fight back. Most abductions don't occur when dad is around and can intervene.

This is the most crucial lesson of this article:

What we think we know is wrong, as often as not.

A Final Note

When it comes to asking the hardest question: "What's going to happen?", let us be perfectly clear:

We don't know either.

Having only seen videos of abductions, we can't say anything other than the abductors often cave to physical pressure, which you can apply without bringing the gun in and letting him know immediately you're coming in hot and he's now in a lethal force situation. What we do know is that awareness is still the first step. We know that good security hygiene is important. We know that citizens have an influence - a positive influence - on the outcome of both abductions and active shooters.

We know we'll need to be fit, mentally present, and that more likely than not, we won't be at our best when things happen. Study what situations are likely to happen. Most of them aren't going to require you grabbing a gun and chasing down bad guys. They're boring insurance issues like housefires, car theft, burglary, or chest thumping. Mentally index these things in their own categories, because they aren't all solved the same way.

As a final thought:

It's dangerous to assume that someone who has experience with one type of violence is familiar with *all* types of violence.

Don't accept that because someone has experience with violence, that their experience it is applicable your life. We need to learn from the sad losses of good people and ensure we don't make the same mistakes. Know your sphere and practice for it. If you want to know how criminals work, don't study Navy SEALs, or CAG guys. Find someone who's experience, tactics, and insights are Relevant to You. Once you've covered those bases and can reasonably start asking "ok, what next?" give thought to more advanced problems, like social unrest that might necessitate tactics and rifles.

As we continue in this series, we will be looking at how to develop this knowledge into an actionable plan and skill set, as well as how to get by in a world that's increasingly tense.


ISG Team




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