Tai Chi-ing is the new black. And white.

Taking the energy from your foe, without all the vampirism.

Taking the energy from your foe, without all the vampirism.

“Tai chi” is now a verb.  I heard it a couple of times at work and it made so much sense that I couldn’t deride it as I do most deviations from the OED.

“If he keeps pressing on the issue, I’m just going to tai chi him,” for example.  This describes that moment when force builds to the point where it can be diverted and turned against the antagonist.

It’s a common, well recognized strategy.  We use it all the time in our everyday lives.  Corporations do it to each other.  Couples, armies, and athletes do it.  I just didn’t have a name for it.

Muhammad Ali did it to George Foreman, protecting himself until the larger fighter had become exhausted, then turning to offense in the latter rounds, outscoring and winning the match on points.  That’s what’s so appealing about the strategy.  The bigger, stronger, faster opponent loses.

Don’t we also enjoy the thud of the aggressor’s guy’s fall?  We thrilled at the moment Ali turned from victim to perpetrator once Foreman, the aggressor until that point, could no longer raise his massive arms.  Ali’s victory was part of the story, but the fall of Foreman, the huge, indestructible punching machine, gave us all a secret thrill.

So maybe there’s a little schadenfreude at work when we celebrate a dramatic tai chiing.  Maybe we feel a little moral superiority when perpetrators become victims, despite overwhelming advantages.

Turning power inequities upside down is what this strategy is all about, and to the vast majority of ordinary people, coping with forces they can’t control in their lives, this strategy holds special appeal.  But if huge power disparities can make the dominant competitor vulnerable, and if we feel a collective sense of moral superiority when the mighty are brought to ground (how very Canadian!), what prevents us from creating a different kind of imbalance, making ourselves vulnerable to a corrective tai chiing?

I think our vicarious enjoyment of giant slayings masks our own tendency to accumulate power in the form of security and entitlement.  We use institutions to reinforce power where the machinery of economics and politics favour it.  As the many Davids, fixated on a few Goliaths, we feel more righteous than we should.

Underneath it all, tai chi as a martial art and as a 21st century strategy label, corrects an extreme power imbalance by utilizing the perpetrator’s power, first in defense, and then in offense.  While we are all superb judges of these imbalances in others, we aren’t so good at detecting and correcting those imbalances when they’re in our favour.

It’s even harder to be objective about how we create conditions of inequity or imbalance when discourse about it is mediated by self-interested experts in the press, in academia, or in government.  Groupspeak can make us behave in mean and stupid ways, often in ways that harm ourselves as well as others.  The tyranny of the majority is no longer a debating point for second year poli-sci students, it’s something for us all to consider in a polyglot, pluralistic society that changes at an accelerated pace.

In a way, I guess I’m saying that winning too completely, and perpetuating the terms of our victory, sets us up for our next defeat.  Isn’t that what creates conflict and crisis for us, relying too completely, too long, and too well on presumed strengths, while circumstances change around us?

Maybe I’m stretching the point when I say there are times when we should reevaluate our strategies to avoid being tai chied ourselves.  When I listen to debates between right and left wing economists, I can’t help thinking that every ideological victory translates within 10 years into a crisis that precipitates a complete flip of leadership and a 180 degree turn in strategy.  We go back and forth between these ideologies, zigzagging through history, wasting precious time and resources on a path that goes everywhere except forward.

If the ideological pendulum of economists is too vague an example, think of economics translated into politics.  In Toronto, we had a social democrat in Mayor Barbara Hall.  She was succeeded by a Conservative in Mel Lastman, who was succeeded by a social democrat in David Miller, who was succeeded by Conservative in Rob Ford, who the polls say will be defeated by a social democrat in the next election.

Every one of these ideological swings represents 5-10 years of smug self-satisfaction in the previous victory of government-demolishionists over government-builders, or vice versa.  Each government, fresh from the electoral battle, starts its term full of reformer’s zeal, ready to correct the excesses of the previous regime.  By mid-term, they’ve succeeded well enough that a reasonable balance of interests has been restored, but their momentum drives them to impose their will more completely on the lives of their constituents.  Perceptions of excess mount and a thorough tai chiing occurs at the polls.

Moral superiority requires adherence to some eternal values, not ideological flips every political term or two.  The vast waste of time, talent, money, and hope that occurs at the extremes of this pendulum swing is self-harm we inflict at the polls, at the podium, and in the press.

So how do we tai chi ourselves?  Perhaps we should start by joining the cluster of Chinese seniors who exercise in the park near the office.  They look like they’re pushing the wind with the flats of their hands.  Do they have the secret to calming our political and economic storms?

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