Few Lessons in Virtue in Karate Kid

A few days ago, I watched the new Karate Kid featuring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith (If you haven’t seen the movie, be warned of the spoilers ahead). Basically, this Karate Kid is Rockie for pre-adolescents. Extensive scenes focus on the intense training regimen of the young Dre (Jaden Smith) who has been transplanted to China against his will and now has to defeat his enemy (and win the girl) in (get this!) an open Kung Fu tournament.

Besides the fact that I have problems with film makers turning kids into miniature adults in movies like this, my bigger problem with the movie was the end. The underdog Dre manages to make it to the final round of the tournament and face his foe, the school bully Cheng. Cheng has been trained in a dojo where he is taught to embody the motto “no pain, no fear, no mercy” as he utterly annihilates his enemies in ferocious moments of 12-year old rage. There are moments where you feel Cheng is not only capable of killing his opponent; he seems to actually be aiming for it.

The fight is unfair from the beginning. Dre is injured and Cheng has been told by his instructor to target the injury and break Dre’s leg. Somehow, Dre manages to stand up on his unbroken leg and take Cheng out in a gravity-defying kick, winning the fight and the tournament.

Here’s the problem. Cheng, our vicious, merciless, bloodthirsty adolescent stands up, and acknowledging his defeat, bows in respect towards Dre, and then bows in respect towards Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), Dre’s Kung Fu teacher. Then, all of Cheng’s peers (also portrayed throughout the movie as bloodthirsty merciless fighters) bow in respect towards Dre and Mr. Han.

I see two major problems with this conclusion. The first is that the challenges we face require a fight, and by winning the fight, we overcome the challenge. Pre-adolescents watching Karate Kid walk away with the moral that winning the fight (and I mean the literal fist fight) will allow you to overcome the influence of the school bully, a challenge a lot of kids face these days. Bullying though is rarely resolved through a fight.

Supporters of the film will say that this is not at all the intended lesson. Hey U.G.L.Y., a non-profit group dedicated to help kids overcome bullying, commended the film for its anti-bullying message:

Betty Hoeffner, author of the Stop Bullying Handbook and co-founder of Hey U.G.L.Y., said bullying is one of the most critical issues now facing U.S. students at all grade levels.

“And, as shown in the movie, bullying is a big problem in other countries as well,” Hoeffner said. “We need to help kids see beyond the bravado of bullies so they can recognize the pain and insecurity most bullies feel.”

But this film does little, if anything, to help viewers see the pain and insecurity of Cheng. He gets few lines, and is overall a flat character, portrayed throughout the movie as a ruthless and brilliant fighter, until the end when he is suddenly humbled in his defeat.

In commenting about the film, Jackie Chan said the martial arts are not for hurting people, but for protecting them. He hopes the film will introduce audiences to the reality of martial arts, instead of the dramatized movie versions.

Hoeffner warns parents that the film uses plenty of violent scenes among children to get the non-violent viewpoint across. But she believes it’s important for young people to recognize and talk about their own tendencies to victimize others, whether physically or emotionally.

The film also does very little to show that karate is not about hurting people (the tournament scenes left me cringing, including Dre’s final spar with Cheng), and it is unrealistic to expect kids to walk away with a message of non-violence buried amidst all the film’s violence.

The second major problem with the film is that it does not take into account the way our actions emerge from our habits. In the first place, Dre, in only a few months, manages to rise to the ability of a Kung Fu expert. In reality, mastering karate takes years of self-discipline, hard-work, and above all, repetition. Obviously, this would make a boring movie, but it is frustrating to see Dre go from days of putting his coat on and off a hook (at the behest of the mysterious will of Mr. Han), to immediately engaging in an expert spar with his instructor. Dre leaves this first fight looking in awe at his hands, hands that seem already magically habituated to deftly block and hit. Kids who pick up karate after watching this film will find the actual process much more laborious.

But this is movie world, and of course we expect Dre to master the art of Kung Fu by its conclusion. The bigger problem regarding the film’s dismissal of habits is at the end, where the film shows that bullies can change in a moment from irrationally bloodthirsty to rationally respectful, even friendly.

Cheng has been trained since childhood to be a fighter. Not only has he developed extensive physical habits as part of his athletic training (e.g. quick reflexes), he has also developed moral habits of mercilessness. The scenes in Cheng’s dojo are frightening in that they reveal how strong these habits of violence are. Cheng’s moral instinct is honed towards ruthlessness and malice. He does not have to think whether to spare his opponent. It has become second nature for him not to show mercy. Even if his bad character is partially a result of his bad upbringing, Cheng likely still has years of work to do before he overcomes his violent tendencies.

From the perspective of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, the film’s conclusion makes no sense. Habits are qualities of nature formed over time through acting a certain way such that the habit becomes a sort of “second nature.” “It takes more than one sparrow to make a spring,” Aristotle says, “and so also a habit.” For Aquinas, a habit differs from a disposition in that a habit cannot be easily lost, whereas a disposition may: “disposition, properly so called, can be divided against habit in two ways: first, as perfect and imperfect within the same species; and thus we call it a disposition, retaining the name of the genus, when it is had imperfectly, so as to be easily lost: whereas we call it a habit, when it is had perfectly, so as not to be lost easily. And thus a disposition becomes a habit, just as a boy becomes a man” (I-II, Q. 49, art. 2, ad. 3).

In our society today, we too are largely dismissive of the role of habits in determining our actions. We expect change overnight, whether we are talking about our New Year’s weight loss goals, the state of the economy, or our civil discourse. As a result, we have lost sight of the importance of endurance.

The virtue of fortitude includes two senses (II-II Q. 128). The first is attack, the courageous “rushing forth” to face a some difficulty. This is the glamorous side of courage, but the other sense of fortitude—endurance—is perhaps the more important side of this virtue. Of this sense, Josef Pieper writes in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “in the world as it is constituted, it is only in the supreme test, which leaves no other possibility of resistance than endurance, that the inmost and deepest strength of man reveals itself.” According to Aquinas,

two things are requisite for the other act of fortitude, viz. endurance. The first is that the mind be not broken by sorrow, and fall away from its greatness, by reason of the stress of threatening evil. On this respect he mentions “patience,” which he describes as “the voluntary and prolonged endurance of arduous and difficult things for the sake of virtue or profit.” The other is that by the prolonged suffering of hardships man be not wearied so as to lose courage, according to Hebrews 12:3, “That you be not wearied, fainting in your minds.” On this respect he mentions “perseverance,” which accordingly he describes as “the fixed and continued persistence in a well considered purpose.”

In real life, Dre would not only need endurance to face the years of training ahead of him in becoming enough of a Kung Fu master to defeat Cheng in a tournament, he would also need endurance to face the years of dealing with Cheng’s bullying as he not only tries to protect himself, but also strives to reach beyond Cheng’s violent façade to the human underneath, the human who will also need to endure the challenges of his own character as he strives to become a better person. As Dre endures, he will also need humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love to truly overcome his bully opponent.

On this note, I like the Niebuhr quote David Brooks used in his recent op-ed on the habits of uncivil discourse we have developed in this country.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

We can add to this that most things worth doing then will require endurance. Unfortunately, few kids are learning these lessons today, and they certainly won’t learn it from Karate Kid.


2 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    I watched this film on one of the many flights I took last year. Can one put a message in an hour and a half film? I think I remember more the dislocation of the youngster from the forced move to China and the trouble with hot water and needing to have a switch to turn it on. That was more a comment about the source country – the US. Things in the US show that non-violence is not a priority. It’s true that violence can happen anywhere. As adoptive father to a child with severe brain damage from birth through FAS, I am aware of his danger to himself and to others. It seems to me though that no amount of theory about ethics will accomplish what we need both as individuals and nation (whether western or eastern). What is needed is the formation outlined in the psalms – how one apophatic learner, meditating on the teaching, (psalm 1, identified with the king of psalm 2 and the individual elect of the remainder) allows by imitation and example, the formation of a multitude of the merciful who have been shown mercy (the chasidim of psalm 149)

    I do not think it is impossible that the film KK2 may suggest this relationship of strength and meekness based on the learning from the master who no longer teaches in public. The question in my mind is whether we can learn such non-violence when we become strong, or whether we will switch to a new unchallenged role as bully. Perhaps the film should not have ended with the obvious conclusion.

    Good to read your postings again

  2. everydaythomist on

    Actually, Bob, it was a whopping 140 minutes, plenty long to include a good ethical lesson:) What is with films these days always crossing the two hour mark? Brevity is the soul of wit.

    I love what you say on formation through the Psalms. I was at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta recently and heard Robert Foster from CSMU talk about this exact thing. He said that the Psalms, read together either privately or liturgically over a set period of time, were meant to form the reader/prayer morally as she learned that (1) the life of justice is the blessed life, (2) practice justice by showing mercy, (3) cry out to God in the face of suffering (and in the realization that often the just life is NOT the blessed life), (4) come to know God as the King who enacts justice, (5) come to trust in God’s steadfast love, (6) come to beg mercy from Adonai in realization of her own injustice, and (7) come to praise Adonai for Adonai’s steadfast love even in the face of wickedness. (Robert Parker, if you are reading this, I hope I am doing justice to your talk through the interpretation of my chicken scratch notes).

    The Psalms as a whole, all 150, are not meant to be understood as increasing in theological complexity but rather seen as circular. The reader, newly formed by the Psalms, reaches 150 and starts over. According to Parker, “the heart of the journey is a real questioning of Adonai w/ renewed commitment to justice that mirrors Adonai’s own concern.”

    So let’s bring this back to Karate Kid. The movie ends with where we might expect the Psalter to be at Psalm 1: Happy are the just whose ways prosper. Unhappy are the wicked. There are problems with this as we discover from following the Psalter. The just often are not happy (or in order to enact justice, they have to dirty their hands which Dre arguably must do in the film). As a result, we must come to rely on the Lord as the arbiter of justice, and not the works of our own hands.

    I think a good ending could have complexified Dre’s own pursuit of justice. Perhaps Cheng does not bow but runs out, angered and now also embarrassed, vowing further revenge (opening the path for a sequel). Now Dre has to decide whether he will keep fighting or overcome Cheng in some other, hopefully non-violent manner. Or perhaps the wicked sensai resolves to defeat Dre in some other way, by libeling Mr. Han or something. Regardless, the film should show that the pursuit of justice is always tainted in this world, and even more so when you use violence to attain your just goal.

    Bob, it is always good to have you as a reader. Welcome back to everydaythomist. I hope now that I have a defended dissertation and a job, I can write more regularly.

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