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When Is It Okay to Just Punch Someone Right in His Stupid Face?

Advice from a lawyer, a priest, a special forces soldier and a guy who knows everything there is to know about arcade punching machines

There’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of biffing someone in the mush — just flawlessly cleaning someone’s clock, like George McFly at the end of Back to the Future, or whoever Henry Cavill played in that Mission: Impossible one where he reloads his fists.

But you can’t just go around feeding everyone a knuckle sandwich — it’s simply not what a good person would do (or a person who doesn’t want to spend their remaining days in court/prison). So when is it acceptable to deliver a bunch of fives to someone’s kisser? When is it basically kind of okay to twat them in the pie-hole? When, in short, is it going to be not-so-frowned upon to punch someone right in their stupid fucking face? In the name of people with a bad case of backpfeifengesicht everywhere, I asked some experts.

The Holy Man

The Rev. Ray Andrews was one of the Church of England’s first openly gay vicars. He’s currently based in La Nucia, Spain, where he’s a Spiritual Director for the Diocese in Europe. He’s extremely good at Words With Friends

My grandfather and brother both boxed, so I grew up in a fighting culture. Fighting, for males, was accepted, affirmed and rewarded — in fact, it was required. I was aware very early on that I didn’t like this stuff, however. It scared me, and I couldn’t do it; I wasn’t a fighter. But I also realized this would be a dangerous thing to admit — I was already having trouble managing masculine expectations. 

I wonder how different things might have been if it was acceptable for me, as a male child, to fear fighting and not be good at it, if my truth had survival value. In the context I grew up in, a girl feeling how I did would’ve been praised, but as a boy, I felt ashamed. What I now recognize as a survival instinct led me to adopt strategies. I concealed my fear of fighting under a bushel of higher moral ground. I became a pacifist and discovered that this wasn’t just safer, it was cool, since this was the 1960s.

I remain convinced that all creation is being drawn to a higher state — that we call love — where the instinct to respect and care for each other is greater than the instinct to combat. We have a long way to go before we get there, though, so what do we do with those impulses to defend and protect in the meantime? I can imagine situations where hitting someone might be the right thing to do, and by right, I mean the only option. If someone I care about is being physically attacked and I think that physical intervention is more right than running away, I’d hate doing it — and I’d be scared — but I think it would be understandable.

In that way, I think it’s all about intention. What I think is essential is that we’re able to truthfully acknowledge our fears and impulses. If we grow up believing that our angry impulses are “sinful,” or not gender appropriate, we can never be free to express and explore them safely. Equally, we need to be free to acknowledge our desire for peace and safety without shame.

The Punching-Machine Supplier

Will, of Liberty Games — one of the U.K.’s biggest suppliers and refurbishers of arcade and pinball equipment, including punching machines — is a big punching-machine enthusiast.

Violence is a very primal thing. Almost all animals are prone to violence in some way — hunting, competition over mates or food, establishing a hierarchy and so on. Instinctively I suppose we’re no different. Personally, though, I’m a massive pacifist. I’ll invoke the fifth on whether I’ve ever punched anyone, but there’s always an alternative to violence if people are willing to look for it.

I guess everyone has a line where rational thought fails and raw instinct and emotion become foremost. Losing your shit, in other words. One thing I’ve noticed from working with punching machines is how cathartic the act of punching seems to be. People have told us how much these machines help them to de-stress or to reduce aggression. Trying to focus all one’s strength into a single punch with the correct technique takes a bit of concentration, and the impact can be hard on the knuckles — these things seem to combine to give people an outlet. People do a lot of weird things to decompress. Danger, pain, tests of strength, skydiving, marathon running, racing motorcycles, etc. These things release dopamine and give a very satisfying “happy buzz.” Punching machines could be the same thing: There’s some minor pain, a sudden release of muscle power and the competition element of punching harder than your mate. I’m no neuroscientist though.

We’ve never heard of any of these machines ever being punched too hard and breaking. They’re massively over-engineered and made of metal parts with various shock-absorbing parts built in, rather like a car suspension or crash dummy test bed. In comparison to what those machines go through all day, every day, a few punches thrown in an arcade in the evening aren’t going to trouble a good boxing machine. They’re incredibly reliable.

I think that, in the same way that, within boxing, punching is seen as a skill to be learned and developed as part of a regulated competitive sport, punching machines can be a good depressurizing influence and an outlet for aggression.

The Lawyer

Alistair Parker is a criminal lawyer with 15 years experience. He works at the London-based firm Brett Wilson LLP. 

The big, main legal justification for punching anyone is self-defense when you’re being attacked or anticipate being attacked. It can be a pre-emptive strike — you don’t have to be physically assaulted first, and can throw the first blow. But any act of self defense has to be, in legal terms, reasonable and proportionate. That lacks certainty, which can be frustrating, but personally I like the vagueness — it means every case has to be assessed on its individual facts. Stuff like, what was said, the sizes of the people involved, their history, particular fears or vulnerabilities they have — all of that goes into the mix.

If it’s horseplay, and you’re messing about and having a scrap, you can consent to be assaulted, but only in a minor way — for example, you can’t consent to injury. This is based on a case from about 25 years ago involving a massive sadomasochistic gay orgy that ended up with the House of Lords deciding what someone could consent to. They concluded that it came down to injury. You could say to your friend, “I’ve never been punched in the face, I want to know what it feels like,” and consent to that, but if he breaks your nose, it’s actual bodily harm and he doesn’t have a legal defense anymore. I feel like that part of the law needs a bit of work.

I’ve never done it, but I can easily imagine circumstances where I’d go beyond what’s legal. Provocation isn’t a defense, though. You might be severely provoked, but if you’re not under actual threat, you have no legal defense for assaulting a person. The thing that gets my goat is spitting, but if you’re spat at from a distance by someone that then heads away from you, they’re no longer a threat. That’s happened to me playing soccer, and I just wanted to punch them in the face. Spitting is the worst, and absolutely infuriating, disgusting and offensive, but you’re not actually under threat in that scenario — if someone spat at your mum and made off, you’d probably go after them and hit them. Most people would! In law, you wouldn’t have a defense, but the police will only prosecute if it’s in the public interest, and prosecuting you for hitting someone who spat at you probably wouldn’t be seen as in the public interest.

The Ex-Soldier

Kevin Godlington is a former member of the SAS and is currently on the board of The Book of Man.

I’m an advocate for no violence in the home — I was hit a lot as a child and don’t hit my children. I don’t think there’s ever any need for violence in a domestic setting, but in the big wide ugly world where we’re primal and animalistic, the training of violence is absolutely necessary for human preservation. People should be held accountable for their actions. I see appalling idiots behaving inappropriately, trying to grope women, and I’ve knocked out plenty of them over the years. 

I think it’s acceptable, in a situation where someone gets in your way and is being aggressive, to take a pre-emptive strike against them. My advice with that would always be to hit them very hard in certain places and just run. It’s not a fight: Fighting is just an entertainment process of posturing and peacocking. The best way of dealing with violence is to use speed, aggression and surprise to overwhelm them with violence — just enough, proportionate and distributed evenly — and then fuck off. It’s using the absolute minimum of force to meet your aim, which is usually to disable the combatant and escape. 

What you have to do is keep your hands by your sides, and when someone’s coming toward you, put your hands up so the CCTV [security camera] sees it. In a passive-aggressive way, wave your hands at the camera to show you don’t want it, then punch him really fucking hard in the jaw. Nobody will charge you for that; I’ve done it a number of times. 

All my children box with me and are taught a certain amount of fighting. It’s not because I want them to go and beat up the tough kid in school, it’s because I want them to be able to take preemptive strikes if they have to. If a guy puts his hand up my daughter’s skirt after she’s said no, I want her to break his nose. If my son is attacked by two men at a bus stop, I want him to punch one in the thorax and the other in the kidney and run. 

It’s just preemptive survival planning; it’s practical. Life’s shit, the world is uncertain and we’ve got to be able to prepare people for the human processes that often result in violence.