In a previous essay, I noted that the vast majority of human beings, irrespectively of their circumstances of place and time, uncritically embrace whatever the prevailing paradigm happens to be.

As long as “the Experts” inform (or misinform) them of X, they, without thinking twice, accept that X is indeed true.

Matters are no different within the universe of the martial arts.

However, lest critical thinking is brought to bear upon the martial arts by those aspiring to study them, the real-world consequences could be ruinous for practitioners.

Context is everything. In noting the radical cultural differences between such groups as the Greeks and Indians, the Greek historian Herodotus quoted Pindar who, we’re told, remarked, “Custom is king.” For any educator, particularly an instructor of self-defense, we can say that context is king, for unless an instructor, an educator, in any discipline is aware of the totality of contextual considerations within which knowledge is imparted and acquired, he is sure to compromise, if not utterly fail, in his mission to attend to his students.

What is the context of training in a martial art?

(1)Most fundamentally, the martial art instructor must be ever-mindful that “martial” means “of or pertaining to war.” Quite literally, in point of historical and etymological fact, the martial arts are nothing more or less than the warrior arts, the arts of war.

And martial artists are, literally, those who train for war.

The mass commercialization of the martial arts; the rise in popularity of so-called “combat” sports; the litigiousness of contemporary (particularly Western) societies; and the pervasive belief among the populace that violence is only ever licit when deployed by the members of those selected classes of professionals (law enforcement officers and military personnel) authorized as such by the State—together these factors have rendered even many a martial artist forgetful of the character of a martial art. Others who may not have really forgotten act as if they have.

Nevertheless, while the times have changed, truth has not, and a genuine, as opposed to a nominal, martial art can no more divest itself of its essence as a warrior art and remain a genuine martial art than a square can divest itself of four sides and remain a square.

Connotatively speaking, anyone and everyone who aspires to train in a martial art does so with the expectation of learning what is commonly referred to as “self-defense.” In other words, everyone believes (and believes justly) that training in a martial art is training for the purposes of defense.

Hence, the martial arts, the warrior arts, are also the arts of defense.

What all of this means is that self-defense instructors must, first and most basically, labor tirelessly to help instill in their students both the ability and the resolve to annihilate those who would prey upon innocents.

To be certain, training in self-defense encompasses more than just the skill and the will to kill, to incapacitate aggressors by whichever means necessary. Situational awareness, for example, is key, for a heightened awareness of one’s circumstances can dramatically diminish one’s odds of ever having to engage violently with anyone.  But self-defense training is nothing of the sort unless and until it has as its telos the ability and the willingness to, as founder of Warrior Flow Combatives (see here and here) founder and retired USMC Lieutenant-Colonel Al Ridenhour puts it, “go big.”

Any self-styled self-defense instructor who doesn’t feel this in the very marrow of his being and teach his students to feel likewise has no business being in the business.

(2)Since those who seek out self-defense instructors do so in order to become as proficient as they can in the art of decimating assailants who threaten them and their own, this entails that their instructors know the difference between so-called “combat” sports, on the one hand, and, on the other, the nature of war, or what is typically known as “reality-based self-defense.”

In knowing this difference, self-defense instructors are well aware of the fact that the training methodologies and modalities proper to any and all sport or contest-oriented activities have no place within the training schema of a warrior art, a self-defense system.

It’s not, of course, that there can’t be or aren’t overlaps between some sports training methods or drills and those of the warrior arts. Yet such overlaps, owing to certain universal facts regarding human physiology and human psychology and to the fact that, to paraphrase Bruce Lee, a punch is just a punch and a kick just a kick, while inevitable, do not obviate the truth that the essence of a self-defense, combatives system and that of any sport are categorically incompatible with one another.

Actually, it’s more accurate to say that the training modalities of the two are mutually incommensurable: The terms of the one can’t be translated into those of the other.

Consider the conditions under which contestants in all “combat” sports engage one another, conditions that determine the shape of their training modalities. They know:

(a)they are contestants—not combatants;

(b) at least months in advance, who exactly it is that they will compete against;

(c)their rivals will be athletes comparable in all relevant physical respects to themselves;

(d)they are required to wear protective gear designed to minimize the odds of seriously harming themselves and their opponents;

(e)they are forbidden, by way of dozens of rules, from launching the kinds of strikes and kicks that are designed to critically injure, maim, and kill: Gouging the eyeballs of one’s opponent, tearing his testicles, chopping or punching him in his throat, shattering his shin, snapping his neck, and crushing his skull by stomping upon it after he’s down are all categorically prohibited;

(f)there will be no use of weapons;

(g)there will not be multiple attackers;

(h)there will be referees to ensure that the rules are enforced;

(i)the terrain on which they will engage is not made of concrete, much less cracked and uneven concrete with debris and broken glass;

(j)they don’t need to concern themselves with the elements, i.e. the weather, the temperature, and whether there’s slick surfaces, from rain, snow, or ice, on which they could slide and fall;

(k)they don’t need to worry about wearing cumbersome attire;

(l)they don’t need to worry about having to engage their opponent in the dark, or in a club with a strobe light;

(m)their match is limited in advance by a specific number of rounds, and that they will have time in between these rounds to recharge;

(n)they needn’t worry about being arrested for fighting.

This list of constraints that define the context of the “combat” sports is not meant to be exhaustive. What should be clear, however, is that not a single one of these conditions pertains to self-defense. This leads us to the next aspect of the contextual framework of the latter.

(3)The average person who pursues self-defense is not a 20-something year old male athlete in prime physical condition. Aspiring self-defense students are typically middle aged (and older), and they include men and women who are only interested in learning to train in a way that will enable them to move in such a way that will compensate for whatever aches, pains, and injuries they’ve acquired over their lifetimes. No small number of those who enroll for self-defense training may have otherwise been living relatively sedentary lifestyles for decades before they enroll.

It’s not just that they aren’t especially athletic, and perhaps were never so. Neither are they bouncers, bodyguards, corrections officers, police officers, and military personnel.

Some may have never been in a fist fight. They may have never thrown a strike. Some may have never picked up a weight.

This observation is of critical importance for two reasons:

First, what it means is that self-defense students come not just in various body-types, but in unique, individual bodies. Moreover, the latter are glaringly different from those competing in the pugilistic sports.

Second, those instructors who have backgrounds in law enforcement, the military, “combat” sports, bouncing, etc. must grasp that those very backgrounds of theirs could hinder their effectiveness as instructors if they make the erroneous, but all too common, error of equating training in any of these areas with self-defense training, i.e. the self-defense training sought by civilians.

Just as sports training constitutes a radically different context from that of self-defense training, so too do those situated in these other areas find themselves in fundamentally different sorts of contexts than that within which the civilian who trains for self-defense finds him or herself.

Law enforcement officers and military personnel are agents of the State who, as such, are authorized to use violence against those whom the State deems deserving and within the legal qualifications, the “rules of engagement,” that the State establishes: Their appropriation of violence is always and only ever limited by the nature and scope of the specific roles that they assume vis-à-vis the belligerents on whom they’re expected to focus. Moreover, because these belligerents—criminal suspects, in the case of police officers; convicts, in the case of corrections officers; and enemy combatants, in the case of soldiers—know in advance the rights and duties of the State actors with whom they may have to reckon, the dynamics of the adversarial relationships that obtain between them is entirely different than the dynamic that obtains between a civilian and the scumbag that decides to prey upon him or her.

Implicit in each frame of reference are rules that are presupposed by both the good guys and the bad guys that operate within them: Police officers, corrections officers, and soldiers wear uniforms, and it is common knowledge that they carry weaponry of various sorts that they have the right and the obligation to wield if circumstances occasion it. This being said, police and corrections officers are expected to use only so much violence as is needed to restrain suspects and convicts, respectively. And soldiers, at least nowadays, while expected to win wars, are also forbidden from employing force deemed “excessive.” Plus, militaries in the 21st century rely upon bullets and bombs—two things that may not always be handy for the average civilian who trains in self-defense for the purpose of neutralizing, within a microsecond’s notice, a violent threat on the streets or in his or her home.

How one trains is how one fights.

Nor do bouncers or security forces, though hired by private employers, operate independently of the context that constitutes their own sphere of influence. Bouncers have a limited area that they are entrusted with surveying for the limited time that they are on the job, and they voluntarily assume the responsibility of minimizing conflict within the establishment by which they’re hired for the sake of protecting customers from other customers and their employers from adverse legal repercussions. The frame of incentives and constraints within which bouncers function, like the frames of incentives and constraints within which law enforcement officers, athletes, and military personnel function, is a radically different frame of incentives and constraints than that which a civilian inhabits.

All self-defense training must be predicated upon this.

Self-defense instructors must know their students.

(4) Knowing their students means knowing that the average person who pursues self-defense training does so because they harbor fears generally and, specifically, the fear that they lack what it takes to rise to the task of defending themselves and their loved ones if the need to do so ever arises.

Self-defense training is fear-management. Self-defense instructors have a duty, therefore, to help their students surmount this fear.

Students seek self-empowerment. Thus, the emphasis on “survival” that has become the modus operandi of the reality-based self-defense world is misplaced, for it is disempowering. Victims survive. Those seeking self-empowerment through self-defense training need to be encouraged to settle for nothing less than victory over whomever would make of themselves the enemy of God and humanity by preying upon them.

Far too many self-defense instructors disempower their students in at least two other ways:

(a)Students’ fears are enflamed by an excessive focus upon both the dangers posed by human predators and the legal consequences of defending oneself.

Are there dangerous, wicked people in the world? Of course! And no one on the planet needs less convincing of this than precisely those who enroll in a self-defense course! After all, it is this awareness that motivated them to want to train in self-defense in the first place. There’s no harm in students being reminded from time-to-time of the evil among us, but there can indeed be great harm inflicted by self-defense instructors who insist upon romanticizing human vermin by endowing them with powers far exceeding those of mortal men.

The violent are no less mortal than anyone else. Self-defense students should be encouraged to never forget that the smallest, weakest, slowest, and most peace-loving can, with proper physical and mental training, reduce to dust and ashes the biggest, strongest, fastest, and most brutal. They should be habituated into believing, with impassioned conviction, that mobsters, gang-bangers, terrorists, and thugs of every sort are vulnerable entities, composites of blood, bones, and vital organs that, as such, bleed, break, suffer, and die.

Fuck them. Fuck anyone and everyone who would prey upon innocents.

This is the mindset that must be cultivated.

If the bad guys, being (at least nominal) members of the human race, can become dangerous, so too can law-abiding, peaceful citizens train to become likewise.

In fact, self-defense instructors, given their obligation to empower their students, should spare no occasion to impress upon those in their charge that they can and will become more dangerous than the criminals who they now fear. Students should be trained to transform themselves into the predators of those who would make the lethal error of preying upon them.

(b)Far too many self-defense instructors also spook their students with tales of being arrested in the event that they defend themselves against an attack.

Again, while it is indeed important to know the laws on this matter, the tireless lectures from instructors on using violence if and only when it is absolutely necessary to defend oneself are, at a minimum, superfluous. Self-defense students are the last people who are likely to use violence for any other reason—the sole reason for why they enrolled in a self-defense program! Self-defense students aren’t the people to engage in dick-measuring, chest-thumping, monkey dancing, bar brawling types of bullshit.

These lectures aren’t just superfluous. They are disempowering, stoke the flames of fear, and, because of all of this, could potentially bring a student to ruin if his or her life is on the line. (That too many self-defense systems stand convicted of conveying mixed messaging and, thus, confusion, by instructing students to assume a conventional fighting stance, i.e. to square off against assailants and, hence, invite the charge that they are themselves guilty of escalating a violent conflict that may have otherwise been diffused is a point that will be pursued at a future time).

(5)Finally, many self-defense instructors issue advice to their students that they themselves never admit to having followed themselves. For example, many advise their students to run away, if possible.

There’s nothing objectionable about tactically retreating, for sure. But running may not be the best option, even if it is an option (can a woman with hip issues in her 60s run?). Not to mention, no one who invests the resources in time, energy, and money into a self-defense program needs to be told to run.

Never, though, can I recall having heard one self-defense instructor, particularly those with more visible profiles, relay any of the times that they ran from a situation.

Regrettably, there is a subtle, and not always so subtle, air of condescension that pervades the world of self-defense: Instructors, rather than inspire their students to become every bit as skilled, and possibly more skilled, than the instructors themselves, instead present themselves as if they and they alone are the professionals. Do as I say, not as I do, etc.

In the next essay, we will unpack these points further as we look at a self-defense system, a warrior art that is designed specifically to counter them.


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