Why Martial Arts and Not Self-defense
[Note: This article was originally intended for those enrolled in the Liberation Martial Arts program. However, in light of recent events, it has been updated and made available to the public.]
Liberation Martial Arts prioritizes teaching MMA (mixed martial arts) over any singular art form. This is because the vast range of martial arts within MMA affords the most variability and adaptability. This flexibility allows our training program to be the most things for the most people, making the training experience unique to each individual. Adaptability and flexibility are essential to our philosophy of liberation because they ensure the training is as diverse as our diverse community.
We don't fixate on self-defense because self-defense is an undesirable potential consequence rather than a training pedagogy. Self-defense is specific and singular rather than flexible. It's driven by fear. However, joy and play aren't potentials but living experiences you can feel every time you step on the mat. Play is adaptable.
No one trains self-defense for fun, health, rehabilitation, connection, or meaning. Training solely for self-defense contradicts both our liberatory framework and the conditions for consistent practice. For individuals to engage in continuous practice, it is crucial that the training is enjoyable and meaningful. If training lacks these aspects, people are less likely to commit and improve their skills. While sensations of fear and self-defense considerations naturally emerge as a matter of course during training, they should not be the ultimate objective. Just as scorched earth should never be the goal of a responsible government, fear and self-defense should never be the goals of a responsible martial arts practice.
Engaging in martial arts as a playful activity is open-ended and, as a result, enhances your ability to defend yourself. On the other hand, self-defense as the sole focus is closed-ended. It restricts training to a narrow scope, lacking the necessary variability and breadth needed to develop skillfulness in defense. Skillfulness is multifaceted, influenced by context, unpredictability, variability, and adaptability. An emphasis on self-defense alone fails to engage practitioners enough to sustain dedicated practice. Such an approach is more suited for low-commitment training, which does not prioritize building skills because skill acquisition and learning take time and experience. Just imagine any other subject where you're expected to learn everything in a single day—it is simply unrealistic.
The process of improvement in "self-defense" lacks clarity, which hampers continuous practice. Rather than a clear aim, there is only fear. Self-defense is not defined by what it's for but what it's against. However, unlike antifascism, anticapitalism, and antiracism, which are also defined by their opposition, there is a lack of consensus regarding what self-defense stands against or even what it is.
Self-defense varies from person to person and is always subject to the instructor's discretion. Both fascists and antifascists can claim to be practicing self-defense. The lack of clear guidelines associated with self-defense leads to its characterization as more of an emotion, a marketing strategy, or a recruiting tool, rather than a set of well-defined teaching principles.
Unfortunately, within a white supremacist capitalist society, the concept of "threat" often defaults to marginalized communities, particularly those who are poor, racialized, and gender non-conforming. This is why entities such as the US Department of Defense, US police departments, US prisons, trained Marine Daniel Penny and his accomplices, and the Israel Defense Forces define their actions as defense.
Self-defense reduces the richness of martial arts to an arbitrary utility, akin to how the West reduces diverse cultural foods to their perceived nutritional values. Except in self-defense, the one use case is hypothetical. It doesn't have enough breadth for enough people, often sorting for the worst traits: paranoid reactionaries with a persecution complex.
In its pursuit of a hypothetical utility, self-defense doesn't offer people enough actual utility, despite claiming to be grounded in reality. However, one must question whose reality and whose standpoint is being considered. The notion of "reality" is often employed as a rhetorical tool, much like "objective" and "common sense," to present personal narratives as undeniable truths.
Self-defense is scenarios based, and all the scenarios come from the minds of the instructors, who are often white men. This approach inherently invites bias. It imagines where bullet holes would go on a fighter plane and reinforces those areas rather than the whole plane. It's a solution looking for a problem rather than a solution that works for most problems.
Self-defense often answers questions no one asks (or will ask), making the answers useless or, even worse, dangerous. For example, a threat to your pride or ego is not an actual physical threat. Likewise, toxic masculinity erupting at a bar is not self-defense. By misdirecting the focus to these scenarios, self-defense disorients you from actual sources of real-life violence or has you escalating rather than de-escalating.
Self-defense makes training fixed, rigid, top-down, and deterministic rather than living, autonomous, and transformative. It makes martial arts a proxy for war, and this militaristic approach can foster toxic and violent power fantasies.
Since you can't gauge your improvement in self-defense because you're never doing the thing you're supposed to be doing, actual self-defense, all you can do in the absence of skill development is engage in fantasies. (Consider the public lynching of Jordan Neely.) What is the skill that was supposed to be developed?
Self-defense isn't about doing but rehearsing, acting, fantasizing, speculating, dramatizing, fearmongering, role-playing, pretending, and promoting hypotheticals. It engages in fantasy without recognizing its fantasy, and this lack of awareness can be dangerous. How often do violent outbursts in the United States feature paranoid white men obsessed with "self-defense"? Distorted perceptions of threats with open access to weapons combined with a persecution and power complex often escalate into violence. Similarly, how often does this country engage in military actions, conflicts, and war due to "self-defense"?
It's a feedback loop. The narratives and motivations surrounding self-defense inform the self-defense practice just as the practice informs the narratives and motivations.
Instructors are inventing a world, and there's a responsibility that comes with presenting hypotheticals as reality. Racism, transphobia, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry are often rooted in hypothetical fears and misconceptions. Likewise, the powerful have a persecution complex not because they've been persecuted but because of a hypothetical persecution they perceive as reality.
The US Department of Defense, the police, a trained Marine, and the Israel Defense Forces kill because of the hypothetical that they might be killed. The "self-defense" arts for cops, the military, and the IDF are popular not because of the lives they've saved but the BIPOC they've killed.
Cops kill Black people, the US military kills BIPOC, and the IDF kills Palestinians not only out of institutional hatred but also out of fear. Hatred is often rooted in fear. But it's fear of a potential, of something that hasn't happened (and is unlikely to happen). It's fear of an invented world they pretend is reality to justify their very real actions. It's why no matter how powerful the US or the West is, they will always see themselves as the persecuted underdogs.
Liberation Martial Arts is not about being predictive and absolute. Rather than imposing rigid frameworks, it's about providing practitioners with systems and tools that enable them to explore their own unique uses, meanings, and values. It's about recognizing that not all planes are fighter planes, as each individual has their own plane and flight path to navigate. We can't know what's unknowable, especially for all practitioners, but we can guide and support you in honing your abilities and becoming a better "pilot" of your own martial arts journey. Liberation Martial Arts stretches the already flexible application of MMA, allowing it to fit the most contexts and boxes.
Even when presented as non-hierarchical, instruction that pretends to know what is unknowable is still top-down. The instructor becomes an all-knowing seer, and since they're the only one who can see, everyone else becomes dependent on them. Even if that's not the intention, that's the result. Ultimately, we can only know what has happened rather than what was meant to happen or could have happened.
While answering a question about an actual sparring experience is one thing, claiming to know everyone else's realities makes you the dominant power. Rather than the art and the instruction conforming to the practitioners, the practitioners must conform to the art and instruction. It's as oppressive as a corset.
Self-defense isn't about you, it's about itself. In this context, your practice doesn't dictate your practice. Instead, the scenarios and situations that are presented to you dictate your practice.
Sparring and play may offer you personal enjoyment and freedom, but self-defense training places greater emphasis on responding in a predetermined way to its predetermined scenarios. This is why training focuses on rehearsing specific responses rather than engaging in open free play. In this approach, the instructor defines your goals and objectives rather than setting your own individual goals. It's not your practice, it's theirs.
However you structure a self-defense class, it's still inherently top-down. However, this format can make sense for a one-day event or short-term workshops, as participants are already accustomed to this instructional style, and it allows for efficient delivery of specific techniques within a limited timeframe. In contrast, Liberation Martial Arts is indefinite. Since we can take our time, practitioners can embrace a liberatory paradigm that allows for greater exploration and personalization of their martial arts journey. This approach recognizes the individual's agency, fosters a sense of autonomy in their training, and encourages practitioners to actively participate in shaping their practice.
You can't play self-defense like you can't play war. They're about engaging in calamity, which can encourage fantasies about calamity. (There are too many real-life examples to mention.) Some will seek problems for their solutions. So it's "self-defense" as adventurism, premeditation, assault, delusions of grandeur, or worse. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy where you become the threat you've been preparing for.
But unlike self-defense, you can play martial arts. You can move, explore, and grow. In the context of liberatory training, the focus shifts from rehearsing for a possibility to actively engaging in the present moment and your practice. There is no need for extensive preparation or dwelling on what-ifs or hypotheticals. This is it, nothing else, and that's what's gratifying. You're not waiting to be fulfilled because the practice itself is the fulfillment. There is no preparation for an outcome and no preparation for who you ought to be. Training is the outcome, and you already are who you're supposed to be. In this approach, there is no doing it "wrong" because whatever you are doing is what you should be doing.
If martial arts is self-defense, you should (hopefully) never be doing it. If martial arts is joy, exploration, and movement, you should always be doing it.
As a parent, I often witness my 4-year-old engaging in spontaneous play, finding immense joy in the simplest moments. I was reminded of this during a baseball game when I saw him lying on the grass with his friend, gazing up at the clouds. He wasn't doing anything wrong; he was doing exactly what he was meant to be doing—playing, finding joy, fostering a sense of communion, and simply being a kid. This was his experience and his moment, not mine. It's not about me, it's about him.
Let us embrace the freedom to play, explore, and find our own path within martial arts. In doing so, we become like water, adapting to the varied crevasses that await, rather than a custom-tailored stone peg seeking its precise hole. You can't play self-defense, but you can play martial arts, and it's within the vast expanse of MMA that we find the freedom to discover and room to play.
(I write daily about martial arts and other topics from a liberatory perspective. If you like my work, upgrade your subscription. You can also support me on Patreon or make a one-time donation on Ko-fi. Find Southpaw at its website. Get the swag on Spring. Also check out Liberation Martial Arts Online.)
Daily writings on martial arts and other topics from a liberatory perspective. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.