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Watch Your Step: Reactionary Pitfalls in Martial Arts
When thinking about martial arts, there's this reactionary pitfall that even community-informed people can fall into. They sometimes act as if the need for self-protection is all that's required to train. It's the capitalist logic of the magic pill. Set it and forget it. It's one and done. As if training is a one-time event when it's a continuous practice. Self-protection or self-defense can buy into dehumanizing libertarian cause and effect where we're just algorithms: if this, then that. I need self-protection; therefore, I will continue to train until I am proficient.
Your need is based on fear, but fear is not what will keep people practicing. In fact, being fear-informed rather than community-informed is toxic. You know this! But fear sells and victim-blames.
When it's just about need and the motivation is fear, what does it mean if you stop? What is tacitly being said about you? Maybe you didn't need it? Maybe you're actually safe, and the danger is all in your head? Maybe you didn't want it bad enough?
What does it say about you if you never start? You recognize the problem here, right? It's the logic of toxic gym culture that you've carried into martial arts. It's an extension of the toxic gym idea that the fear of being unhealthy and dying is what will keep people going to the gym. But all that does is lay the groundwork for toxic culture.
And what about cost? What about distance? What about time? You know, the material conditions? Do need and fear negate material reality? And even when material needs are met, what keeps people continuing is safety (physical, mental, and emotional). Triggering trauma and fear ain't it. Human beings need community, solidarity, care, social responsibility, consent, and a say in their training and what they get out of it. It requires open-endedness, play, and fun. Self-defense is not open-ended but a reduction of martial arts to its self-defense utility. And who even gets to decide what's useful? Mostly middle-aged, able-bodied, tall, strong, cishet white men. Even if it's not directly them, self-defense often still inherits their whiteness and their structures of oppression.
Self-defense is scenario-based, and all the scenarios come from the instructor's mind. Who gets to be in positions of authority (instructor positions) in the United States? You can see the possibility for bias already. But scenario-based or libertarian cause and affect teaching that turns us into if this, then that algorithms make our learning fixed, rigid, and deterministic rather than living and transformative. Rather than a pedagogy, it's a disembodied checklist. If they grab here, do this. When they jump out of the bushes, do that. When "thugs" walk toward you, do XYZ. It's an impossible and oppressive fantasy game that works like an infomercial where you're shown all the scenarios you can use a food dehydrator for, just to buy it and realize none of those scenarios apply to you. It's sales, and sales exploit human psychology.
You needed to learn how to cook, not instructions on a specific device. You didn't need answers to specific predetermined questions but breadth.
Whether in teaching or writing, I prefer to emphasize martial arts over self-defense because then I can give someone systems, contexts, tools, and the autonomy to apply what they've learned appropriately to their conditions. If you teach broadly, then they can find their own way. Education should be living rather than predictive, absolute, and paranoid. Paranoia triggers reactionary heuristics and a compulsive checklist of every racist (conscious or unconscious) dangerous Other stereotype you've been taught, or that's popped into your head. It becomes work you hate that you only do out of fear, but even if fear lasts, fear as an extrinsic motivator to train won't. Especially when it's you paying for this work.
Yet there is joy and value in play.
Imagine the only value in swimming being a fear of drowning. How limiting is that? How much joy will be robbed? It's like living in a saferoom and missing out on the rest of the house. In fact, someone who swims for enjoyment will get the breadth and hours of practice necessary to be more resistant to drowning than someone who only swam for the utility of drowning prevention.
Goals can be self-defeating. It's better to try and see what it has to offer.
If it's purely about self-defense and efficiency, then it's like any other job where you get no say in your work or work environment. It's only about productivity and results. Fear maxes out the stakes, so the only thing that matters is the bottom line at all costs—even at the expense of your other feelings, including happiness.
How is this any different from capitalist efficiency driven by fear of low profits? Or the capitalist gym culture of weight loss? Martial arts should be different from the boardroom or spin class. The culture is already toxic and fascist enough as it is without progressives and leftists replicating the same behaviors, acting like union busters when someone brings up fun and the human element. Just results and bottom line. No unions!
Many of you don't think you need martial arts pedagogy, but you really do. You don't have it all figured out, and your political camp isn't a magic bible that gives you all the answers: like theory for training, martial arts, and gym culture. It's its own area of study. For that reason, some of you need to stop giving opinions and start learning, listening, and starting from scratch.
There's a concept from martial arts that's useful for progressives interested in training, and that's the beginner's mind or white belt mind.
You might know a lot of other stuff, but that doesn't mean you know a lot about this. Listen and start over, otherwise you'll carry reactionary baggage onto the mat. But if you adopt the mind of a beginner and start over, you can carry that perspective from the mat into the world. You might be surprised by how much reactionary baggage in leftwing political communities you've missed all this time.
But you don't need the beginner's mind if you believe you are not a product of your reactionary conditions and come unbiased from a vacuum. I guess that makes you Jesus or something. To that end, being anti-authority doesn't mean you can't be a zealous martial arts cultist. On the contrary, there's often a direct correlation between your self-image as an anti-authoritarian and falling into gym cults. I know you only think that's for sheep and "statists." Okay. But if that's your self-image, why would you ever worry about being cultish? You're immune, remember? But con artists don't go after people who recognize they're likely to be conned. They go after people who think they're too smart to be conned. That's why it's a confidence game and why they're confidence artists.
Don't overestimate the power of your political camp. It really doesn't make you special. That, again, is the capitalist con of the magic pill.
See how much you've already bought into?