Penn & Teller’s BS about the MA – Marc MacYoung

I’ve long been a controversial character in the self-defense, martial arts world. So it should be no surprise to my detractors that I appeared on Showtime/Penn and Teller’s ‘Bullshit!’ episode on martial arts. If you didn’t see it, it will be run again on Showtime. If you don’t have Showtime, you can see it here:

There’s an old saying about religion. ‘A fanatic and a believer can share the same pew.’ You also can find ‘Easter and Christmas services only’ attendees sitting in the same pew. Basically, all kinds of people can be attracted to the same thing — for many different reasons. I use this particular point because a strong parallel can be drawn with the behavior of people defending their faith and those who think the martial arts need ‘protecting.’
Before we continue, there are some things that need to be said. First, when someone self-identifies with a group, there is a tendency to feel protective about it. Both about your choices and the group itself. This is especially common when you have gained benefit from what that group has to offer. And that brings us to the martial arts. Simply stated, there are many great benefits that one can gain from the study of martial arts: self-discipline, focus, concentration, health benefits, self-confidence, self-control. Yay! Good stuff.

Having said that: The martial arts will not GIVE you any of these.

These are attributes that you develop within yourself. The martial arts can be a powerful tool to help you develop these useful life skills. But they aren’t automatically instilled by the style when you sign a contact at a commercial martial art school. Bottom line is all the great and wonderful changes that have come about in your life from studying the martial arts, came from you. The MA may have been the means through which you achieved them, but it was you who did the work.

Still, people tend to ascribe these life-altering traits TO the martial arts.With that comes another bit of baggage.When you feel you were saved from your former failings by the martial arts, there is a natural tendency to want to protect and defend the ‘martial arts.’ This creates a complex paradox. First is the love and the passion for something beneficial to you. Second is the knowledge that there’s some bad stuff going on under the name of martial arts. Keep this mental jungle gym in mind, we’ll come back to it.

Humans are very complex creatures. Very seldom do we do anything for just one reason. In fact, we often take simple concepts and add layers and layers on top of them so they serve not just one, but multiple, purposes. For example, ‘eating.’ From a functional standpoint, it is just about fueling your body. If that’s all it is though, why do we hate to eat alone? Why do we have ‘family’ meals, much less holiday feeds, banquets and, yes, even culturally identifying eating restrictions?

This last point is important because so much of what we get out of the ‘martial arts’ isn’t about MA at all, but about us as humans.

For example, social networking, belonging to a group, self-identifiers (‘I belong to so-and-so school’ or ‘I am a martial artist’), a sense of rank in the hierarchy (what belt you are). These are important ‘social’ elements to the human psyche. And when I start talking about the social aspects of the martial arts, people think I’m being dismissive of them (e.g., it’s just a frivolous hobby). In fact all of these elements are critical for our species’ survival, our psychological well-being and the guidelines to how we conduct ourselves. I don’t know about you, but those things sound a little deeper and more complex than the martial arts ‘just being a hobby.’

This is some seriously deep stuff. Deep enough that it is fair to say, ‘there are many people who have made the martial arts their religion.’ As such, we can point out a similarity in tactics when it comes to ‘protecting’ something they greatly self-identify with.

The first tactic is simple. No matter what the misconduct done in the name of (fill in the blank), it is excused as “the perpetrator(s) is not a ‘true’ (fill in the blank).”

You can see this in action by pointing out the historically documented misconduct of the different organized religions. Or in this case, what other people are doing in the name of ‘martial arts.’ This approach both covers, but also distances oneself, from a plethora of sins committed in the name of martial arts.

The most common version is ‘they are not doing real (fill in a style or even generic ‘martial arts’).

This tactic has several uses. From a technique standpoint, if a school or instructor — who is teaching the same style you practice — has dangerously bad body mechanics, you’ve just dismissed them, protected your beliefs AND your allegiance to the style. When in fact, how do you really know your body mechanics are any better? As an outside observer, I’ve seen dojo and flame wars over flawed body mechanics. Both sides were arguing over what was the ‘right way’ to do a move, when, in fact, neither method was functional outside the confines of those particular dojos.

From a social/psychological standpoint, it allows us to maintain a positive sense of identity with a group (and the benefits) without having to own – and possibly clean up — the bad behavior of those who also identify themselves with the group.

Do you know of a particularly bad practitioner or school owner whose actions you not only disagree with, but are embarrassed by? Okay. What are you doing about it?

I’m not talking about dojo wars (and, yes, boys and girls I am old enough to remember dojo-busting). I’m talking about actively going out and warning people away from the pitfalls of both pseudo AND bad training. Are you giving people the tools and knowledge to recognize bad training when they see it?* Are you doing this without benefit to yourself? (I.e., “What they do over there is bad, come study with us instead.”) Are you teaching people body mechanics you’ve double checked with a physician or physical therapist to see if repetitive movement the way you do the technique is injurious? When you have done that, you can explain why you need to turn your foot or bend your knee before you pivot on a weight-bearing leg. ** Are you researching the legal complications and problems of ‘self-defense?’

Or is it easier to just say, “What they do over there isn’t real (fill in the blank)” and carry on doing what you are doing?

Here’s a problem with that.When you are inside a group, you can go through these mental gymnastics and — to you at least — it looks like you’ve bought yourself all kinds of distance from such misconduct.What’s more, you’ve just reinforced the group’s identity and righteousness (we do it right here).

But to an outsider, you’ve just blown your credibility.

To an outsider, you both are teaching the same thing. If you start with the who’s real and who isn’t, you’ve undermined the credibility of the whole thing. If that guy over there is screwing up and you don’t own it, why should they trust you? Because you tell them to? Oh yeah, that works.

An outsider will judge the entire group, not only by the misconduct of those ‘others,’ but how YOU respond to the issue. Outsiders don’t make the subtle distinctions between your school and another. By using the ‘real’ excuse, you’ve just told them there’s a huge can of worms about politics and rivalries within the group. And instead of being honest about it, you are a participant. Now why the hell should they get involved in that kind of game?

At the same time, people who DO say okay are the ones who like to play these games. Gee, you’ve just self-selected for dojo politics in your school.

The second common tactic is the apologist (also known as ‘the excuser’). That is when people justify bad behavior because …

Two points must be made here. First is the concept of ‘abusus non tollit usum’ (abuse does not preclude proper use). We also can turn that around to ‘proper use does not justify abuse.’ There are legitimate aspects of martial arts training that ARE being abused by unscrupulous school owners. For example, making people instruct classes for you as part of their rank advancement while they are paying student fees. That isn’t just free labor, that’s getting people to pay you to work for you, as well as make money for you.

The second point is: “Humans are not rational animals, they are rationalizing animals.” (I got that from my psych class in college). To protect our beliefs and cherished ideals, we can do all kinds of mental gymnastics.While some will only go so far, others would make a monkey gulp in disbelief with the extreme gymnastics they do in their mental jungle gym. As humans, we can come up with excuses and reasons why what we are doing is okay — even if it really is not kosher.

I point these out because often, in the defense of the martial arts, we condemn the ‘bad behavior’ of others and self-justify our doing the exact same thing. Then we get pissed when someone paints us with the same brush. How’s that for a good self-rationalization?

Instead of decrying the Penn & Teller show as ‘lumping all martial art training together’ and finding fault with the program, take a good hard look at what YOU are doing. This, especially if you’re doing something that was pointed out in the show.

Are you helping to educate people about how to find quality martial arts? Are you giving them realistic expectations? Or are your tactics reinforcing the general public’s idea that the martial arts are filled with fruitcakes, barking moonbats, sadist/masochists, con men and people with deep psychological issues?

Penn and Teller have just exposed an ugly underbelly of the business of martial arts. One that has long been apparent to outsiders, but one that insiders have willfully ignored, justified and, in many cases, participated in. I see a lot of squealing about what martial artists saw on the episode or pretence you’re better than (or apart from) these problems. Well bad news folks, you’re not. If you’ve self-identified yourself as a martial artist, much less an MA instructor, then while you might not be painted with the same brush, you will be splattered by the kind of misconduct.

The bottom line is this: Instead of trying to dismiss the Penn & Teller episode (because it points out legitimate problems with something that you put great value in — the martial arts) why don’t you go out and do what you can to counter these trends in the martial arts? And if you claimi the show was biased or what these people are doing isn’t ‘real’ martial arts, you might want to show outsiders why they should believe your contention that they saw on the show isn’t representative of all martial arts.

I know that, you know that. But just saying “that isn’t ‘real’ martial arts” or the show was flawed isn’t going to fix years of misconduct by people in the name of ‘martial arts.’ You’ll get a lot more miles out of saying, “Yeah, there’s a lot of misconduct done in the name of martial arts and self-defense. But here’s how to tell the good from the bad.”

You’ll do more to protect the reputation of the martial arts with that strategy than you’ll ever get by bad mouthing the show and squealing how unfair and biased it was.

And, if what you saw on the show reflects your business practices (or the culture of your school), you’ll do even more for the MA if you knock it off. The cat’s out of the bag about these business practices and people are going to be looking for them — before they sign the contract.

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