Self-Defense and the Martial Arts Are Ripe for Misinformation – Rory Miller

Lots of comments on the last post (Martial Mistakes) and some of them require more thoughtful answers than I can do in a short space.

Preamble, though:  there is a reason why SD and martial arts are so ripe for misinformation.

One, of course, is that so little of it is tested by so few people.  Of the few who test it, very few will have multiple encounters.  Outside of certain professions, if you have had to fight off bad guys a lot, you need to make some lifestyle changes.  Outside of those professions it would take an extraordinary level of stupidity to get into enough situations to make someone an ‘expert street fighter.’

Related to that (we can call it problem 1a) is that the experience garnered will be in a very specific venue.  Most of a bouncer’s experience is with one threat profile (drunk idiot) and two scenarios (breaking up fights or being challenged.)

Problem 1b would be the fact that after a certain number of encounters your internal wiring appears to change and desperate chaos becomes something else.  A lot of us wind up teaching what we would do and can’t really remember the first few encounters where it all seemed so fast and chaotic and the brain wasn’t working

Second, martial arts is an endeavor that hits really hard at one of the core questions many people share: If things got really bad, who would I be?  Training gives people the illusion of an answer to that question.  It’s not an answer– we’ve all seen tournament champions choke– but it feels like one.

And that leads to 2a: When you feel you have an answer but deep down you know it is an illusion, you are almost driven to put all of your mental resources into justifying it.  And so almost every practitioner has long involved rationalizations why their system/training method/teacher or whatever is the best.

It gets really, really tribal very quickly.

Budo Bum wanted to know about wiring to the wrong part of the brain.  Cognition is the slowest part of the brain.  It hesitates.  The more you think in words, the slower your reaction time.  We’ve all experienced it.  Which means that teaching in words and targeting reason tends to be ineffective in emergencies.  Note- I’m not saying give up logic and reason.  They work very well.  Unreasonable things are unreasonable because they don’t work.  But the part of the mind that processes things in that way can’t keep up with chaotic action, so use reason in your system and designing your lesson plans, but target a different part of the brain in the actual teaching.

My best practice right now is to concentrate training on conditioning, (not physical conditioning, but operant conditioning) that wires a stimulus/response; or on play with the goal of making effective movement just feel natural.  The human brain appears to be wired to learn faster at play than by rote AND a properly designed game has operant conditioning built into it.

Chiyung disagrees that inbreeding is bad.  Inbreeding happens in every insular art. I have a good attack so you come up with a response to that attack and I come up with a response to your response and you… within three iterations you have created something that only works within your school and for your reasons.  Case in point is the turtle in judo.  Turtling is a defensive position where you are down on your hands and knees, forehead pressed to the ground and your own fingers inside your collar to prevent chokes.  We used to spend a lot of time on breaking the turtle… but the turtle itself could only arise in a venue where you weren’t allowed to simply boot the guy to death.

Inbreeding is the perfect word for this, because from the outside we can see the hemophilia and cleft palates and harelips and mental health issues… but from the inside the practitioners (of inbreeding) call it refinement.  Same in pharaonic dynasties as in some martial arts.

Chiyung brought up a lot of stuff and I don’t want to pick on him, but I couldn’t have made up a series of naive arguments this good.

“It is the warrior who makes the art.”  The individual, absolutely.  I have seen natural winners take completely worthless systems and use them effectively.  And I know two instructors in my own favorite system who can’t fight worth a damn.  But warrior?  My thoughts on that are here. Have you, working as a team, destroyed a group of other, breathing, human beings?  Have you buried friends?  Have you unwillingly accepted an order to risk your life and done it anyway, to the best of your ability, because other people would die if you weren’t willing to sacrifice yourself?  Unless you have done ALL, not some, of those things, you aren’t a warrior.  And training in a martial art makes you a warrior to the exact extent that watch a Steven Seagal movie makes you a Navy SEAL.  No more, no less.  And for the record, I don’t claim the warrior label.

“I only need to get punched in the face once to know it is painful.”  Nope, you don’t even need to get punched once to know that.  But here’s the deal– how many does it take before you know you can shrug it off and keep fighting?  How long before you can differentiate between pain and damage and press through pain and adapt to damage?  Because if you can’t do that, you can’t fight.  You can only play at fighting.

“Do I need to knock someone out to know if I can? I don’t believe so because science shows that concussive force to the heard (sic) would probably cause a knockout blow.”

Fighting is really idiosyncratic.  The fact that someone believes that concussion=knockout is a sure sign of serious misinformation.  I’ve had five concussions that I clearly remember (pun) but I had to report seven for a medical in 86′ and at least one of the ones I remember was after that… so I’ve had at least eight severe concussions.  And only lost consciousness from one event.  And only for a second.  Science understands concussions well; unconsciousness less well.  And because science understands something, does that mean you can do it?  Science knows how to go to the moon.

Malc asked about training the difference between dueling and assault.  (Good to see you typing here, BTW) He rightly understands that the hardest part is getting past our social conditioning and wondered if that could only be done by physical drills.

That’s the hardest part and in a lot of ways the big question.  Every aspect of physical self-defense violates social taboos.  Every touch in a self-defense situation is a bad touch.  One of the things that sometimes makes martial arts ineffective is an attempt  to play at self-defense while keeping everyone safely within their social boundaries– and so you get blackbelts who are uncomfortable with close contact.  Does that make any sense at all?

Even the physical drills for this must concentrate on the mental aspects.  Grabbing faces is physically easy but for most people psychologically hard.

My soundbite right now is that SD training has a progression: First, you have to make an emotionally safe place to do physically dangerous things.  Then you have to make a physically safe place to do emotionally dangerous things.

The second thing is that the mechanics of a physical assault are entirely different than the mechanics of a duel or sparring match.  So a lot of training (for assault survival) goes into conditioning immediate action to a stimulus and after the first half-second fighting by touch instead of sight.  There are a lot more drills that help.  There’s a reason why I’m partial to blindfolded infighting.

And another prizewinner from Malc– what constitutes experience?  It’s all experience.  Experience in a dojo is experience in a dojo.  Experience in a ring is experience in a ring.  Experience working the door or as a soldier or as a cop is all what it is.  But it isn’t any more than it is.  So if you Monkey Dance with people every Friday night at the bar, you can have a lot of experience and be really good at that… but have absolutely nothing to teach a person who is being dragged to a secondary crime scene.

As for flipping the switch, I don’t know a training method that provides the real thing.  The training method that mimics it though (and that is often good enough) is a conditioned response to get you through the first half second.

Chiyung again: “It’s a false assumption that you have to train with a hot stove to know how to be able to touch it.”
Correct.  But you have to touch a hot stove to know if what you have learned is correct.  That is one of the big dangers with martial arts being ripe for myth.  This statement is factually correct, and also serves as a perfect foil so that your students don’t test and question.  If your students accept this one statement, you can teach them utter crap and they will never, ever figure it out.  That’s the danger.

Chiyung also seems to believe that hard conditioning is a myth.  There are some things you can’t condition.  You can’t make your belly impervious to blades and concussions make you more susceptible to later concussions. Can’t toughen the brain.  But you can toughen bone and muscle.  More importantly, pain is almost entirely imaginary and exposure to pain makes it easier to deal with.  And people who sit back and imagine pain don’t do nearly as well with it as people who have pushed through before.

Wrap up.  I know this has been long.  More important than the martial mistakes– what do you tell yourself to pretend that they aren’t mistakes?  What is the narrative that allows you to do something you know is wrong?  And how do you justify passing it along to your students?

Charles hit it on the head when he said (paraphrase) that the people who most need to challenge themselves, to question, are the ones least likely to do it.  Dunning Kruger isn’t just a phenomenon, it is the mechanism.

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