The uselessness of a martial art

gate
I took this photo about ten years ago at WuYi Shan in Fujian. To me, Kung Fu is kinda like this gate: very old, well-worn, but beautiful, and always promising more on the other side.

My kung fu teacher has always emphasised the dangers of fighting, regardless of one’s skill or confidence in a martial art. Last week he put it more succinctly, noting that the greater our ability and knowledge, the greater our awareness of the danger implicit in any physical confrontation. Paradoxically, the better we are at kung fu or any martial art, the less likely we are to use it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Wenzi:

When you go on the Way, it makes other people unable to wound you no matter how boldly they stab, unable to hit you no matter how skillfully they strike.

Indeed, to be immune to stabbing and striking is still an embarrassment; it is not as good as causing people not to dare to stab you no matter how bold they are, not to dare to strike you no matter how clever they are.

Now not daring does not mean there is no such intention, so it is even better to cause people not to have the intent.

Those who have no such intention do not have a mind that loves to help or harm. That is not as good as causing all the men and women in the world to joyfully wish to love and help you.

If you can do that, then you are a sovereign even if you have no land, you are a chief even if you have no office; everyone will wish for your security and welfare.

It’s an amusing quotation, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but well worth considering in the context of martial arts, and learning to skilfully attack and defend oneself. Skill in attacking and defending are a part of ‘the Way’ even if we never have to use them.

There’s a difference, after all, between a person who has a skill but doesn’t use it, and one who doesn’t have the skill and hopes he never needs it. Likewise, there’s a difference between the kinds of people who get in a lot of fights, and the kinds of people who devote years of their lives to learning a martial art. Certainly the former are more dangerous than the latter, but mostly in the same way that a drunk-driver is more dangerous than a skilled driver.

These days it is considered vital for martial arts to be ‘reality-based’ or tested somehow in a sporting context or a military or law-enforcement context. But for most of us the reality has nothing to do with these contexts, and even the ‘reality’ of the most common assault scenarios is relative. A few years ago I came across a map of Adelaide that showed the crime rate for specific crimes by suburb. Want to avoid violent assault? The best approach appears to be: a) don’t live in the lower socio-economic areas of the extreme Northern and Southern suburbs, and b) don’t hang around drunk or on drugs in city night-spots in the early hours of the morning.

I don’t know a great deal about the historical context in which the Chinese martial art I learn was first created, but chances are it is still more ‘reality-based’ than the behaviour of the drug and alcohol inspired perpetrators of casual violence in our society. In a city with an excellent state-subsidised medical system and a responsive network of paramedics you don’t really need to worry that starting a drunken fight might get you killed, or worse still, leave you injured, disfigured, and unable to work with a string of dependents beggared and homeless thanks to your irresponsible behaviour.

I think what attracts many of us to martial arts is that they promise something beyond a mere set of skills driven by utility. They may have started out as that, once upon a time, but in the present era they take on a life and a purpose of their own, bringing a great deal of richness to our own lives even if we are never in a position where the art is ‘useful’ in the most practical sense of self-defence.

For me, my martial art encompasses self-defence but goes beyond it, with enough physical, cultural, technical and psychological benefits and fascinations to keep me at it, hopefully until I’m too old to do anything else. This alone is enough to distinguish such a martial art from whatever realities motivate people to start pub-fights, to ‘king hit’ random strangers, or generally stir up trouble wherever they go.

But admittedly there is also a pleasure in knowing that if I or someone I care about is ever attacked I won’t make it easy for the attacker. It is good to know that I have developed the strength and the skill to give as good as I might get, while still knowing the limits of what any level of skill can guarantee.

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Self-defense as an ethical ideal

The pacifist dilemma is that non-violence leaves us, as individuals and communities, subject to oppression. One of the favoured examples against non-violence is that Ghandi’s ahimsa only worked because the British were not truly bad people. Ahimsa would never have succeeded against a more brutal regime like that of Nazi Germany. From a spiritual perspective, ahimsa is not about what ‘works’; arguing that non-violence ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ presumes non-violence is about ‘working’, which it is not. Pacifists are generally resolved to embrace the bitter consequences of their philosophy, harbouring no illusions that their path can be both moral and utilitarian.

True pacifists deserve respect, but there is nonetheless a perfectly reasonable ethical distinction to be made between violence and self-defense. If my life and my health are good for me, then I have a right to enjoy these goods. Accordingly, no individual may have a countervailing right to harm these goods or take them away. Unjustified aggression is therefore ethically illegitimate, and the target of that aggression is right to defend against it, to protect their own life and the lives of others.

In defending against unjustified aggression, the target of our defensive actions is not the person, the aggressor, himself. Rather, our aim is the act of aggression, the violence. Hence a legitimate use of defensive force must be constrained by these ethical limits:

– it must be proportional to the threat.

A sense of threat is always somewhat subjective, but in ethics as in law, there is a ‘reasonable person test’ by which defensive actions will be judged. If someone shoves you at a party, it is not – all things being equal – proportional to hit him with a bar stool.

– any injury caused must be an unintended side-effect of self-defense.

In order to stop someone from hurting you or another innocent person, an appropriate use of defensive force may result in injuries to the aggressor. These injuries, though foreseeable, are considered ethically acceptable so long as one’s overriding intention is to defend, not to injure. In medical ethics this is known as the principle of double-effect, the recognition that good actions sometimes have foreseeable yet unintended negative effects.

Some people see self-defense as an excuse for violent retaliation, an opportunity to injure others with moral impunity. This is not true self-defense. If we do not abide by the principles of self-defense, we cannot walk away from a violent confrontation with a clear conscience.

At the same time there is something elegant about this view of self-defense: in merely defending the sphere of your own life and rights, it is the aggressor who bears moral responsibility for the harm and injuries that befall him as a result of his own violent intentions.

Why learn a martial art?

Melancholics have a hard time communicating the value of their interests and ideals. We’ve learned through experience that we are in a minority, that the things which motivate us do not tend to motivate others and vice versa. I was amazed to learn that ‘everyone is doing it’ is actually an implicit motivator for some people, designating the gold standard in life-choices. I’ve only ever interpreted such statements ironically; and though I follow the crowd in many instances, knowing that ‘everyone is doing it’ counts as a disincentive.

But one of the themes of this blog is to begin communicating the value I find in my various, seemingly useless interests, pastimes, and ideals. In other words, can I explain to you why I do things that give me neither money nor social status nor an efficient path to commonly identifiable individual or social goods such as ‘getting fit’ and ‘making friends’?

This time the topic is martial arts. Specifically: why have I spent more than half my life putting time and effort into something that is unlikely to ever prove ‘useful’?

I started learning Taekwondo as a young teenager after my parents gave me a choice: either join the local TKD class or sign up with the local soccer team. Soccer is probably fun if you are somewhat fit, coordinated, and sociable. But since I was none of those things I chose TKD.

The training did improve my fitness, strength, and flexibility, but it did so under the guise of learning a deeper skill – the ability to defend myself against other people.

After a couple of years a friend introduced me to a very different martial art, a rare, difficult style of kungfu from Southern China that was taught informally within a closed group. It was immediately clear that this style of kungfu was deeper than anything I had learned in TKD. The training was much more complicated and intense, the tactics far more committed and aggressive, and the techniques significantly more powerful.

I’ve been training in this art for more than sixteen years, and my motivation, understanding, and interest have changed a great deal in that time. Sometimes I wonder what I get out of it, why I am still motivated. Is it simply that having put so much in, it would be a waste to stop now? Or has it become so habitual that I no longer need a conscious motive?

My recent post on violence and the masculine ideal helped bring out an answer, an enduring value in martial arts that is independent of any particular style or any degree of proficiency. That value is often described simply as ‘self-defense’, but is better described in a more nuanced way as the practised ability to ward off and resist violence.

This is the lasting appeal of the martial arts: they train skills and techniques that in and of themselves increase our self-mastery. They develop latent physical and mental potential in the paradigmatic and pragmatic context of human violence.

Paradoxically, evidence suggests that learning a martial art may make people less inclined to engage in violent behaviour. Anecdotally the logic is obvious: people who learn martial arts spend many hours training techniques and practising them in a controlled environment with willing participants. If you just wanted to get in fights, you’d be better off joining a football team or being obnoxious in popular night spots after 2am.

For me, self-mastery is the core value behind martial arts practice, and provides an answer to the existential challenge of unjust human aggression. I do not want to find myself ever the victim of an attack that could have been avoided or defended with a reasonable degree of preparation on my part. Unlikely as such a scenario is, given the low risk lifestyle of a philosopher who’d rather be enjoying sleep at 3am than getting glassed in a drunken pub fight, I nonetheless have the pleasure and the challenge of training these same skills for their own sake.

The development of these skills has indeed been one of the most challenging and rewarding things in my life. It has been a more consistent part of my life than any other interest, occupation, or training. It has been a source of inspiration, frustration, achievement and dismay, especially for someone whose passion for the art has always outstripped his aptitude. I can’t imagine life without it, and yet my efforts and dedication will always feel insufficient. It is humbling to think that what I get out of it is limited by what I have put in. There will always be more I could have put in, and I can only admit fault in being a less than ideal exemplar of the art.

Perhaps that is why the value of this ideal is hard to communicate – I keep returning to the subject of my failure and inadequacy. But ask yourself whether you have something in your life that makes you want to persevere and work hard in full awareness of your faults? Is there anything that makes you feel inspired and humbled at the same time? Do you have something into which you can keep investing while knowing that the returns will never feel like ‘enough’?

Without exaggerating the hopelessness of the situation, I think this is where philosophy and martial arts coincide. Whether you seek to master a skill or know the truth, you’ll find the horizon always stretching out before you, always out of reach. My teacher tells me he is always learning, and perhaps that is the key to such pursuits: to love the path, and find comfort in being someone who learns rather than someone who has just arrived.

Violence and the masculine ideal

In the previous post I linked to a column on violence and gender at the New Statesman by a columnist named Glosswitch – “a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.”

I’m not qualified to comment on the intricacies of feminist theory, but as a father and a man I hope I’m not remiss in taking issue with Glosswitch’s claim that:

Rarely is it argued that since men are particularly vulnerable, they should not go out alone at night or drink above a certain limit. Since men are, potentially, both victim and perpetrator, it seems we’ve resolved to let them fight it out amongst themselves.

As a parent of boys, I find this disturbing. While those raising girls might be faced with the awful yet relatively straightforward paradigm of vulnerable girl/evil world, for those of us with sons it’s more complex. If I attempt to protect my son from his own aggression and that of others, aren’t I pushing him towards “girl” status – the status of a victim? But if I toughen him up and prepare him to fight, am I not just creating another aggressor in a world where over 90 per cent of them are male? As long as masculinity remains powerful, it seems there will never be an in-between.

As a powerfully masculine man myself, it appears the author has fallen into a false dichotomy. It is not the case that men must either be a victim or a perpetrator of violence, because we also have the option of self-defense.

Self-defense is a perfectly legitimate and well established use of force with both legal and moral precedent. Furthermore, defense of self and others is traditionally regarded as an ennobling and virtuous application of masculine power.

The author is right to worry that promoting non-violence will leave her sons vulnerable in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. But her false dichotomy of victim/perpetrator pushes her towards a gender-based critique of violence that pins individual security on the hope of an ideologically transformed society.

Do you want your son to kick or be kicked? As long as we maintain our obsession with gender, the choice has to be between aggression or victimhood, masculinity and femininity stripped bare.

Anyone familiar with the theory and practice of self-defense will know that there are alternatives to ‘kick or be kicked’ – alternatives that begin with making informed choices about one’s environment. People interested in self-defense will indeed point out the dangers of being overly intoxicated in the wrong venues at the wrong time. A cursory inspection of violence statistics will demonstrate the increased risk of assault that comes from being out drinking in the early hours of the morning.

For people interested in self-defense, violence is genuinely an unwanted escalation, yet something we ought to be prepared for. I’ve met a number of men involved in martial arts over the years, and their unanimous opinion after years of ‘toughening up’ and learning how to hurt people, is that we should avoid it as far as possible: run away, apologise, humble ourselves, call for help, in order to avoid a fight.

None of these people wish to become victims, and many of them are well prepared and capable of using force to defend themselves. But nor are they remotely inclined to become aggressors, using violence to victimise others.

It is a concern when people promote a view of ‘violence’ that ignores the moral distinction between aggression and self-defense. A man can be tough without being callous, powerful without being violent. Perhaps there are ideological reasons for ignoring such options, but I for one will have no qualms in teaching my son the how’s and why’s of the legitimate use of force. And if I had a daughter I would teach her exactly the same thing.