Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Keeping it real

In a recent article, I discussed the very necessary role trust plays in the teacher/student relationship – and how an attempt to "test" your teacher would necessarily be contrary to the terms of that relationship.

I've had a number of responses that article, both public and private, querying my analysis. To quote one correspondent (who left a comment on the article):
"I think this is one of the edges that something like BJJ has over things like karate in terms of the prevalence of good practitioners - and one of the reasons why we have so much bad karate. Some newbie goes into a BJJ class, he'll lose - and if he doesn't, then the people there don't know what they're doing. It's a cut and dry test. If he's interested, he can fairly easily find strong people to train with. Some newbie goes into a karate class, where's their standard of proof?

You or I could take a movement away and, comparing it to feelings that we've honed over the years, have some idea of whether it would work. But if it's all on faith, and feelings being very easy to exploit if someone doesn't actually know what they're feeling, then the magical-ki guys have just as marketable a product as the people who spend twenty years learning to do things to a really high standard. At some point there's got to be something on the table, something that an untrained eye can see. Otherwise it's gonna be easy for kids who don't know a whole lot to get sold a false bill of goods - and that's not good for anyone...

I'd suggest an easier way to approach it is the same way you'd approach other sports... If you get the newbie up there doing some light sparring with one of your students, and the newbie's winning, then that to my mind raises some serious questions..."
My first point would be to observe that the correspondent is talking more about the need for more practical, transparent "hands-on" material in defence-oriented karate and less about "testing the teacher".

But the correspondent nonetheless raises a valid question: How can a beginner know whether he or she is being "taken for a ride" by a school teaching nonsensical or inefficient techniques/methods? And why wouldn't "testing your teacher" be one way of answering this question?

Let me first define what I mean by "testing your teacher" (as opposed to "testing the material" – more on the latter in a minute).

By this expression, I mean challenging the teacher's authority. This can take the form of continual, sceptical questioning, sneaky "tests" launched when the teacher's guard is down, "muscling" the teacher during a limited drill (in order to "show that the drill doesn't work") or any number of other examples.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not subscribe to any sort of "slavish adherence" or other blind trust in a "guru". Quite the opposite. I believe that students must have an inquiring mind at all times. However as I've said, this is quite different from trying to "test" a person whom you purportedly call "teacher".
  • The former is a mindset the pursues knowledge but has prima facie trust in a particular teacher in relation to whom there are reasonable, objective grounds for assuming a sufficient authority.
  • The latter is indicative of a prima facie distrust in relation to a particular teacher – in which case the title "teacher" is not really appropriate vis a vis the student.
I strongly believe that you should be satisfied as to the veracity of the material you are being taught. However if you find that you're increasingly coming to the view that you disagree with your teacher, you really have no business continuing to call yourself the student of that particular teacher. Clearly you are on separate paths.

In my view, if you are trying to "test" your teacher, this is less a reflection of an inquiring mind and more a function of your ego. Why do I say this? I think that if you suspect that the teacher is wrong in what he or she is teaching, the fair and honest thing to do is discuss the matter privately with the teacher. If the teacher fails to allay your concerns, then you must leave. This makes sense. Sticking around and trying to "test" your teacher in class makes no sense at all. It implies a very different motivation – to "prove" something in a way that diminishes the teacher's standing while simultaneously boosting your own. As I have previously discussed, this is (for want of a better term) an act of aggression. And such an act is only justified (in logic – not morality!) where it is a regrettable necessity.

I have to think through some pretty long-winded, extreme and outlandish examples before I can conceive of one that meets this criterion. "Teaching him or her a lesson" does not constitute such a regrettable necessity. Nor does "protecting the other students" (except in the case where your action will directly prevent some injury or other abuse). In such cases, the "reason" offered for the challenge is really just a justification offered after the fact. The primary motivation is something else entirely (ie. ego): If you think you can stop every mentalist, charlatan or peddler of bull***t, then you're just "swatting mosquitoes at a barbecue"; your time would be better spent doing something else. You can't stop all the charlatans of this world. You can't even make a decent start.

So how then can a new beginner safeguard against being "taken for a ride" by a particular school? I suggest that he or she can do so by the same method any other consumer would:
by being informed and maintaining an inquiring mind.

What this necessarily means is that the student must be prepared to test the material (as opposed to the teacher).

Isn't this the same as "testing the teacher"? You might think that it comes to the same thing. But I am going to make a distinction here so as to highlight some significant issues:

To me, testing the material is just a function of "keeping it real". By contrast, testing the "teacher" is overly focussed on the physical ability of one person in the school – at one particular point in time.

Now it is, of course, true that the teacher's physical performance can be directly relevant to your evaluation of a particular school. You can be sceptical of a teacher who, while speaking of health and fitness, has appalling conditioning; you can be sceptical of a teacher who, while speaking of combat effectiveness, cannot demonstrate anything (except against "zombie attackers" who step forward and pause while he or she slaps them around); you can be sceptical of a teacher who, while speaking of his or her "abilities", never partners off with the students for anything other than the aforesaid "zombie demonstration".

But as against all this, your teacher might be old, or might have recently been in a car accident, or might be ill... there is no "hard and fast" rule. Everything must be taken in context. To me, the main guiding principles are these:
  • Does what the instructor's material accord with common sense or does it require some level of suspension of disbelief?
  • Does the teacher demonstrate or does he or she rely almost exclusively on description and tales of "days gone by"/previous exploits?
  • When it comes to demonstrations, are you being distracted from the obvious (eg. that attacks against the teacher are never in anything other than "zombie mode") or is the teacher being honest about limitations in the demonstration format?
  • How much of what the teacher does in demonstration is calculated to "impress" you – and how much is necessary to teach you the relevant concepts?
  • Is the amount of force applied in demonstrations evidence of a sadistic egoism or is it just enough to "keep things real" and safe at the same time?
  • Can you really see yourself being able to apply the material, if not immediately then at least one day in the future?
In other words:
How much of what the instructor teaches seems, on an objective analysis, to be honest?

If, upon undertaking an assessment along the above lines, a teacher fails to meet prima facie standards of credibility, the resulting scepticism is, I think, clearly reasonable. In such a situation I find it hard to imagine any need for a further "test" of the teacher's skill/knowledge. Any such "test" (be it in the form of questions that "put him or her on the spot" or some sort of sparring) would, in my experience be of limited applicability to the data and is likely to be motivated by something other than an "inquiring mind".

Note that I don't consider questions sincerely and respectfully asked and answered as a "test": this is just part and parcel of having an inquiring student and diligent teacher.

Nor do I consider situations where the teacher has willingly engaged in sparring with you as some sort of "test" you've imposed on him or her. If you wish to use that as part (or whole!) of your assessment of the teacher's material, that is your prerogative, however it is worth noting that this "test" comes with significant limitations. If you doubt me, consider these points:
  1. It is self-evident that unlike sports or other activities, civilian defence is not easily "tested" (at least in a complete, determinative way). For example a tennis player can easily "test" his or her coach via game because they can both do the full activity - playing tennis. By contrast, you could only truly "test" your martial arts teacher if you were prepared to inflict (or have inflicted upon you) serious injury. Otherwise you would be testing something subtly, but significantly, different - how you both compare in a sparring match with specific rules, for instance.
  2. Brute force is a much bigger factor in fighting than it ever is in any sport. If you're looking to a teacher for knowledge and skill, you might do so even if you are 8 feet tall and he or she is 4 feet tall. Ditto if he or she is twice your age or is now in a wheelchair. Furthermore, as I've stated, you might not even be aware of other limiting circumstances – injury, disability, illness... Heck, the teacher might just be "going easy" on you during sparring (that has certainly happened to me – much to my later, over-confident, surprise!).
  3. Despite any contrary impressions of your own your own worth, you might be a very poor reference point for testing your teacher's skills: I've certainly had people try to "test" me when they were actually hopeless. What kind of indicator do you provide if you don't even have basic coordination, strength and fitness? Even if you are coordinated, strong and fit, you might just lack the necessary skill for the particular activity, eg. groundwork. In that environment, even a poorly trained (but experienced) person might easily beat you on the mat, leaving you to assume that their knowledge was sound. Meanwhile, down the road a school is teaching ground skills that make this school look like a joke.
  4. For the reasons referred to above, your teacher isn't who (or rather, what) you should be testing anyway. You should be testing the material. So if you want to use sparring as a testing measure of the skills you're being taught, you should at least spar against a variety of different people, be they students of, or external to, the school – not just the teacher.
Leaving all this aside, it is true that sparring can give you some idea of the teacher's skill – and of the value of the skill set. It is just important to note that this is very different from some sort of determinative "test". Basically, there are a multitude of factors that you should consider to ascertain whether the teacher is "bogus" or whether his or her school meets your needs (whether in relation to "fighting" or in a more general sense).

If your focus in training is health, fitness, meditation, art, tradition, or any other non-combat purpose, then the applicability of the skills (or inapplicability, as the case may be) will take a back seat to other issues: (How healthy is your teacher? How flexible, strong, and fit is he or she? How calm, composed and happy does he or she appear to be? How satisfied with life is he or she? Much more importantly, how happy are you in taking the class? How does it make you feel? How is your health, fitness, flexibility, strength, happiness etc. relative to when you started?)

If your focus for training is application of the skills in a martial sense, you need to consider the environment in which you want to apply them. If you are wanting to develop combat sports technique, then you will need to test the skills appropriately in practically each class. If you are wanting to develop skills for civilian defence, you will be unable to apply the techniques as literally as the art requires (it isn't really possible to simulate an eye gouge, for example) but you will nonetheless be able to apply them in as realistic a fashion as safety permits.

I call the appropriate application of martial skill "keeping it real". This doesn't mean you should try to knock your training partners' heads off. Rather, it means training honestly and sensibly. It means:
  1. making sure that you aren't missing (direction);
  2. making sure you are in range (distancing);
  3. making sure you don't accommodate your partner by allowing tenuous techniques to look effective (eg. by falling over the moment he or she pushes you);
  4. not pausing unnaturally after an attack and giving your partner a chance to do something for which he or she would have absolutely no time in real life,
and so on. In short, it means testing the material in a logical and methodical way.

Part of training honestly and sensibly is understanding this: you can't leap straight from beginner status to full "testing" of the material. You can't make things "as real as possible" (never mind "totally real") in every respect from day one – or even on day 1,000. If you want safety in training, the extent of "realism" must, necessarily, increase gradually.

But it is true that from day one some things must be kept real:

For example, I insist on correct direction from the very first lesson. You must never punch "off line". You must always aim directly at your target. Aiming to miss is a very bad habit that is hard to break.

After direction, I insist on correct distancing. I've had good friends who were accomplished at "tag fighting" default to punching short when attacked for real (particularly head punches) – with disastrous results. And from my own experience, I can also tell you that once (as a beginner) I kicked towards an attacker's head with insufficient penetration (and, to be truthful, to one side!). Had my kicked landed, I'm fairly sure things would have ended there and then. But "had" is the operative word. After I missed twice, my attacker swept my supporting leg and I ended up on the ground in a very humiliating way, copping a beating that ended only when my attacker was pulled away by others.

Only after direction and distancing have been mastered do I insist on realistic speed and commitment. Until then, the application of the latter is premature – and dangerous.

And, whatever your general ability and experience, it is also true that whenever you are learning something new you will want to do it slowly to begin with (perhaps with some accommodation from your partner) until you gradually increase speed and resistance. (If you couldn't do this with a training partner, then you'd scarcely be able to call your training environment a "learning one", could you?)

You need time to acquire correct and efficient form. If your movement is totally wrong, adding speed not only disguises your errors; it prevents you from noticing (and correcting them). This can be dangerous not only for your partner but also for you, putting undue force at the wrong angle on joints and other support structures. (As it happens I'm currently nursing a strained rotator cuff muscle from trying to do a particular movement with too much speed and force too soon in my learning of it.)

Then there is the matter of your training partner's experience. You might well be prepared and able to go full speed / full force, but your training partner might not. Some consideration is necessary for his or her ability and experience.

Accordingly, "keeping it real" means keeping your training as real as practicable in the circumstances. This means different things in relation to different students. I know that students who are "combat-minded" often want to start "fighting" with "realistic resistance" from day one; young men in particular are competitive by nature and want to "get in there and mix it". But when it comes to a complex skill set, this is an unrealistic expectation. It is a bit like wanting to drive a golf ball straight to the green in your first golf lesson/match. You can add as much "oomph" as you like, but you're not going to get anywhere in a hurry (except by luck).

Put another way, it is a bit like expecting to glide down the front of a wave and through a tube – when you've never even tried surfing before.

I can give you a million more examples but the same truism emerges. And, as I previously noted, the complicating issue with martial arts is that brute force (as opposed to skill) can (and usually does!) play a pivotal role. But you didn't come to a martial arts school just to use brute force. Presumably you came to learn a specific skill set. That is certainly what martial arts training is all about: how to get an advantage via greater skill (perhaps off-setting smaller size and stature).

Whatever your goals in martial arts, you want to keep your training real in this sense – ie. you want to keep it honest. I recall hearing of a taiji teacher who promised that he could enable even his oldest, weakest students to "beat Mike Tyson". This is nonsensical and irresponsible, if not delusional. On the other hand, I know many health-focussed taiji teachers who say things like: "You might use this for defence in this way" without promising that the students will be able to do so. And for students training in that school or class, this is quite okay; they aren't going there for "fighting" but for a very different set of reasons. The fact that the class isn't focussed on realistic application is fine by them – and with me.

Accordingly, is there any argument for one to "test" one's teacher? I don't think so. The argument is, instead, for teacher and student alike to "keep things real" – ie. honest. My own teacher spends a lot of time on correct form, but I don't see this as a "failing" – it is precisely what I want to learn from him. I don't go to him to "test" my skill – or (perish the thought) his! I have enough knowledge, gained from a variety of schools over 3 decades, to know that he teaches movement I want to learn. I want to learn it for multitude of reasons, only one of which is that I have good reason to believe it will add to my "toolbox" of practical civilian defence skills – an addition that complements and builds on my existing skill set in a more advanced way (in kinaesthetic and motor learning terms).

If you went to study with my teacher and you wanted "combat-ready skills, right now" it wouldn't just be in bad taste to "test" him (or his other students) through constant sceptical questioning, push hands, free sparring etc. – it would be dishonest. Because you should already know that what he teaches doesn't match that description (most people would make suitable enquires beforehand, particularly if the subject matter is taiji). And if you didn't know beforehand, you'd soon realise after a few minutes not to expect hard sparring.

Going back to the beginner at the start of the article, how can he or she know things are being kept "real" at his or her new school? The same as he or she could in any other activity: by honestly and sincerely maintaining an inquiring mind; by evaluating (ie. "testing") the skills being taught logically, methodically and safely by reference to the student's own goals and objectives – and without egotistical motivation; by using common sense.

Over the years I have made my own judgements along these lines, and I have done so on the basis of evaluating data logically and in the context of whatever experience and knowledge I had. I don't need to start sparring with my (older) teacher as part of this process. I can and do "test" the material in any number of ways. And I wouldn't still be studying with him if I didn't feel it had passed these tests conclusively. Nor would I be studying with him if I felt he didn't keep things "real" - ie. honest - in relation to the knowledge he gave to me.

If you were to train with me, perhaps what I do wouldn't have enough martial application for you. But I would be up-front about everything. I don't run an MMA class. I don't train just for "fighting" but for any number of other reasons. Accordingly, my classes aren't always focussed on sparring and application. Sometimes (particularly in the internal arts class) they focus on form alone. This appeals to some and not to others. Some want more martial application, some less. But in the end, I don't "lie" to people. The classes are what they are. You will have to make up your own mind whether they meet your needs.

I won't kid you that you'll beat Mike Tyson. But at least when we do applications I will try to demonstrate them all – with as much honesty as I can – so that you can evaluate the technique based (as much as possible) on my performance (and not my words). In this context, I will note the my own limitations as well as those of the demonstration/application environment. I won't try to distract you from these with flashy zombie slap-fests or mentalist trickery. I will answer your questions and I will demonstrate where necessary to clarify issues.

And if you raise a good objection to something I am teaching, guess what? I'll change what I'm teaching. That's precisely what I've been doing for my entire career. I won't be clinging doggedly and desperately to "the old ways" just because they are the "old ways".

"Ikkyo" is a good example of my own changes to techniques taught to me - based upon honest feedback from students.

But if you try to "test" me through continual, sceptical questioning (the answers to which are never sufficient) or if you keep trying to "muscle" me in sparring or in some other limited drills, guess what? I'll be asking you to leave – whether or not I accept points that you might make. Because sincere and honest inquiry is one thing. A confrontational or distrustful attitude is entirely another. And to me, the concept of "testing" me comes with that attitude; one that is entirely inconsistent with a student/teacher relationship.

So if you're ever tempted to carry out such a "test" on your teacher, look first to your own reasons; ask yourself whether it is genuinely and respectfully based on resolving some sort of "technical question" or whether it has instead to do with your ego – "proving" that which you already consider largely self-evident (and which you intend to "make evident" to the teacher and others). Ask yourself whether you're doing anyone any favours by hanging around that school. Because "keeping it real" means being honest – to your teacher, your training partners and, ultimately, with yourself.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Facebook page for the Way of Least Resistance!

Okay, I've finally gotten off my rear end and made a Facebook page for this blog. I hope to post my latest blog posts there as they happen, as well as additional comments, videos, footnotes, how-tos and other extras.

Please "like"!

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A matter of trust: "testing" your sensei

My last article got me thinking about the whole issue of trust. I see our "illusion of security" as just part and parcel of a greater tendency of human beings to "suspend distrust" in order to function effectively and happily in a society.

The student/teacher relationship is a good example of that suspension. Why do I say this? Because if we accept someone as our teacher, we accept a level of expertise on their behalf. And, as you will recall from my article on mentalism, critical thinking shuts off once an accepted expert begins to speak. Note again the following TED video, particularly at around 3:37 (set to start at that point):

But isn't that a bad thing? After all, aren't we urged from all quarters to "question everything"? Why shouldn't this extend to our teachers?

I was talking about this with my eldest daughter on Sunday as we took our puppy for a run at the park. As I noted, it would be exhausting and extremely inefficient to go through life questioning every single thing our teachers told us.

"You weigh only 1/6 of your Earth weight on the moon."
Yeah right. Prove it!
"The capital of the Czech Republic is Prague."
Sure. Give me some evidence!

In some respects, having to question everything your teacher tells you would be as exhausting and inefficient as consciously negotiating every aspect of climbing stairs (rather than relying on motor learning and kinaesthesia - what I have previously called your "autopilot"). Indeed, you really couldn't call a person you are constantly questioning your "teacher" for the simple reason that you obviously wouldn't trust them enough to give them that title.

But shouldn't we be wary of trusting people? To some extent, yes. But in the end, we have to lower our guard at some point in order to get on with the business of living happily and effectively. Being endlessly distrustful is simply not conducive to this end.

Some years ago my brother made a bad Ebay purchase: I can't recall the details, but the product was unsatisfactory so he returned it (as advised by the vendor). The vendor however never sent a replacement. Since the latter was in Germany there was little my brother could do. Even the Ebay reporting options had passed, my brother having acquiesced to the vendor's entreaties that he not to give him bad feedback as "all would soon be rectified". Afterwards, I remember my brother being philosophical about the whole experience, noting that it wouldn't change his outlook on internet purchases, or indeed, life. "You can't start assuming that everyone is going to cheat you. At some point, you've got to trust someone."

Of course, he was right.

I've noticed that as people age they divide ever more neatly into two categories: those who are cynical and irritable, and those who remain open and cheery. I made a conscious determination years ago to become one of the latter: it seems to me that cynicism is just a subset of resentment. And to quote Malachy McCourt: "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

So at some point we must put our trust in others. While we can and should be careful in this regard, we really can't live can't live without giving trust.

This is especially so if we want to learn something. For example, you won't get far with a music teacher if you raise a sceptical eyebrow the moment he or she says something like: "This is a scale." Nor will you progress at university if you scoff at your anthropology lecturer for giving you some facts about the culture of the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa. And so it goes.

Clearly, we all accept people as teachers sooner or later. And, in so doing, we accept their expertise (albeit within certain boundaries). And it follows from the data discussed in that TED video that we will then be less inclined to examine everything they say critically. This is not evidence of the need for a more cynical worldview; it is evidence of just how much responsibility goes with being a teacher - and how reprehensible it is to abuse that position.

I asked my daughter to imagine, just for a moment, how she might feel if she discovered that her current (much admired) school teacher turned out to be a fraud with no qualifications; that most of what she had been learning at school this year was flawed, if not entirely wrong. She admitted it was hard for her even to conceive of such a hypothetical - she had that much trust in her teacher.

Eventually she said that she might feel quite disheartened; that in future she mightn't trust other teachers. And I said that reaction would be perfectly natural. It would be hard for her to put her complete trust in a teacher again. In some respects, she would feel not unlike those people I mentioned in my previous article who, having been the victims of a violent crime, find it hard to feel "safe" again. In both cases an "illusion" has been shattered - one that is necessary for our societal function but that is open to abuse and accordingly deserves our special protection.

So how should we go about making sure we aren't foolishly placing our trust in the wrong teacher? There is no single way. Mostly we make up our mind at the outset that someone seems trustworthy and we take it from there. If, after a period of time, we find ourselves disagreeing with some of the things our teacher is saying, we might re-evaluate the relationship.

But I believe one of the things we should not do is "test" the teacher via continual requests for "proof". To do so is to violate the teacher/student relationship.

Now, I'm no stranger to hearing doubtful things from a teacher. But I have never sought to "test" any of my teachers. I've either liked it or lumped it.

For example, I recall my sound engineering lecturer telling us: "The floor to ceiling ratio is 90." At first I thought I'd misheard him, so I asked: "Is there another figure that goes with the 90? I'm used to ratios being "X:Y". His response was: "Not this ratio."

What were my choices? I could have scoffed loudly, pointed out his erroneous use of the concept of "ratio" and put him on the spot. Or I could have decided to end my participation in the course as soon as possible. Or I could have remembered his general superlative skill and knowledge relating to sound engineering - whether it be mic technique, mixing, sound file editing, mastering or production - and seen his small error on the theoretical side for what it really was: inconsequential to my trust in him as an expert in his field. So I thanked him and wrote down "Floor to ceiling ratio - 90" in my notes.

For what it's worth, I believe that only other option would have been to discontinue my studies in a polite way. Arguing with my teacher and putting him to proof would have been pointless. If it ever comes to this I feel that you (rightly or wrongly) do not have the requisite trust to call that person "teacher". Hanging around and arguing makes no sense at all.

Over the years I've had a number of students who routinely question practically everything I show them. This is exhausting and takes up valuable class time while I demonstrate and explain in multiple ways. Because I pride myself on approaching my teaching in a logical and scientific way, I don't believe I've ever been found wanting; I've generally always given a good case for my point of view.

But students like this are not easily appeased. For every bit of "proof" you give them, they want more. I've generally found that they are far more trouble than they are worth, as they interrupt the flow of the class and unfairly occupy too much of the teacher's attention. The class suddenly becomes focussed on them and them alone. The teacher has to do backflips to please them and the rest of the students are neglected, if not forgotten. Thankfully, these sorts of trouble-makers generally don't hang around for long.

Don't be this sort of student.

Either be a student or don't be. There is no "in-between". Don't "test" your teacher via continual requests for proof. Even worse, don't "test" him or her via sparring etc. It "proves" nothing. I've had teachers who were very elderly and for whom "sparring days" were long past; this didn't mean they had nothing to teach me. On the contrary. Their lengthy experience was precisely what I wanted to avail myself of. Had I ever felt the need to "test" them in sparring, one would have had to wonder why I still called them my teachers - or, more importantly, why they still had me as a student!

As a point of fact, I would never, ever, in a pink fit, consider "testing" my teacher Chen Yun Ching or my senior James Sumarac. I never considered "testing" my former teacher Bob Davies. If I hadn't had sufficient trust in them, I wouldn't have been their student to begin with.

There is an old saying attributed to Buddha that goes: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." I agree with this - it is a truism: a truism that reminds us not to have blind trust. How do I reconcile it with my preceding remarks? Well in this essay I have not tried to argue in favour of "blind trust", but rather reasonable or, rather reasoned trust. For example, I wouldn't become the student of a person whose words I found "inconsistent with my own reason and common sense". And I certainly wouldn't remain the student of such a person if I discovered down the track that my initial assessment of their worth as a teacher was wrong.

In the case of the latter, I would not leave in a "blaze of parting shots". To do so would be pointless and, assuming their only "crime" was disagreement on technical issues, disrespectful. Leaving on such bad terms and with such a wanton display of disrespect would make me an ass.

Either be someone's student or don't be. Just don't be an ass.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, November 12, 2012

A world of illusion: coping with the reality of violence

We martial artists spend a lot of time thinking about violence and practising ways of countering it. But underlying our practice is the knowledge, deep inside us all, that we are to some extent living in a world of illusion. We are under an illusion as to our realistic chances of reacting appropriately (if at all) under the pressure of an attack. And, even if we do react appropriately, we are invariably under an illusion as to the adequacy of our defence resources (against attacks which might involve firearms or other deadly weapons, multiple assailants, etc.).

On one view, most of what we practise is going to be of marginal, if any, use in many attack situations. Why? Because serious criminals like to stack the odds in their favour. They don't plan on having a "fair fight". They plan on surprising you and overwhelming you with force and numbers. They don't really want to leave a thing to chance. It is only logical, after all.

So how do we cope with this realisation? For most of us the answer is simply this:
We ignore it.

As a prosecutor I noted that victims of violent crime often have trouble adjusting to life after the event. It can seem to them as if their whole world has collapsed. Whether we are talking a street assault or home invasion, the result is often the same: the victims just don't feel safe anymore.

But has anything really changed? Are they really less safe than they were prior to the crime? The answer is invariably "no". All that has changed is their perception of the world. Where once they went about their daily affairs oblivious to the dangers, now they have become hyper-aware of them. They have gone from not being concerned with fears to being consumed by them.

Of course, all of this is perfectly natural, and I don't for one moment wish to be seen as critical of people who have been victims of such tragic circumstances. Their reaction is totally understandable and I am well aware that "there, but for the grace of God, go all of us."

I'm merely pointing out that, largely speaking, we live in a world of "illusion"; one that treats statistically real (albeit small) chances of harm as essentially non-existent. We cocoon ourselves from an indifferent, often cruel, world by using nothing more than a set of assumptions ("I'll never be attacked" or "my home will never be broken into"). When those assumptions are challenged and found to be false, we discover that our whole world can collapse around us. This is because those assumptions underlie almost everything we do: walking to the shops, watching television at night, etc.

I was thinking about this on Saturday when I went up to my brother's place to catch up with Gary, an old buddy from South Africa. We got to speaking about crime in that country (as SA expats tend to do). As Gary noted, most people in South Africa have at least a couple of personal stories about violent crime.

Gary mentioned how he was lucky to have survived two encounters by nothing more than dumb luck. In one case, criminals entering his home through the roof mistakenly dropped a tile which altered him to what was happening. But for that, they would have caught him totally by surprise. And in South Africa most criminals don't just take what you have and go. They kill (or at least maim) you as well - if for no other reason than because they can.

In another case, Gary (who used to keep a firearm tucked into his belt at the back) was surprised by a home invader and went to reach for his gun. The criminal saw his reflex reaction and bolted. This was fortunate because when Gary's hand reached where the gun should have been, it wasn't there; he had taken it out for some reason.

In each case, Gary survived by way of pure "dumb luck". Had the dice fallen another way, he wouldn't have been there on Saturday telling us these stories. And for everyone in South Africa who has such a "fortunate" story, there are many more who don't.

One of Gary's work colleagues once turned up at the office a bit late. He said he'd shot a home invader and killed him. When quizzed about the event, the colleague said, matter-of-factly, that he'd fired two warning shots, and when the criminal continued advancing towards him he had no choice but to shoot him square in the chest. "Don't worry," he said, "my neighbour killed the other two." Lest this seem overly callous, it was worth noting that these same criminals had just slaughtered an entire family two doors down. Given the horrific crime statistics, South African police only required Gary's colleague to fill in a few forms and he was free to go.

So how do people live in today's South Africa. "Well," said Gary, "it's not all that bad. You get used to it. You're okay if you know what you're doing."

It seems that life in South Africa has settled into a "new normal", albeit one that involves, for wealthier South Africans anyway, a nightly ritual of checking whether the security staff are at their posts, activating the electric fence, arming all the doors and retreating into the "safe zone" for the night (see the ridiculous "house" with the "drawbridge" depicted towards the end of this article). For poorer South Africans life is bound to be a whole lot more uncertain, with lesser safeguards available (and, correspondingly, a higher threshold for the "illusion of safety").

Regardless of your socioeconomic status, during the day you avoid certain areas. You travel by motor vehicle as much as possible. And if you are at all suspicious, you even ignore red lights (many criminals will open the door of a car waiting at an intersection, shoot the occupants, push them out, then drive away). You see, for the criminal there is also a "new normal" - requiring a new modus operandi.

Is it possible to have any "illusions" in such an environment? If not, how is it that people don't become total nervous wrecks?

Well, it seems they just don't. For the overwhelming majority, life goes on. The "new normal" simply replaces the old assumptions with a newer, more cautious, set: If you take certain precautions and you can go about your business as before. You can go to the shops or watch television at night. You replace one illusion with another one that is easier to sustain in your particular environment.

Is this a bad thing? Quite the contrary. It is a testament to the human spirit. Yes, it is a dreadful thing to have to live in a world that is so full of crime and danger. But at the same time, the people in such a society have to be commended for getting on with life; for still having some level of trust (albeit subject to strict caveats) that they will get through the day unscathed; for getting up in the morning and facing each day as if it were "normal".

It seems we humans cannot live without some "illusion" of safety. It forms the very foundation of our existence. When we lose that "illusion", we become fearful, resentful and, ultimately, profoundly depressed. As I said to my daughter yesterday, we all require a bit of "illusion" to get on with our lives. Whether we persist in the illusion that we could actually do something to avoid a freeway collision were a car suddenly to swerve into our lane, or whether we persist in the illusion that we are "exempt" from random street attacks or home invasions, the result is the same: we get by in life principally by not thinking about the possibility that these things could happen to us at any time. Yes, that possibility might be statistically small; but it is real nonetheless. It is not "fanciful" or "imaginary".

So what can we do? The best we can do is take those measures that are prudent. In Australia that might mean locking your door and security screen at night. In South Africa it means something altogether more stringent. After that, we will probably assume it isn't going to happen. Why? Because we don't do ourselves any favours by assuming that it will.

People often ask me if martial arts training makes me more confident about defending myself. I am always reluctant to say "yes". The reality is that "defence" seems to cover such a broad spectrum, ranging from some troublesome young man wanting to pick a fight, to a brutal, armed, home invasion. Can I really say that I am confident about my chances of defence in even the mildest of these cases? The answer is no. If you want that kind of certainty, you need to do a lot more than learn martial arts (as any South African will tell you).

So why do martial arts then? For the time being I'll leave aside things like health, fitness, art, fun etc. and focus squarely on defence:

Put simply, martial arts training can form part of the "appropriate precautions" you need to take in order to put the threat of attack out of your mind. Yes, you know it isn't nearly enough to give you any kind of "certainty". But, like locking your front door, it can give you a base level of security. Even if that security is only applicable in relation to something like a sucker punch, it is still valid. And, as I've previously noted, in Australia this is precisely the sort of security you're most likely to need.

Even if any greater sense of security is, to some extents, illusory, you're still entitled to some measure of it. After all, you can't live without it. Even the South Africans have "illusory security": all that has happened there is that there has been an "arms race" so that their "minimum" is a heck of a lot higher than ours in Australia.

The answer in civilian defence has never been eliminating all risk. However laudable, that objective is not logistically possible. The risk of facing a violent attack is always there, just as you can't remove all risk of accident while driving on the roads (no matter how big your SUV, how well padded it is with airbags and crumple zones etc.).

The best you can do is take whatever measures are reasonable in your particular environment. And after that you can, and should, get on with your life - however "illusory" the certainty of your safety. Because to give in to fear is to cede some victory to your would-be attackers long before they have even tried to strike a blow.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic