Martial Arts and Self Defence

I have done martial arts of one form or another since about 1981, with only short breaks for having children and moving between styles. My current love is Systema – Russian style close quarter combat – which I’ve done for about 4.5 years. I taught people to fight with broadswords and other Medieval weapons for years. I’ve trained and patrolled with the Guardian Angels (in NZ, which is pretty mild) and taught self defence classes to people of a wide range of ages and mixed abilities. I’ve only had to defend myself for real twice  (people in their right mind usually choose not to fight me), and I’ve got into a few tense situations, but I know I am a capable combatant.

Martial arts is a big part of who I am, and I’m really glad I fell into it. When people ask me why I started, I say that I can’t run for sh*t, so I knew if it came to fight or flight I was stuffed, unless I learnt to fight. I really am a terrible runner: people can run backwards faster than I run forwards. I have proved this on the battlefield, trying to chase down people with spears… Anyway, how it really happened is even less likely. I was the fat kid in school. I hated PE (Physical Education). I hated wearing shorts and t-shirts next to the slim and pretty girls, being picked last, being unable to catch a ball, and the competition. Being a clever negotiator I arranged to usually take that time doing clarinet lessons instead. At the end of the school year the junior classes would do a week of different elective interests while the seniors did exams. Being disorganised I failed to get my preferred electives and instead got Variety Sports. Me! To say I was disappointed would be the understatement of the year, but it actually wasn’t too bad, except for the squash, which I still recall with a shudder. Boating I was as bad as the rest, archery and shooting I quite liked, and then there was AiKiDo. I was good at that, and I wanted to do it more.

I learned to use my body – it really hurt the first few weeks. My muscles got so sore. I learnt personal discipline – I had to keep going, or else, when I got back to it, it would hurt again. I learned to deal with pain – I actually had a good pain tolerance. I gained endurance, strength, self respect, self confidence and friends. I remember at a school PE class, learning gymnastics, doing a breakfall instead of a forward roll and being scolded. A good example of bad teaching. I still can’t forward roll; I still can breakfall, on concrete, at high speed.

When I came to Auckland to go to University the AiKiDo dojo just wasn’t the same. In Levin our teacher was a large NZ Euro cop with a laid back attitude and an appreciation for fun. The Uni dojo was far more Japanese in the concept of discipline, and everyone took themselves far too seriously. Around that time a friend turned up at uni with a bandaged finger. I asked him what happened and he said it had been hit with a sword. I said “Fencing?”. He said “Nope, Medieval broadsword.” As a person into fantasy roleplaying, I said “Cool! I want to try!” And got my finger mashed the first time I went, too. After that I learnt to swordfight with my left hand, so I could still write lecture notes.

I prefer the Western martial arts style of teaching. The idea is to make you a competent combatant in as short as time as possible, using little to no standard forms (since people aren’t made to one size, shape and skill set), and then take the time to fine-tune your abilities, to make you kick-ass against anyone. Your teachers earn your respect, by being demonstrably competent at fighting and teaching. It’s not highly stratified – you know when you spar against someone if you’re better of not, though some teachers do some gradings. We make jokes, gently prank people and laugh during training. Proponents of Eastern traditions would say we have no discipline, but our discipline is personal: turning up, getting our hits, and  sticking to the task at hand. The Eastern style is to demand your respect, enforce behaviour, condition your responses, grade according to a schedule and withhold the kick-ass until you have invested large chunks of your life and money into the art – the time when they think you won’t want to believe you made a bad choice, after all. Most Eastern martial arts don’t introduce you to weapons until you’re quite experienced – brown or black belt – and even then they are presented as almost sacred objects. A knife is a king-maker! Whatever. Hit the b*stard with a chair.

A Systema seminar teacher I had put it quite well. He described how he was quite good at some other art (unspecified), at high competition level, and then discovered Systema, and trained in that as well. He said his original instructors rebuked him: “Remember your priorities!” He replied “As a martial artist, my first priority is to myself!”

Something to remember about all martial arts: training is a lie. Unless people are being regularly carted out on stretchers it is not real combat, and no civilised government would allow such a fight club to legally exist. There are rules or constraints in place which mean you can engage in simulated violence with another person and not commonly get injured. There are only so many real injuries you can take before you cannot safely fight or train any more – take punch-drunk boxers, for example. Also, if your martial art has rules about how or where you can hit, and/or will only put you up against someone of the same weight, then it is a sport. It may help you in your defence, but the first time you fight someone who outweighs you by 20+kg you had better be very good, and know how to break the rules.

I’m not interested in competitions: I don’t like how people will push the limits of the rules you have both accepted to ensure your safety in their efforts to win. I train to defend myself, my community, and complete strangers against people who would do them harm. This is more than just physical harm. People also need protection against things like frauds, emotional manipulation and abuse, cybercrimes, and exploitation. Being aware of these things is as much as I can do, commonly, but I try to be informed, and use that to inform others of risk and options. If you know someone is informed and they choose to put themselves at risk anyway you have to accept that that is their right, as an adult, and stand by with the emergency services on speed dial.

Most people will accept, as paraphrased from J.S.Mill’s Liberty Principle (On Liberty), that one can act in their own defence, and the defence of others, so long as that action does not do more damage than the original offence itself. For example, one could punch a would-be mugger in the nose, but not someone who shop-lifts an apple. But many don’t understand what it means if you can’t defend yourself. The first result of this is that where there are potential victims one finds predators. If people don’t know what a threat looks like, and how to avoid or neutralise that threat, they are perfect targets. This is why, for example, young Asian ladies get their purses snatched: they carry lots of cash, they’re too small and timid to put up a fight, and they yell for help in the wrong language. It’s the fastest growing crime on Auckland streets, and people have died as a result. Predators don’t do so well when people know how to deal with them.

Most people would hope that there would be someone out there who will help them, if things go bad. Isn’t that what the Police are for? Unfortunately, the Police are seldom there at the time of the attack – they are usually left with trying to catch the attacker after the fact. And, unless you have some contract with a person (like we do with the Police) you do not have the right to expect other people to save you, and this is why:

  1. When a person steps in to defend you they put themselves at risk: people die in combat, and not all would-be defenders have any reason to believe that they can handle the situation. They just thoughtlessly react. There have been several cases in Auckland where a defender has died or gotten seriously injured trying to save someone. These people had young families, who suffered as a result. The one they defended would probably feel worse about the incident for what happened to their would-be protector, and the one attacking progresses from, in one example, a purse-snatcher to nearly manslaughter with a single push.
  2. Defenders don’t have a cut-and-dried case of self-defence, especially when they step in for another. The attacker could be seriously hurt or killed (this happens, in combat), and the then the defender will have to prove to society that they are not a dangerous, out-of-control offender themselves. Defenders are often enough arrested, charged and have to go through an expensive legal process for their defence of another.
  3. Defenders, if they are successful, also have to live with what they have done. For most normal people, hurting others is not a nice thing.
  4. Defenders can’t always rely on the “victim” to stand in their legal defence. In fact, in the case of defending someone against a “domestic” attack, the “victim” will sometimes even attack the defender themselves, because of their attachment to the attacker. Even if they don’t attack, if it happens within their own community they usually have to continue to live with the attacker’s friends, family and maybe even the attacker themselves, and if they stand as a witness against the attacker this could be very problematic. Defenders are often enough incarcerated for their defence of another without the person they defended lifting a finger to stop it, or worse, having the “victim” testify against them.

This is why I argue that learning self defence is not just a right: it’s a duty, so people do not need to take these risks for another. One does not have to be kick-ass. One just has to be aware of potential threats, and know what to do or how to get the help they need to neutralise that threat. Some examples:

  • The threat might just be ignorance. Get informed about the risks you take
  • There is a dark alley on your way home, known to be a mugging hotspot. Don’t walk down it. If you have to walk down it, don’t wear your headphones, for a start…
  • Someone has their purse stolen in front of you, and the attacker looks tougher than you. Take a picture or video on your phone and call the cops. Purses are not worth anyone’s life! (Learn to take pictures on your phone without being obvious – they can be VERY useful)
  • Take photos of everyone who turns up for a party, “for the memory”. People behave better when they can be identified
  • Learn about your help options: Women’s Refuge, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Neighbourhood Watch, immigrant help groups, friends and family…

I hope I will always have the courage to defend when I can, and the wisdom to know when I can’t, and I’ll take the risks I listed above to save a life (not a purse), but I hope this argument convinces you that you should also take some responsibility for yourself: you learn what your threats are, and how you can avoid becoming a “victim” to them, for my sake.

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