The problems of Self Protection & Self Defence

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In my last blog post, terms and terminology, I drew a distinction between self defence, as the physical aspect of using force to protect yourself or others, and self protection; the broader umbrella comprising the more important aspects of crime prevention through personal safety awareness, avoidance, deterrence, threat negation (running away, de-escalation through language and body language), physical control (where necessary and appropriate) and finally self defence.

The observation was that what a lot of people actually need is self protection, but people don’t look for what they don’t know they need, so they search for self defence rather than personal safety training or self protection. As most martial arts clubs advertise themselves as teaching self defence, and only deliver physical training, is the end result that most people who start training with a martial arts club don’t really get what they need? Rather than improving their ability to avoid or deescalate situations they end up with fighting skills of varying quality and efficacy? Does this make people less safe?

Well, yes and no, for various reasons.

At risk of generalising, what most people joining martial arts clubs actually need is not the ability to avoid or escape violence, it’s better physical (and mental) health. From that perspective the fact that the vast majority of clubs are offering little more than aerobic activity that gives a safe outlet for aggression and has the potential to improve balance, flexibility and coordination is not necessarily an issue.

A second factor that we need to consider is that the need for personal safety skills does vary widely. The rougher the neighbourhood in which you work / live or traverse the more likely it is that you require such skills. At the same time though, those who have grown up in such environments are less likely to require any formal training as these are likely to have come with the territory. It is those who have had the benefit of living or growing up in non-violent environments who find themselves coming into social encounters (or environments) where violence is normalised that have a greater need of advice.

The element of training from which most people could benefit, regardless of background, is in their communication skills to de-escalate aggression; the verbal element of conflict management. This is not likely something that you will find in a martial arts class and is a topic that a lot of ‘specialist’ self defence providers ignore completely. It is however a limited skill set in some regards. It is limited because in the cases where good practise works, the situation would most likely have been resolved verbally with no training, and in situations where it does not, violence was probably unavoidable. It can make a significant difference in a very small number of instances, and given that it is awkward and time consuming to practice, and the odds on being in situations where it would benefit are so low, it is not surprising that it is often omitted. But improving communication skills can have benefits to so many areas of life that the ‘minority effect’ in Conflict Management may simply be a bonus.

The same ‘limited relevance’ could be said for training in the conflict management aspect of control and compliance techniques. Sometimes you may want to control or detain a person, or reduce the risk of harm to them, others, or yourself. But what are used are predominantly compliance techniques, often pain compliance techniques, and they do come with risks (positional asphyxiation in many holds for the person being held, vulnerability to external attack for the person holding). If the person is non compliant to the pain then one person is not going to be able to hold them in the majority of cases. While many ‘holds’ can become ‘breaks’ or ‘tears’ in the instance of non compliance, that can actually escalate the later consequences of the altercation for both holder and held. Controls are useful skills that have a time, a place, and a context.

Are the fighting skills taught by so many martial arts clubs a problem because they mean people associate conflict resolution with fighting and are more likely to resort to violence in situations that might otherwise have been resolved? I would argue that the association is not so much the problem of the martial arts as the external perception that conflict can (or should) be resolved by consensual shows of force or premeditated revenge rather than dialogue. I would also argue that those who take such a creed are likely to be the problem causers rather than the ones seeking training for self defence, and those who look to violence to resolve disputes are more likely to do so because of its social acceptability in their upbringing rather than as a result of the ethos of any martial arts club or any movie culture. While there is an argument that you can only use the tools in your toolbox, the martial arts do not have a monopoly on the tools of common sense, courtesy or self discipline.

Is the teaching of fighting skills as self defence a problem? Isn’t self defence a legal construct rather than fighting skills? Well yes and no. Self defence isn’t a fixed item. What qualifies as self defence varies according to circumstances and a person’s perception of them, and of course from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It’s therefore not easy to say that this part of this system is self defence while this part is not, it’s not always that clear cut. There are some fighting skills I’ve seen taught that cannot be self defence because they are designed to maim or kill a person when they are no longer in a position where anyone could reasonably claim that they believed they still had the potential to do harm. Teaching those techniques and leading students to believe that they are self defence is a problem, and it is one that is prevalent in the RBSD community as well as in Traditional Martial Arts. Teaching people ‘fighting’ techniques that are quite simply fantastical in the context of application in non-consensual violence is also an issue that is prevalent in both RBSD and TMA.

Ultimately the problem with the martial arts (and the self defence community as a whole) is an underlying lack of knowledge amongst many of its instructors at all levels and across multiple disciplines. I can remember a number of years ago a few people I knew being blown away by the content of a newly released book on self protection. I was very surprised at the time because while it was (and remains) an exceptionally good text, its contents were not new (to the market) and these were people I regarded as fairly knowledgeable. There were already a number of great well-researched books on the subject out there, many of which covered some areas in a superior fashion. I’ve seen similar reactions from people on their first experience of training with a different coach. The point perhaps being that if you are in a dark room any fresh light will catch your eye and make a big impact, but if the room is already filled with lights a new one is less noticeable.

The onus is on martial arts instructors to fill their rooms with light by exposing themselves to information from multiple sources (books, videos, blogs, articles, personal research and seminars) so that they are in a position to give good advice or make reading recommendations to supplement their students’ physical training, and of course are themselves informed enough to construct appropriate physical training. There is a tendency within the martial arts community to mock people who talk more than train, and of course training is important, but our training has more value when supported by good reading habits, sound research, and information exchanging conversations.

Personal experience is not enough. Whether you have been unfortunate enough to have involvement in one or two altercations, or whether through professional employment you have had to participate in hundreds of violent incidents, your experience is always limited by your personal perspective and the context in which those events took place – especially if it was a professional context. Every instructor should take the opportunity to engage in research and take on board the experiences of hundreds of other people.

How do we get to a point where more people are offering good advice and training? The books are out there, the blogs are out there, the videos are out there, and there are some top-notch instructors delivering appropriate physical training underpinned by that information. The more in depth material isn’t shared all that often because people seem to prefer to share gifs and short clips of fights or cool or fantastical technique clips. The chicken nuggets ‘sell’ whereas the more nutritional, longer prepared, tastier high quality meals get ignored. The onus is on each of us to share more of the articles and the longer video clips that are out there, to try and get people more accustomed to focusing on detailed information rather than thirty-second clips. Dumbing down to reach the lowest common denominator has not raised the overall standard, and it never will. It’s time to make a conscious decision to raise the bar.

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