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Friday, May 8, 2009

Martial Mythologies: Character Development




Recently, a group of instructors from a school near Sityodtong were arrested for beating up a two men outside of a restaurant in Revere. The full details are here.

I want to lead in by saying this: I don't actually know what happened. I only know what was reported in the papers. It is entirely possible that the instructors in question are not the bad guys in this, and that they may have had a perfectly legal, moral, and ethical reason for their actions. That is not, however, how the paper presents the case, nor do I think I'd be alone in my interpretation.

That having been said, this story bothered me on a number of levels. The first being that of a basically decent human being, because really, people beating up other people is not cool (unless it's for sport, in which case, everyone involved has agreed that this is a fun way to spend a Saturday night, or whatever). On a basic level, this incident is just as troubling as if it had been three untrained guys who gave another man permanent brain damage. Which is to say, very.

As a combat athlete, Muay Thai coach, and violence prevention coach, however, this story impacted my thoughts in ways that the average "bar beating" story might not. Partly because it affects me more closely, and partly because it got me thinking about some more myths about the "martial arts".

Right or wrong, this incident will clearly hurt the reputation of the school in question. It also, by extension, will hurt every other combat sport and martial arts club in the area. It is not difficult for me to imagine a parent who, about to bring their child to Sityodtong to check out our children's Muay Thai program, reading this article and seeing that three "black belt Muay Thai instructors" beat up some guy outside the bar, and deciding that maybe that's not the kind of culture they want their child exposed to. And who would blame them?

Even an adult, considering trying out combat sport for the first time, might read that and think "man...I don't want to train with a bunch of thugs. I'll stick with the cardio-kickboxing classes at the gym." (For the record, I really, really, dislike cardio-kickboxing, but I'll save that rant for another day.)

All of which brings me to the larger problem that this article got me thinking about: the myth of martial arts training as "character development".

Look at many advertisements for martial arts programs (particularly those oriented at children), and you'll often see that, along with improved strength and flexibility, words like "discipline" and "character", or some similar sorts of things. It all sounds very nice, which is no doubt, the idea, but in the end, I think it's all highly questionable. By highly, I mean, entirely.

It really comes down to this; activities don't teach anything. Teachers teach.

The martial arts by themselves are just a physical activity. When you get down to it, it's really not any different than playing baseball, football, basketball, or any other sport. Okay, yes, you deliberately hit people (though that's true in football), and it's a solo sport (like track). And yes, there are centuries of history behind some of it (though really, lacrosse is older than most "karate" styles out there). But if you get down to the core of it, the martial arts are a physical activity that, at least at their root, have the goal of teaching you how to hurt another human being rather badly. Which, while it has it's place, is not necessarily designed to make you a "good person". In fact, it's rather unclear to me how practicing punching someone in the face makes you a good person.

Okay, I'm being somewhat facetious here: I've had plenty of martial arts instructors and coaches who were good, decent human beings. From them, I learned to respect my teachers and my peers, and that there are times when punching someone in the face is okay, and times when it's not. Of course, my parents taught me many of the same lessons, so there was some reinforcement on the home front. But I know people for whom the martial arts did serve as a path for self-improvement and personal development.

I also spent four years training with a man who was a liar, an adulterer, a borderline alcoholic, and a fraud. A man who was borderline physically abusive to his students. He was not an isolated example. For every tale of the wise, Mr. Miyagi-like martial arts instructor, there are an equal number of tales like mine. Some have used the martial arts to create full-fledged cults. How much "character development" did the leaders of Chung Moo Do do? How much could they teach?

Character is something individual people have, or learn. it is not something that is magically created out of an activity, physical or mental. You can do martial arts and through it, learn to be a better human being. Or you can be an asshole when you start, and still be an asshole twenty-years later (but you might be a better trained asshole).

Can character be taught? Perhaps. It's kind of hard to tell, because character is not something that can be quantitatively, or even qualitatively measured.

Are there good instructors and bad instructors? Hell yes.

Does all of this mean that coaches and martial arts instructors have no obligation to talk to their students about the appropriate use of force? Of course not--as coaches, it is our obligation to make sure our students know when it is appropriate to use physical violence, and when it isn't. The flip side, however, is that ultimately, each individual person has to make that choice on their own.

If you are a parent reading this: don't put your child into the martial arts and expect them to become a better human being. If you want them to learn respect, teach them. If you want them to learn discipline, teach them. Don't rely on a karate sensei any more than you would rely on a football coach to teach your child proper values. If you are an adult, this is doubly true. Don't look to your instructor to form your values; form your own values, and find an instructor who matches up with them.

Tony Blauer has a fantastic expression: Character is what you do when no one else is watching. If you need some guidelines for character development, start with that, and skip the martial arts lessons.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Jake- on the one hand I definitely agree, most instructors don't teach (or better yet discuss) morals, just punching or dropping people on their heads.

Only once did an instructor say something to the effect of, "be wary in the streets; you guys have far better conditioning and fighting skill then 99% of the people out there. I need you on the mats, not in jail."

Now I tell my students the best martial art is track & field.