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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Harris, Thorton, and Me.

Matt Thornton, the head of the Straight Blast Gym International Organization, had an interesting response to Sam Harris's article here.

I like Mr. Thornton's writing in general, and I think a lot of what he says in his response has merit. At the same time, just as Thornton feels that Harris misses a couple of things, there are a couple of things in Thornton's own writing that didn't sit well with me. This is my attempt to think some of those things out.

1. While I understand, I think, there is something that bugs me about Thornton's automatic equation of traditional martial arts with pure fantasy, and his training with pure rationality or science. Actually, goes deeper than that.

For a variety of personal reasons,one of my big suspicious or alarm bells is often triggered when I see religious or philosophical ideas attached to martial arts training. I believe that the job of a martial arts coach is to teach, well, martial arts. Obviously, that can be a pretty broad-ranging term, and lots of stuff gets wrapped up inside it. But I think there is a point a which a coach can overstep their bounds, and when the coach starts dictating the religious or philosophical beliefs of their students, I think they have gone too far.

Please note: I have absolutely no evidence that Mr. Thornton DOES this. But reading his article as not terribly devout, but still basically practicing member of the Jewish religion, I have to wonder if I could show up at one of Mr. Thornton's courses and train without being subjected to the idea that I'm foolishly subscribing to a useless fantasy because I sometimes go Synagogue on Friday nights and don't eat one day a year to somehow make up for being a bad person (yes, I know it's not terribly logical, but I'm okay with that). Just as I would not want to attend a martial arts seminar where I was preached to about how Jesus can save my soul (and I have read about such things), I would not wish to attend training where I was told that my religion was a useless fantasy that causes all the evils of the world.

Again, for clarity. Mr. Thornton may not do any such thing, and I'm not accusing him of doing so. For all I know, his gym is filled with many religious members. I'm responding to his words, and the thoughts they triggered.

2. In his hypothetical grocery store assault, Mr. Thorton contends that the BJJ trained student will do better because under assault "her body starts reacting automatically". Human bodies don't work that way. The BJJ student's body won't do anything unless she mentally capable of thinking, moving, and accessing her skills. NOW, her experiences in training, especially if they are experiences that realistically mirror the assault, may help her mentally work through that initial moment of confusion, BUT it is not her body magically taking care of business.

3. As someone who teaches at least one system that frequently gets shoved under the RBSD brush, I feel like I need to say that not all of us are un-athletic paranoiacs. I think combat sports are awesome (I coach one, at a highly competitive school),  but just as there are differences between how one prepares for a sport BJJ match vs. an MMA match (you need to account for the presence of strikes, the lack of a gi removes or restricts certain tactics), there are elements in a self-defense curriculum that should be present that are not always addressed in sport training. That is not at all to deny that the sport training is valuable or healthy.

Of course, I also don't really like the RBSD label to begin with, so there is that.

Thoughts and feedback welcome.


Derek Simonds said...

I have started to write a comment at least 3 times and every time I delete it and think I will come back to it. I think the reason I keep deleting them is because this is more a conversation that I want to have then a comment.

Thanks for linking to and writing about the articles.

Jake said...


Comments can be a conversation, or at least part of one. :-)

Matt Thornton was actually kind enough to email me some comments, and we've had a nice little exchange. I should be able to publish some of that soon.