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Friday, May 18, 2012

People, Times, Places, and Functionality

This is a thought process that has been a long time in the works. I'm hoping I can translate effectively into paper (you know what I mean). As with some other past speculations, this is well, speculation. I don't necessarily have lots of research to confirm it (some, but not lots).

You can see some of where these thoughts started to develop in these two posts:

Role of Context

Wild Speculation

There's a bunch of other influences on this process. Talks with Tony Blauer, Wes Tasker, Rory Miller, and a bunch of other people as well. I can't  entirely track when this idea popped into my head, but here it goes.

Every martial art (for today's purposes, I'm just lumping all fighting systems under that category, it's easier) is created by a particular group of people in a particular social, cultural, and historical context for use by those people in that context.

That simple truth is probably not a shock to anyone. The origins of most martial arts are generally well-known, though most get a fair bit of folk legend mixed in with their history (leading to flying kicks dismounting horsemen and other weirdness). Indeed, the origins of many martial arts are transformed into marketing ploys for the modern world; Karate practitioners remind us that their art was developed so that innocent civilians could protect themselves, while fans of the WWII Combatives movement tell us that their art was designed to be effective in the shortest period of time possible, so that our boys could go fight Nazi's (because everyone hates Nazi's).


I think the ramifications of that simple truth are way, way, larger than anyone has really appreciated. Well, maybe not anyone, but a lot of people.

If every martial art is created by a particular group of people in a particular social, cultural, and historical context for use by those people in that context, then the further removed from the original people and context for which a martial art was created, the more the effectiveness of that martial art will diminish.


Because all of that social, cultural, and historical context carries with it a boatload of assumptions, and when you move out of those contexts, those assumptions cease to hold true. Which means that skills, knowledge, or abilities that could be reasonably assumed by the creators of the original fighting system don't exist in the modern practitioner. This is one of the problems I was getting at in my Wild Speculation post (above).

You can see this on small scale with the evolution of "Dutch Style" Muay Thai. For those who aren't familiar--the Dutch have probably produced the greatest crop of Muay Thai fighters outside of Thailand. They are extraordinarily successful, but the way the Dutch fight Muay Thai is very distinctive from the way the Thai fight Muay Thai. When the Dutch first took up Muay Thai, they very quickly realized that they could beat the Thai at their own game. Native Thai fighters started training at a much younger age, had much more time in training, and were to a man training full-time. Playing catch up wouldn't work.

In order to make Muay Thai work for them, the Dutch changed it; they added skills garnered from European boxing. They stole training methods from Kyokushin Karate, which suited their cultural milieu better. And it worked. But training the way the Thai do, in Thailand? Never could translate to a Western country.

Let's take this out to a larger scale though. This a bit of a thought experiment, but I think it illustrates the issue at hand.

Let's say you have a fighting system developed for a Medieval European Knight. The marketing logic would sell it to us like this:

This system was designed for use on the bloody battlefields of medieval Europe! When faced with certain death, the Knight had no choice but to turn to these brutally effective methods to survive. Now, you can use those same battle-tested methods to protect yourself against violence!

Sounds...well, okay, it sounds STUPID, but it sounds like pretty accurate martial arts advertising copy, I think.


If every martial art is created by a particular group of people in a particular social, cultural, and historical context for use by those people in that context, then the further removed from the original people and context for which a martial art was created, the more the effectiveness of that martial art will diminish.

In this particular case, that group of people is a warrior caste that is part of a feudal hierarchy. That means a few things. First, that group of people is exclusively male. Yes, I know, Joan of Arc, but she and the few others like her are exceptions that prove the rule. This system will assume that you are male.

Further, it will assume that you are a male who has been raised and trained from birth to be a warrior. That means that your training in this system would have begun when you were a child, maybe as young as five.

Think about what that means for your timeline in training.

I've met people who will tell you that it takes about ten years to get really solid with their particular fighting system. A ten year time frame seems insane to most of us in the modern world, but move it back into this context, and that makes perfect sense. Start the kid when he's five, by the time he's fifteen, he's ready to take his place on the battlefield. There's no disconnect. No lag time. He's effective at the moment he needs to be.

Think about the kind of men that practiced these arts. They didn't sit at a desk eight hours a day, and then get down to the gym for three hours a week to get their training in. These guys were professional warriors. They started training from birth, and they trained for hours every day. Their physical fitness was beyond that of most modern humans, except perhaps of modern professional athletes (who are also paid to train for hours on end...)

Those training methods that say "spend 100 hours doing this" sound long to the guy who trains three hours a week. A three hours a week, you could spend the better part of a year racking up those 100 hours. Imagine if you trained 4-5 hours a DAY. You'd rack up 100 hours of training inside of a month.

The level of physical activity that these men experienced was far in excess of that of most modern day people. Do you think that had an effect on their ability to fight?

Do you think that growing up knowing that your only role in life was to be a killing machine would affect your mindset and views towards violence?

So is it really any surprise that if you take a system that was meant for a young, fit, male warrior who was trained from birth to be the greatest warrior he could be, and teach it to a slightly overweight desk jockey whose last fight was in the seventh grade when Jenny in row C gave him a bloody nose that the the desk jockey can't make it work? That the system falls apart?

The system isn't failing because the system sucks. The system is failing because it's being run on a platform it was never meant to run on. It would be as if I tried to install Firefox on the Apple IIC I had as a child. It wouldn't work.

For the record, I'm not picking on the HEMA (Historical European Martial Art) folks. The Medieval Knight just happens to provide a really great example of how far divorced from our own culture the original practitioners of the art were.

Also, for the record, yes, I'm sure that there are people in every art on the planet who are capable of throwing down. That's not my dispute. And yes, I'd love to see those arts preserved. I'm an amateur historian. I love this stuff. Keep it. Preserve it.

But I do think that this is the reason why people keep finding that certain arts "don't work." It's not that the training methodologies are necessarily flawed (though they may be), but that the arts have gotten so far removed from the original context that the people practicing them are missing assumed skills and abilities that were never added to a training program because "everyone" knew them.

We as martial arts keep trying to shuffle around martial arts as though they are disconnected sets of movements that have nothing to do with the times, places, and people who created them, and I just don't think that makes sense. It weakens the structure, and is responsible for a lot of the "failures" of modern martial arts.

At least, that seems reasonable to me.


Neil Bednar said...

Fantastic post Jake. I can think of a hundred people that need to read it.

Rory said...

Have I told you lately how much I like the way you think?

Jake said...

Neil, share away! I'm glad you like it.


Aww...flattery will get you everywhere :-)

Maija said...

Nice post :-) Here's some extra stuff I've been thinking on too that would be interesting to get your thought on.

Of course, as you say, context is key - who? why? when? where?
Could also add -
Are you on your own? With others? Purpose? Built in odds of survival? (I have this theory that many battlefield arts seem less concerned with survival of the individual for instance).
But ... and here I think is where it gets a bit more complex for me, the greatest determinant in choosing a method to learn, is your own purpose, and how fast you need to get there.
I think the point you are making is the blatant disconnect between what people think they have, compared with what they actually do ... and then how they sell that to others, and I absolutely agree with that. Also in the matter of efficiency, straight self defense against the way modern criminals think and act is the fastest way to learn how to protect yourself for sure, no doubt there.
But ... Here's the thing I want to add. The only common denominator through the centuries of violence and martial arts is that there is still a human being (at least one) involved, and looking at context and method can give you great understanding IF you can put both together, about how they behave, about physics, physiology, psychology, weapon design, limitations and thus how to adapt. For instance, you use the example of the Thais vs the Dutch. Understanding the Thai game and the context it grew from, gave the Dutch something to compare and contrast, and thus a way to beat it from where they themselves stood.
I also think that if you look back through history to Sun Tzu and beyond, the underlying thinking beneath methods of defense, when you start looking at psychology or strategy, is still pretty constant.
So I guess my point is, that understanding the evolution of method, and strategic thinking THROUGH context gives us a much better ability to keep adapting into the future, instead of only solving the problem that is infront of us now.
An example - If my movement and how I fight is dependent on the design of the sword I hold in my hand, and you can be sure that it is, then understanding how weapon design relates to context (armor, environment, materials, type of adversary, targets, self/group protection) helps me to understand about weapons in general, and might help me design something better for MY context now, or in the future.
So, that's my trip I guess, trying to understand what IS constant through context, what changes, and why.

Jake said...


Good thoughts all around.

There are a lot of other considerations you can look at with context, including the ones you mention. The question of survivability on the battlefield is an interesting one--I'm not nearly familiar enough with enough battlefield systems to comment intelligently on that, but I could see how training for that environment might promote a "needs of the many" kind of mentality to training.

Part of what I'm getting at is, as you say: people train the wrong things for the wrong reasons. A lot of martial artists I see do the equivalent of running marathons to try to build up their leg muscles. Sometimes it's inefficient, and sometimes it's outright stupid.

But the other part I'm trying to get at is that I think a lot of people don't think deeply enough about context and what it really means.

For example: my understanding (you likely know more on this subject than I do) is that part of the reason that the Filipino systems tend to place such a huge emphasis on bladework is that they were developed in a culture where everyone carries a blade, and uses it from the time they are very young, to do just about everything. I vaguely recall reading someone describing it as being a multi-tool for many Filipinos.

Using a tool like that on a daily basis is going to produce a level of skill, comfort, and physical adaptation that a modern desk jockey just isn't going to emulate. It'd be as though we could weaponize iPhones.

I'm not saying people can't get good at the FMA (duh), but I think there's little details and assumptions like that which are so ingrained in the arts that everyone forgets them, but which make a really huge difference.

I agree completely that there are certain common denominators in movement, strategy, tactics, and even philosophy that seem to carry across context. As you say, some of this is just biomechanics. All human beings move like human beings. That's unlikely to change.

Understanding what stays constant, what changes, and why is a really fascinating question. Sounds like a worthy trip :-).

My own mission lately as been trying to get people to really THINK about what the hell they're doing. The number of people I've met who have left the martial arts because they started out completely wrong staggers me. I think it's the cause of the "high turnover" that so many people talk about.

Cool thoughts!

Maija said...

I might have to write a blog post to continue these ideas further ... as the conversation has brought up some things I have wondered about and have yet to resolve, as to the usefulness of 'indirect learning' vs 'direct learning' (where you have a problem and solve it in as straight a line as possible).
Just a quick thought about the FMA stuff though ... the people there might be a blade carrying culture, and therefore it makes sense to use the tool you carry as a weapon of self defense, in fact my teacher told me I should invent a system for one of my painting tools as I carry one most days, BUT, to say that that means a desk jockey would be less able to learn how to use one against attack by another human being, may or may not be true.
You might have to teach a newbie how blades cut (cut angle and blade angle must be the same for instance), or how to sharpen it and use it without hurting yourself ... but self defense with a blade is a whole thing unto itself that relies on the teacher as the giver of context, and the reality of an OPPONENT, rather than a cane of sugar or some firewood to dictate the tactics and method to use said tool for it's purpose. Given that, how much does the background of the student really matter if, IF the teacher can really teach? (And the student is not squeamish etc etc)
Also .... if you really wanted to compare tools in different contexts, you can't 'weaponize' the iphone in the same way that a sword is a weapon ... but maybe you can, if you start to think of it as an E and E, or de-escalation device.
But ... what it is you learn about people when you play swords with them, as opposed to filming them or calling 911 on your phone? THAT'S the part that is different ... and that's where what I meant by 'indirect learning' comes in.

Jake said...


More of your blog posts are always cool :-)

I'm not suggesting that you can't teach a desk jockey to be an effective FMA practitioner (or whatever). If that were the case, there'd be no FMA people outside of the Philippines.

I think a good teacher can make a student learn regardless of their background. But that circles right back to my point--the teacher has to recognize that there are assumed skills or abilities that their system requires, but that the student doesn't have, and teach them accordingly.

A good teacher can do that.

RE: The iPhone. I know it's a terrible example, I just couldn't think of any other tool that is as prevalent in our culture as the knife is in Filipino culture. It's an awful analogy, I just haven't come up with a better one.

Definitely interested in your thoughts on direct or indirect learning.

A lot of this comes back to goals for me. What are you as a teacher or student trying to accomplish? Is there a rationale for why you're doing what you're doing, and does that rationale actually line up with your training. There's nothing wrong with taking an "inefficient" path, if you're doing it on purpose.

Maija said...

Yes, 'A good teacher'. That's the point .. and like you say having in idea of the limitations, or perhaps 'edges' of what you are learning ..
But here's the thing, I don't know if the edges are as defined as we think they are. They can be, but if your POV can create a new way of thinking about something, a way to get out of a dead end and ask a new question you hadn't seen before .. then perhaps the edges begin to blur a little.
From my own experience, sword dueling (in the style that I learned it) gave me all kinds of insights into human behavior I never dreamed of ... but mostly because of the METHOD more than the thing itself (though that too has relevance).
Even you iPhone example, though seemingly an incongruous pair to a Bolo, IS useful if you think of the lesson as asking yourself "What am I carrying, and how can it help me to get away safe"? As opposed to thinking of it as an absence of weapon, or perhaps not even thinking about what you have in your possession that can up your odds in the first place, because you don't see certain things as tools ....