This comes up in the Sparring series, but I thought it was worth extracting for consideration on its own.
A word on “green lighting” and other practices:
“Green lighting” is a term that caught on around the Internet a few
years ago. It refers to the process where a more experienced, more
skilled fighter is given permission (the eponymous green light) to go
hard with a less experienced partner. Basically, it’s an instructor
giving license to an experienced student to kick someone’s ass. It is
often viewed as some sort of punitive measure that someone will teach
the less experienced partner lessons about pain or humility.
In my experience, it doesn’t really work. Certainly, it provides a
vague sense of moral satisfaction or superiority, but I’ve very rarely
seen students who get their asses kicked and return humble and kind.
More often, what they really learn is that it’s totally okay to kick
someone’s ass, because that just proves you’re more skilled than them.
Occasionally, it has the intended effect, but I honestly don’t think
it’s that productive.
Humility is toward the top of the long list of qualities that martial artists like to brag that their practice teaches. I'm dubious of that claim (as I am about a lot of the claims of martial arts, in the abstract). It's certainly possible to learn humility during martial arts training, but the sheer number of egomaniacs I've met in the last twenty-odd years of practice suggests to me that it is by no means guaranteed.
The practice of green lighting highlights part of the problem: that there is a difference between humility and humiliation.
Humility is, according to Merriam Webster, "freedom from pride or arrogance". That's an interesting formulation, actually. It suggests that being humble ("not proud or haughty : not arrogant or assertive" is an act of freedom. A choice, in other words, to put aside negative emotions in favor of a more positive, more restrained outlook.
Humiliation, by contrast, is an action designed to "to reduce (someone) to a lower position in one's own eyes or others' eyes : to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed". Humiliation, in other words, is about manipulating someone's emotion and social standing.
There's nothing about being humiliated that automatically leads to humility. In fact, I'd argue that more often, humiliation leads to resentment, anger, and hostility.
But the way most martial artists try to teach humility is through humiliation. Green lighting is the most extreme example, but I've seen plenty of instructors who publicly scorned, mocked, or otherwise berated students in an effort to "humble" them. If I'm being honest, I've probably done it myself a few times (I've certainly been involved in "green lighting" in some form on a few occasions). Rarely, I think, do those efforts work.
Whatever humility I've learned in the martial arts (I leave it to others to judge if I did), it wasn't from those public humiliations. It was just from long hours of practice, from having experiences that showed me that I wasn't as good as I thought, or that I didn't know as much as I thought. Certainly, I had training sessions that included humbling experiences, but the ones where people seemed to be outright trying to humiliate me? Those didn't help at all.
These distinctions are small, but they matter. Know what you're teaching. Know why.