Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Argumentative Martial Artists

Been quiet on the southeast Asian front of late, thank goodness, and this is not an attempt to fan any fire from the embers, but to address something I got an email about:

Amongst martial artists, arguments about any and all things connected to the subject happen almost as often as anybody talks about it.

Why, my correspondent wondered, is that?

Well. There's a can of worms. Let me lift the lid just a hair ...

It's not just in silat, though we certainly have more than our share of disagreements, but pretty much across the board. Speak publicly of something you do, and a student of another art -- or a branch of your own -- will step up tell you how they do it differently. Which is okay -- until they get to the part about how their version/their teacher/they are all way better than your version/your teacher/you.

I've thought about this, and here's what I think:

Partly, this is due to the natural tendency to think that what you've spent so much time and energy studying is worthwhile, and this bespeaks an honest wish to share your belief. Like a reformed smoker, somebody on a diet, or someone who has found God, you truly want to get the good word out. Paving the road to hell and all, but the intentions aren't bad.

Partly, it's because folks who get into martial arts are contentious, else they'd be spending their time doing something else instead of trying to figure out the best way to beat people to pulp.

In an activity where the goal is to be the last man standing -- or last woman -- when push comes to shove, one wants to believe that what one is studying will do the trick. If somebody comes to your house and allows that what you are studying is a bullshit waste of time and energy, you can see how this might lead to a disagreement. You'd think anybody who had the brains God gave a rutabaga would see how this might be offensive, but somehow they don't. Blinded by their own light.

This often arises from the One-True-Path™ approach -- and one can sum that up thusly: If I'm on the road and you aren't on the same one? Then yours must be wrong, 'cause mine ain't.

One of the problems is that like life in general, there are always a large number of insecure, overly-egotistical, and obnoxious folk in the arts, and a lot of them develop the One-True-Path™ mindset. Like religious fanatics, you can't talk reasonably to them. (I've learned this the hard way myself.)

Yet another problem: Even people with real skills will sometimes pad their resum├ęs; or worse, just offer out-and-out cut-from-whole-fantasy bullshit. If you see this, it makes what they say hard to take seriously. If one gets one's Ph.D from the prestigious Plain Brown Wrapper Mail Order University for $19.95, the credential might not have the same cachet as one that takes six years of study from, say, Eton.

I was once at a rock festival when the founder of a certain universal-life church got up on stage and, with a wave of his hand, ordained the whole crowd as ministers. I didn't figure that gave me leave to start calling myself Reverend Perry and performing marriages and such.

When the TV series Kung-fu became popular, it was amazing the number of schools that'd had "karate" signs in front of them somehow morphed into kung-fu schools overnight.

When ninjas got hot, teachers magically appeared. (Of course they would; they were ninjas.)

When grappling started winning in the ring, a lot of stand-up-only arts suddenly remembered they actually had some grappling, stashed behind that old suitcase down in the basement. Dust it off, and look! as good as ju jutsu!

I'm good with the idea of stealing stuff from other arts. It is a time-honored and perfectly valid concept. That's how you deal with tricks you maybe didn't think much about before. In the end, the good stuff is all mixed-martial arts; everybody borrows from everybody else. What makes it different is how your system puts it together, the principles you use.

But there is always a supply of smoke, mirrors, and bovine feces around, of which some folks feel compelled to avail themselves. And when you see and hear it, sometimes you feel just as compelled to call them on it.

So my advice to my correspondent was simple this: Take anything anybody tells you -- including me -- with a grain of salt.

If you hear something that sounds hinky, poke around and check it out. We live in the information age, if you hunt for it long enough, you can find all kinds of information.

Bear in mind that most older martial arts come from an oral tradition, and the history there is sometimes less than precise. (Ever notice in the genesis stories how the founder of the art, once he came up with the new system, was always unbeatable? Obviously these founders must not have run into each other, or if they did, always fought to a draw ...)

And when you get right down to it, the history isn't that important anyhow. What somebody did in the old country two hundred years ago probably isn't relevant to the guy trying to break your nose next Friday at at bank's ATM. You probably won't stop them with a history lesson:

"Wait! Before you strike, consider what Master Chan said about the mantis and the tiger!"

"Oh. Wow. Right. You know, when you put it like that, the error of my ways becomes manifest! Sorry, dude."

And try not to take it too seriously or personally when somebody starts blowing smoke. I confess that I have spent too many hours getting het up about this, and it is rather like trying to teach a pig to sing: It only wastes your time, and it annoys the pig ...

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