Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Difference Between Teaching Women's Self Defense and Martial Arts: Part I

When we say we teach self defense people ask "What kind? Tae Kwon Do? Karate?" We always have to give them the ten cent explanation on the difference between martial arts and self defense. Since my last post was about AWSDA it's as good a time as any to bring the topic up.

What are Martial Arts?

Historians like to joke that the only trouble with the Holy Roman Empire was that it wasn't holy, it wasn't Roman and it certainly wasn't an empire. A similar problem exists with martial arts. Most can't agree on what's martial, and people are fuzzy on what they mean by art.


A lot of ink and electrons have been wasted over the years debating whether "martial" refers to "what soldiers do", Asian or pseudo-Asian traditions which employ certain tropes or something else entirely. People get incensed about whether today's mixed martial arts competitions count, whether non-combative systems like Aikido should be given a seat at the table and so on. When they hear "Taught to the Navy Seals" or "Real Street Fighting" some people's blood pressure rises. Other people's eyes glaze over.

The argument goes back thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers argued over boxing versus wrestling. Were wrestling's victories over boxing in the pankration a sign of grappling's superiority, or was wrestling just a sport because it wasn't useful on the battlefield? There has been a good double handful or articles in the Journal of the Asian Martial Arts (one of the few martial arts publications that's not a simple-minded comic book) on what exactly a martial art is. Most of them come down to some sort of single-axis continuum with purely spiritual budo on one end, then self improvement and fitness, competitive sports somewhere in the middle, self defense further on and military training at the other end. Even scholarly groups like the International Hoplology Society with its complex typologies and intricate jargon comes down to "Combat is what soldiers do. The rest of you are just wanking about. We'll let the cops in by courtesy."

Then there is "art". Usually apologists for kata that have lost their meaning or techniques that don't work against a resisting opponent will talk about how that part is the art, a form of pure esthetic self expression. The self-proclaimed artists argue that the hit 'em and choke 'em crowd are low browed Phillistines. The combatives and competitive types argue that the first sort are doing interpretive dance, not anything remotely martial. The name calling and shouting start about a minute later.

I'd like to pull back a moment and consider the terms "martial" and "art" a little more. Martial refers to Mars or Ares, the Greco-Roman deity of war and battle. He was attended by Fear and Terror and drove men to battle madness. We note that Nike, Spirit of Victory, attended Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom.

The battles and conflicts a person fights depend on his or her life.

A soldier's training reflects the war he or she is likely to fight (or at least the last war the army fought). It includes techniques and training methods that are designed for groups of mostly young physically fit soldiers to fight against other groups of more-or-less similar people to attain tactical or strategic ends that usually have nothing to do with their personal aims. Any member of the team or in fact the entire unit is expendable in pursuit of the mission. Losses in training are acceptable if the cost-benefit analysis shows that they lead to a better chance of the unit fulfilling its objectives.

In a post on his bulletin board Marty Hayes of the excellent Firearms Academy of Seattle (actually in Chehalis) has talked about his experience as a police officer. More than once he has pointed out that while soldiers often make excellent cops, police and military work are very different and require different tools and training. It's not just a matter of tweaking the rules of engagement. The jobs are fundamentally not the same.

A private citizen has different concerns. He or she doesn't normally perform arrests or get involved in artillery duels or block clearing. The conflicts tend to be one-on-one or one-on-many and are usually concerned with self defense or fights over status. Success is usually along the lines of "I'm not being chased, shot at, stabbed or punched."

All of these are battle of one sort or another. So are gladiatorial combat whether in the Roman Coliseum, the Capoeira Roda, the Octagon or the Kalari.

One of the greatest problems in these definitions is cachet or ego. There is a heirarchy with a set of practices fitting neatly into one or the other categories. And there are implicit values associated with each level. People make a great deal of exactly which warrior society or army used or uses their stuff, the fact that their system is entirely defensive and non-harmful and so on. Of course, everyone is anxious to put his or her practice at the top. Chip Armstrong draws a clear line between "professionals" and "amateurs". Others are careful to distinguish between "martial arts" and "martial sciences". These days "Reality Based Self Defense" is a very popular term, although I prefer Terry Trahan's less pretentious Weaselcraft.

I'd like to put it in perspective and say that "martial" refers to battle. Not necessarily what soldiers do, although it includes that, but individual or group interpersonal conflict. It could be military, civilian self defense, police work, agonistic (competition including sports) or ludic (play, a practice where the quality of the interaction is important).


These days when most people think of the word art the image includes sculpture, music, painting, dance. What academics call the Plastic and Performing Arts.

It's easy to forget that the term once had another meaning. Merriam-Webster puts it this way:

Pronunciation: 'ärt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French, from Latin art-, ars -- more at ARM
1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation art of making friends>
2 a : a branch of learning: (1) : one of the humanities (2) plural : LIBERAL ARTS b archaic : LEARNING, SCHOLARSHIP
3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill art of organ building>
4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced b (1) : FINE ARTS (2) : one of the fine arts (3) : a graphic art
5 a archaic : a skillful plan b : the quality or state of being artful
synonyms ART, SKILL, CUNNING, ARTIFICE, CRAFT mean the faculty of executing well what one has devised. ART implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power art of choosing the right word>. SKILL stresses technical knowledge and proficiency skill of a glassblower>. CUNNING suggests ingenuity and subtlety in devising, inventing, or executing cunning>. ARTIFICE suggests technical skill especially in imitating things in nature artifice>. CRAFT may imply expertness in workmanship craft of a master goldsmith>
Decoration and beauty are part of it. Learning and skill beyond mere technical competence are at the heart of it.

It's this sense of "art" where martial arts begins to have some meaning. There are many tasks a soldier or fighter can learn to perform. There are further levels they might reach where the skills are internalized and the practitioner goes beyond simply carrying out the functions mechanically. He or she can apply and extend them as required by the situation.

My Silat teacher, Guru Stevan Plinck, put it this way when we first started studying with him:

There are five broad stages in a martial artist's development.
  1. The Novice. Doesn't have any form or skills. Can't fight unless he already knew how
  2. The Beginner. Has form but no skill. Can't fight but thinks he can. Can get hurt trying.
  3. The Practitioner. Has form and skills. Can fight. Will be recognized as competent by other skilled people who will recognize his teacher's style.
  4. The Advanced Practitioner. Doesn't show form anymore. Still shows intention. Does what is most efficient at the moment.
  5. The Master. Form has completely dissolved away. No intention. The skill is an inseperable part. Confuses and amazes the hell out of everyone who isn't at his level.
Somewhere around the later parts of stage three Art in the older sense begins to creep in.

Martial Arts

So where have we gotten? Martial Art in the sense I'm talking about is great skill in things related to conflict between people. A particular curriculum and set of training methods can be a vehicle for achieving art if the practitioner is skilled and motivated enough.

I'm not so attached to "affective vs. effective", jutsu/do, military training/civilian self defense or any of the others. The biologist's way of looking at things seems more natural. Come up with classifications or categories that are useful for answering the questions you want to ask. Apply them as appropriate and don't insist on them where they aren't. Don't get too attached to them or apply them beyond their scope.

Judo and Tae Kwon Do are Olympic sports. One is a form of belt and jacket wrestling. The other is a type of foot and fist boxing. But they are also taught to soldiers as part of military training and police as aspects of defensive tactics. They are not terribly useful on a modern high-tech battlefield, but they promote physical fitness and aggression. Tae Kwon Do was explicitly created as a symbol of nationalism and Korean identity. So what are they? Martial arts? Martial sports? Military science? Obsolete combatives? Police defensive skills?

Perhaps the correct question isn't "Is this a sport, a martial art, a method of self improvement, police work or military training?" Better ones might be "What are the characteristics of this set of skills and teaching methods? What are they being used for in this case? How well do they accomplish that task?"

In Part II we will take a look at self defense and what most people think of as martial arts and how the two relate to each other.

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