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michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture
Critics and Karate

This is one of my favorite articles by Jamie Clubb: http://www.clubbchimera.com/content/martial-arts-scepticism-taking-it-chin-and-listening-fools

Do you feel that someone can vest so much into karate that their objective viewpoint is lost, hence the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and self-deception is no longer present?

I do, I'm curious about the rest of you.

Thanks, Mike R

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Yes, and I think almost everyone is guilty of this to some degree.

Of course some more than others, but I think it's misleading maybe to see this as something that is just done by individuals, it's a natural tendency in training, especially since we (most of us anyway) do not have to regularly go out and truly 'test' what we know. It's  a reason to always be vigilant and as objective as possible in our own training.

ON the other hand, I have also found this claim of direct application of the scientifc method a little questionable, there is so much that is subjective in martial arts training, it's a stretch to claim that many people are truly sticking to the scientific method..a large part of MA training is based on subjective criteria..by it's very nature, if the same things don't always work for the same people, it's harder to draw definite conclusions as opposed to general tendencies. Alot of martial arts training really is informed by "well it worked for me"..for better or worse.

Personally I just try to avoid to Zealots in all walks of life, as long our attitudes and heart are open but with a healthy does of skepticism, I think we are fine.

I thoroughly enjoyed the article, it made alot of very good points. Sometimes though, I find myself wondering whether martial artists can question themselves too much.  In the end, what we do is a voluntary activity, in the end we don't owe explanations of the reality, efficacy, or ethics of what we do to anyone but ourselves...unless we of course we end breaking the law or something!

The Penn and Teller episode was stupid IMO, it was a typical example of media spectacle over substance, no need to analyze it further.

Here's a related question that the article brought me to pondering:

What exactly is objectivity in martial arts training? All of our training carries with it certain assumptions, we only train (usually) against and with a very small number of people, and the vast majority of martial artists get no closer to violence than the average joe. under those circumstances, how exactly is anything anyone does in a dojo based on some sort empirical evidence or method of deduction? It seems to me a whole lot of stuff is simply personal experience and (hopefully informed) opinion no matter how you cut it. The best you can do is listen very closely to people who have "been there", and even then..who do you listen to, doormen, LEO's, thugs?

Nomad
Nomad's picture

Excellent article.  

I think that most karate (or other martial art practitioners, for that matter) lose their objectivity somewhere along the way, and that many systems encourage this by the "sensei is always right (even when he's not)" atmosphere that pervades dojos.  Fortunately, many practitioners do regain at least some objectivity sometime later; others of course, never will and continue to practice self-deception and promote fiction over truth (aka drinking the group cool-aid).  

Personally, I believe there's a tremendous amount we can learn from other martial artists and other martial arts and I know that I don't have the answers (but I think  I can ask some interesting questions).  One of the mantras of Japanese martial arts is "having an empty cup", yet examples abound of martial artists, including those at the absolute highest ranks, who filled their cup long ago and have no need to seek out any other truths.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

michael rosenbaum wrote:
Do you feel that someone can vest so much into karate that their objective viewpoint is lost, hence the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and self-deception is no longer present?

Absolutely. That’s why I feel it is important to make questioning and testing a fundamental part of the process. If a technique is truly valid, we can test it to see if it works, how much power it generates etc. If an idea is valid, we can submit it to scrutiny. If an historical view is valid, we can see if the evidence supports it or contradicts it.

The problems happen when techniques are regarded as perfect and beyond testing; When the ideas of an esteemed person are treated like divine revelation that should never be questioned; When popular and convenient myth is deemed superior to unpopular and incontinent truth; etc.

We all are invested in what we do, but if we truly value it we should ensure that we keep a healthy scepticism so we don’t lose our way.

All the best,

Iain

michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture

Iain,

One of the main reasons I posted this is because in almost all full-contact sports/forms of fighting there is regular feedback as to what works and what doesn't. In MMA it's pretty evident, pretty fast what will and what won't work. Head high sidekick follwed by a backfist...nope. Right cross, or a blitz follwed by a take down. Yes. The same applies to Judo, boxing, kick-boxing and wrestling. However, within traditional karate much of the feedback is based upon theory.  Unless of course your instructor has worked a door, or done their homework and refuses to get bound up in ahem "the traditional myths."  I find this very interesting, especially today when self-defense,  is such a buz word within the karate community.

Mike

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

michael rosenbaum wrote:
One of the main reasons I posted this is because in almost all full-contact sports/forms of fighting there is regular feedback as to what works and what doesn't … However, within traditional karate much of the feedback is based upon theory.

I agree completely. I think that’s a key point that is often karate’s biggest failing. The systems you mentioned do not suffer from “dogma” in the way that karate can because they test things as a mater of course. You rarely hear Judoka (for example) arguing theory because the amount of time spent on their feet or airborne puts things beyond debate. The solution, as I see it, is for karateka to test things too. From a self-defence perspective we can create drills that test the skills needed. This live drilling and testing is needed so experience is gained, right habits are ingrained, and to help determine which theories survive testing and are hence valid.

In my “Karate's Three Biggest Mistakes” article this was the second of those mistakes:

http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/karates-three-bigest-mistakes

Extract from Karates Three Biggest Mistakes wrote:
A punch is fundamentally designed to damage other human beings so that they can no longer function. A punch should therefore be judged by the success criteria of its ability to incapacitate. We should train our punches with that goal in mind such that our training increases the ability of our punches to incapacitate. A punch should be deemed “good” if it can damage people.

However, in karate these days we rarely use this functional success criteria and instead have introduced artificial success criteria such as what a punch looks like or how closely it conforms to the arbitrary dictates of a given “style”. We therefore don’t train for powerful punches that can damage others, we train to produce punches that look nice and tick all the boxes of our style. These artificial criteria tend to take precedence and hence we no longer measure by effect.

I totally agree with your original post that people can get so invested in what they do that the lose objectivity. The great thing about testing and measuring by effect is that objectivity can’t be avoided. For example, if people think that the timing and distancing exhibited in common or garden one-step training is practical they should test it in live drills. It’s impossible to hold onto such beliefs when you do as the testing makes it clear such training is not functional. Without the testing theory can reign supreme (as you pointed out in your post) and all objectivity can be lost.

All the best,

Iain

Nomad
Nomad's picture

I was reading this article no more than an hour ago, and was struck by how beautifully it described different types of martial artists; the idealogues and the engineers.

Quote:
Reform-minded intellectuals found the low-on-facts, high-on-ideas diet well suited to formulating the socially prescriptive systems that came to be called ideologies. The beauty of being an ideologue was (and is) that the real world with all its imperfections could be criticized by comparing it, not to what had actually happened or is happening, but to one’s utopian visions of future perfection. As perfection exists neither in human society nor anywhere else in the material universe, the ideologues were obliged to settle into postures of sustained indignation. “Blind resentment of things as they were was thereby given principle, reason, and eschatological force, and directed to definite political goals,” as the sociologist Daniel Bell observed.

While the intellectuals were busy with all that, the world’s scientists and engineers took a very different path. They judged ideas (“hypotheses”) not by their brilliance but by whether they survived experimental tests. Hypotheses that failed such tests were eventually discarded, no matter how wonderful they might have seemed to be. In this, the careers of scientists and engineers resemble those of batters in major-league baseball: Everybody fails most of the time; the great ones fail a little less often.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Guys, I agree with the idea that there is too much dogma in Karate and other TMA for sure.

I would like to point out though, there is 'dogma' also in combat sports, it tends to be far less ridiculous than in TMA, but it is there. As a random example? For many years snap kicks were derided as being useless in MMA..until recently, where some people started using them. There are a few different examples of stuff over the years that people said "could never work" in MMA, until some enterprising fighter made it work. While it's true that with the evolution of MMA people realized that BJJ alone wasn't working, there were plenty of people (I remember talking to some around the beginning of the UFC) that made the exact same mistakes in thinking that BJJ was basically infallible. There are some clubs even today that use the early UFC's to promote the idea that BJJ is unbeatable by anything else. I still hear MMA folks to this day claiming things like groin, throat, eye strikes are ineffective or fantastic because they don't get done in MMA. Granted this is marketing, and "average joe" type chatter, not fighters..but I assume those people count as part of MMA culture too.

So it's not as if the dogma isn't there to begin with, it's just that the culture will eventually take whatever works without prejudice. The dogma of "only this"..I think is a mistake everyone makes as it's pretty much a natural human thing to self-create validation that what you do is right. It just depends on if there's something there to make you realize you were wrong.

miket
miket's picture

Mike, as to the original question, I think the answer is 'yes' and I think that every martial art out there is subject to it.

I had a conversation with Kris Wilder once about the human need to "validate our own excellent decision making" as he put it.  As this frequently plays out in martial arts, it is the (mostly subconsicous) desire to assume that you have picked the 'best' thing, simply by virtue of the fact that you picked it.  i.e., since we are CHOOSING to study a particular system, the underlying self-talk thinking goes something like:  'of course this is the best, why would I pick anything less than the best?'  And, while I am no pychologist, as I said, I believe that this is mostly a subconscious process, which I believe 'worsens' somewhat over time the longer someone spends in an art, i.e. the extension of the subconscious question becomes, 'why would I spend 15 years studying this art if I didn't think it was the best?!?'

The phenomena is also reinforced by specific experience, which we then (mistakenly) generalize as an accurate predictor of future reality.  So, hypothetically speaking, say I own a brand new Ford.  The engine blows up after 3 months or the transmission goes out and the thing gets recalled.  I get in a conflict with the dealer over the serviceability of their product or some paper work detail.   Now, say Ford makes 100 models of cars.  I am having a 'bad' experience with one of them.  I contrast that experience to the Chevy I paid significantly less for and owned for 15 years.  So, I decide that Ford's are 'bad', and Chevy's are 'good' based on an isolated SPECIFIC experience that may or may not be an accurate assessment or predictor IN GENERAL.  When in fact, maybe Chevy has made some lemons too, I just never had the misfortune to purchase one.  And when in fact, the guy I sold my 15-year old Chevy to may have had an entirely different experience with it, such that he might contrast in exactly the opposite way I did to a successful earlier experience he had with Ford.  There is an entire pseudoscience called 'Marketing' that's entire purpose is to manipulate people's perceptions in such regard to create 'brand loyalty'.  And, martial arts is unfortunately FULL of 'brand loyalty' for similar reasons.

So, instructor A has a self-identified 'bad' experience with judo and finds it to be lacking for a specific purpose. He goes on to have a 'good' experience with karate in a similar (or even different) combative context.  So, by extension, karate becomes monolithically 'good' for everything, and judo becomes monolithically 'bad' for everything.  The instructor never questions the underlying assumptioons that a) maybe not everyone has had his same experience, or b) maybe he tried to use judo for the wrong purpose AT THE TIME, or c) maybe he just happened to use karate for the right purpose at the time.

So, say he tried to spar his college wrestling buddy using judo and the guy held him down with one hand.  "Whoa, 'bad' experience!!  It's not **ME** that failed, so... IT MUST BE THE JUDO!"  Then he takes karate,  they have another play sparring match.  He manages to kick the guy in the head on the way in one time, and CONCLUDES that 'If this had been "for real", that blow would have stopped him'.   The fact is, the blow DIDN'T stop the wrestler, but our hypothetical karate man is matching his reality to his expectations by drawing the inference.  And of course, I am not kicking karate (no oun intended smiley), the wrestler is making his own similar conclusions about how great wrestling is for 'every' 'real fight' context HE is imagining.  When in fact, neither of them are experiencing even a real-ISTIC simulation of a real fight, they are comparing apples and oranges.  And, before anyone flames, (or even singes), no, I am NOT saying that neither karate nor judo would 'not work' in a real fight.  I AM saying:  it all depends. 

As a psychologist I know happened to put it: "Memory only works two ways, both of which have evolved due to their essentiality for our survival:  First, it recalls the things we never want to feel again so we can avoid them. And second, it recalls the things which turned out better than we anticipated so that we can repeat them.  That's what memory is there for, biologically speaking." 

Rory Miller also talks a little in his 'Meditations' about how people also choose (or I would argue, 'frequently continue') a martial art that fits their PRECONCEPTIONS about violence.  For instance, how that played out for me was,  I signed up for karate after watching a lot of Wham-Bam-VanDamme movies as a kid, because, in ignorance, that's what I thought "fighting" was.  Other than schoolyard scraps, I (thankfully) didn't have any real experience with it at the point that I started training.  So karate was the right art for me, and the 'best' thing for me-- at the time-- because it fit my preconceptions of what I thought 'real' fighting was.  And I simply took my instructor's word for it without any kind of critcial thought that it was obviously preparing me for violence.  And how did i know that?  Because he was better **AT KARATE** than I was.  So, since I had already connected karate with my desired 'solution' to face violence, and sicne he was obvioulsy better at karate than me, he was the guy to listen to.  And, fortunately for me, he was a good instrctor and taught me a lot.  But that was simply 'luck' on my part.  He could have been a right lousy instructor and it could have gone badly for me.

And actually, come to think of it, does anyone really feel like they have had a bad instructor?  Of course, sometimes people say so, but its not a terribly frequent occurrence in my experience.  Because if **I PICKED** a bad instructor, then I have to face up to the uncomfortable fact that maybe I allowed msyelf to be manipulated, or made a bad decision, or was just plain stupid, or allowed myself to be played or taken advantage of.  Or deeper still, maybe I have to confront some of the subconscious reasons I picked that style/ person to begin with, or some of teh reasons (primarily 'fears', one notes) that have caused me to undertake combatives trinaing in the first place, along with whatever THAT may tell me about myself. And lots of people just don't want to face up to that.

So yes, on that basis, it's entirely possible to lose our objectivity about the combative validity of a specific system for some purpose.  (Meaning:  your system may be great for one combative purpose, and lousy for the next).

And, the older I get, the more I have started to see that even the evaluation of specific systems is a flawed model, because even a specific 'system' like karate is entirely eclectic.  So you call it "Kara- tee"  and I say "Kara-tay"  (that's supposed to be a play on the to-may-toe tom-ah-toe contrast  smiley)... the point is, "karate" to instructor A means entirely one thing, while  it means something that may be RELATED, but is totally different to instructor B.  And this difference of perspective might even exist amongst instructors within the same school, or between two instructors wo had the exact same higher level instructor, because of our inherent human inidivduality.

So, you can have an Art (Karate), that has various primary schools of thought (i.e. Goju, Shorin), that have various Ryu-Ha (typically under one person's direction but more usually a group or committee), that are comprised of individual schools, which are headed by individual senior instructors, and which have instructional classes taught by that instructor, frequently with the help of a group of junior level assistants.  In reality, each step in that chain 'shapes' that combative school of thought.  But likewise, all the last person in that chain-- the student-- is getting at the end of the day, is the perspective of the last man in line before him:  all of that person's experience, talent and knowledge on the positive side; and all of their assumptions, blindness, prejudices, and flaws on the negative.

Succinctly put:  'Styles don't fight, people do'.

(Which point I am only attempting to make generally as I know you understand that).