The Elephant in the Room
For over a year now the blogs, forum and chat rooms have periodically been alive with the discussion of a topic in martial arts, and society in general which fills us with anger and fear: sexual abuse.
The most notable case has today (at the time of writing) come to a close, with the widely respected researcher, author and karate instructor Harry Cook being sentenced to a decade in jail for the abuse of people who placed their trust in him, stealing their innocence forever. Admitting forty-nine charges that included sexual assaults and possession of thousands of indecent images and videos, ‘Cook’ as he will no doubt now be known will most probably become the infamous name of British karate, perhaps martial arts in general.
Resulting from the news of the jail term was a tirade of comments exasperated by the length of the sentence, wishes of brutal capital punishment, and some quite unusual comments too. The backlash of anger directed at Cook is understandable but this energy would be much better being channelled in to working on how to prevent this happening again.
People are venting their anger having never met the victims of these crimes, because they too are tertiary victims of these offences. We all hold our instructors up on a pedestal, perhaps sometimes a little too high, with our senior instructors venerated, being incapable of personal or professional fault, as our admiration for their ability, knowledge and understanding obscures our rational thought and the reality that they are just as flawed as we see ourselves.
We are victims too because we all empathise with the people who called Cook their instructor.
These people, who supported him in the face of professional criticism or martial arts politics, will be feeling betrayed, ashamed, angry and concerned, perhaps guilty for not spotting something or for even for not acting on something they presumed to be innocent but now see from a different perspective. We are angry because we have all held someone with such high esteem, and instead of opening ourselves up to this vulnerability we apportion blame and display anger so we don’t have to face the truth that this will happen again, and that we all have a responsibility to try to prevent it happening soon.
We should respect the anonymity and privacy of the real victims of these crimes, but we must also use their demonstration of incredible strength to tell someone, and of the confidence and determination of that person to act on the initial disclosure, to show our students and customers that we can and we will deal with any breaches of trust in our organisations.
Open discussion of sexual abuse is not an easy task. There is an initial hesitance to do so simply because of the emotional response a case like this will stimulate, and we want to tell people that “it’s safe here” and “it will never happen” in fear that we won’t be trusted without such a bold and confident declaration, and because we don’t want parents of young learners to keep their children away from our schools.
We work (or play) in the area of self-protection, which we know is about managing personal risk and then having management strategies when our risk assessment fails, yet in terms of child protection we ignore a similar path, and instead respond irrationally like a person refusing to leave the house out of fear of the violence that is out there.
The irrational feelings we initially get can be rationalised to knowledge, and if we do this, acknowledge that there is a risk and put in place simple yet effective measures to minimise the risk, then we will know that we will be better protected and then we can start feeling better protected. Behind the scenes the national governing bodies have been devising complex child protection strategies, requiring criminal records checks and getting people to sign forms left right and centre so that we can feel a bit better prepared and protected, but also to minimise their vicarious liability.
Child protection and vulnerable adult policies are a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but what good are they if they are sat gathering dust at the back of a filing cabinet? Is this not like the guy who’s approach to home security is just hiding a baseball bat in the wardrobe just in case someone were to break in? These policies need to be living documents to which ‘lessons learned’ from within our organisations can be used to continually improve our defences.
The adults we teach need to know about it, read it, ask questions about it and be able to make suggestions, and the parents of the kids we teach need to get treated exactly the same. Whilst it is up to the parents to decide if and how they approach this with their child, it is important that we highlight to everyone who enters the school which people are entrusted with our safety, and what qualifies this trust we place in them.
The key is not to ignore the elephant in the room, but to use this as an opportunity to talk about it and turn the irrational fear based responses into rational knowledge based perceptions which will provide the feelings of safety and security that we want our customers to have, and will allow our industry to continue to thrive.