Indoctrination in self-defense and martial arts can be pretty amazing. I’ve watched strong, skilled, well-trained grown men and women convince themselves some guy they’ve known an hour was an undefeatable titan of battle. This phenomenon is incredible and a huge component is the perception of significant experience with violence. This has led to the rise of that character ubiquitous in self-defense industry: Billy Badass.
Billy Badass sells the DVD’s with the skulls and scary music with a history of violence as extensive as it is unverifiable. He’s got it all figured out while the rest of these SD/MA (self-defense and martial arts) pussies are doing stuff that would never work in The Streets™. Quick reminder of the obvious: experience matters. Always. But, metaphorically, having a heart and brain doesn’t mean legs aren’t useful; having been there and done that isn’t the only qualification for empowering others. Thankfully, there are experienced, skilled instructors out here doing incredible work, many of them writing for this publication. But there are also folk doing…other things. In all things and with all people: caveat emptor.
Let’s start with one crucial understanding: whatever alleged history your instructor has, you weren’t there. The power he derived from surviving isn’t yours to use. Moreover, all you know, often, is who he markets himself to be. Beyond the flat-out hoaxes lies the natural predisposition toward embellishment, especially when coupled with the temptation of fiduciary gain. And, to be fair, we, as consumers, support all of this because instructors are only human. The cults of personality we build around them exacerbate the problem.
Students need someone to believe in. Two central premises of the industry read: ‘someone else knows the dark world of violence and can teach you its ways’ and ‘we don’t know enough to teach ourselves.’ Thus, we turn to people with long, bloody resumes; reasonably assuming that experience is crucial but ignoring the symbiotic dynamics of seeking power by proxy. Students laud an instructor’s history and presumed capacities, as if, somehow, we could attain his strength osmotically. We can’t. We turn to hero worship and create a backward power dynamic that enhances instructors over students. We give them the limitless authority of ‘unimpeachable experience’, ignoring the responsibility to question or challenge. In doing so we make violent people special, further exacerbating the power imbalance. How can I expect to avoid, deter, or defeat current predators when I can’t even disagree with my instructor, a former predator? This level of indoctrination is tacitly or overtly encouraged by many instructors as their egos swell. Because, apparently, someone has found a monopoly on violence.
The cults of personality are problems; instructors aren’t the point of self-defense or martial arts training. Decent instruction is about the students and therein lies the rub: when building up students isn’t the focus, egotistical nonsense is much easier to get lost in. If our friend Billy survived hundreds of violent incidents…as a 6’3 290-pound professional in his mid-20’s, what he was able to do in his heyday shouldn’t mean much to the 5’3 115-pound 50-year-old woman he’s teaching. Even when an instructor’s experience is verifiable, the plural of anecdote isn’t “proof.” If he’s handled 20 attempted stabbings, he certainly knows more than most. But that may not be enough to create a model that applies to different people from other backgrounds with varying frames of mind, skillsets, and target profiles. And, beyond the difficulties of calculating experience’s value, other considerations remain.
Many experienced and effective SD/MA instructors have very little experience doing what they teach: defending themselves from predatory criminals as civilians. That distinction is important because having been a cop, crook, or bouncer carries over…sorta. If your instructor was a pro, his legal and ethical machinations were likely appropriate for his context…not yours. If he’s smart, he’ll encourage you to think for yourself and do your own research. If not, he’ll try to directly apply whatever lessons he’s learned in a (likely) much more extreme circumstance directly to your life. It won’t end well. Moreover, having a history of violence has nothing to do with teaching.
Good SD instruction is, at its core, emotionally engineering people to empower themselves. It’s creating stronger people. There is a lot of complexity to that and capacity for violence is only one piece. Thus, a violent resume is far from enough. In some cases, whatever made an instructor able to survive his heyday was natural, or part of his upbringing, or so deeply ingrained that he wouldn’t even know how to explain it. There are plenty of people who can teach but can’t do. There are also people who can do but can’t teach. This is not a rejection of experiential knowledge or expertise, it’s a reminder that choosing an instructor with a “history” as your idol does not preclude the capacity for being wrong or ineffective at transmitting ideas. And worshipping at the altar of experiences you didn’t have; and, often, can’t even verify he had; isn’t always the best way to make yourself safer and stronger.
Ultimately, a healthy dose of skepticism wouldn’t hurt any of us. Instructors, consider the power dynamic you exhibit with your students and whether you’re empowering them or more focused on you. Students, remember that your instructor is a person. If he’s experienced and not an idiot, he knows that he’s got a lot to offer but needs more than a history to help you become more effective. Most importantly, remember that training is about you gaining power, not basking in the power of someone else, no matter how cool their background sounds.
Caveat emptor and all that.