Anger, Belief, Moral Framework and Conflict Part III, Marc Mac Young

I’m going to direct you to the works of Dr. Jonathan Haidt; professor of social psychology, one of the formulators of Moral Foundation Theory and author of the book Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.

(Great book, I highly recommend it. It was a pivotal for the direction I’m taking Conflict Communications. You can find audio and video on moral foundation theory on the web. You can also get Righteous Mind on audio.)

The premise of moral foundation theory is established (or if you will traditional) forms of morality are based on five universal, but different foundations. These five are:
1- Harm/care
2- Fairness/cheating
3- Loyalty/betrayal
4- Authority/subversion
5- Sanctity/degradation

I’m not going to go into these five too deeply because the focus of this article is conflict arising from differing moral systems. (Besides, go read/listen to the book). I will tell you there’s a sixth, and prospective new member to the list. And I personally think number six is a big source of sanctimonious rage.

But, before we talk about that new kid on the block, I want to stress that these five exist in all traditional, historic and established systems of morality. That ‘… these five exist…’ is very simple sentence, but it has very deep in implications. One of them is having all five, is very much the basis of what I said earlier about the size of the gap between positions. While not being on the same page, having all five at least puts people from traditional systems in the same book. No matter how differently they interpret these or what they emphasize. Now granted there still can be some nasty differences, but there’s a new problem strolling the streets these days. Worse, it’s got its sleeves rolled up and is looking for fights. It has to do with how many foundations (or as I call them, pillars) someone’s moral system has.

But before we get to that, let’s keep looking at the results of having five. When a system has all five we find long-term, stability. Even thought different systems emphasize different interpretations, these five pillars all balance each other out, both limiting and supporting each other. Yes different groups emphasize them differently, but the presence of the five creates a stabilizing internal system of checks and balances. This stability — even though it may change over hundreds of years — is what has allowed these systems to continue a thousand or more years. Whether you agree with the system’s beliefs or not, they have an impressive track record of sustainability. A track record new ideas do not have.
Also notice these checks and balances start out in the pillars themselves. Harm/care is two sides of the same coin. Who do you take care of and who do you harm? Who is it wrong to harm (and you must take care of)? In comparison who is it okay to hurt? Also what harm do you bring onto those who harm the ones you’ve deemed need care? In other words: Who do you give priority to in harm/care?
It’s not a simple question.

I’ll give you a very powerful, example. Abortion. The Pro-Abortion position puts the well-being and rights of woman first. Assessing that in the first trimester the fetus isn’t ‘alive, ‘ the woman is more important — including the effects having a child will have on her life and opportunities. This position holds that abortion is not murder and it protects the woman. The Pro-Life position puts the well being and rights of the child first. Assessing the fetus is ‘alive’ and a child from inception, this position holds that abortion is murder. And speaking of murder, people have died over differences in convictions on this subject.
Wow, irreconcilable differences, right?
But instead of focusing on the difference, look at the similarities. Both sides are very concerned about the harm done to their chosen priority. Both are arguing over their different answers using the metaphysical question of “when does human life begin?” And most of all, both are absolutely convinced of the morality, virtue and truth of their position.

Someone’s position on this subject is less important than recognizing the underlying dynamics. When harm/care situations are reduced to black and white someone is going to be helped, someone else is going to be hurt. Who is it going to be? That is the core component of what the fight is over. And how someone can feel morally superior with whatever position they take — because after all, they’re keeping someone from being harmed. Being able to both see this and how the same thing affects your position is a very important skill for negotiation and compromise. And, just as importantly, for recognizing an entrenched and unreasonable position — including your own.
Having said all this, I’d like you introduce you to the new kid on the morality block: Liberty/ oppression.

Although many Moral Foundation Theory proponents will tell you Liberty/oppression is very much a ‘made member,’ I still look at this sixth as a prospect. That’s because the other five are global. All human societies and long running moral systems have them. Liberty/oppression is still both localized and, realistically, not all the bugs are worked out — especially because so many individuals are setting their own standards about their ‘rights’ and freedoms.
This requires a side track. Simply stated humanism is a concept that was introduced into Western thought only a few hundred years ago. Now in American terms, that may seem like long ago, but it’s really not. Remember we’re comparing it to established systems that have lasted over a thousand, if not thousands of years. Yes, humanism has strongly influenced Christianity (especially the Protestant versions) in the last 300 years. And yes, it can go off on it’s own form of secular morality (while lacking divine providence, it can be unquestionable authority to true believers). But what we don’t understand is concepts like egalitarianism, liberty, equality, freedom and rights (for everyone) — ideas we’ve been conditioned to take for granted as self-evident truths, and in some cases #THETRUTH — are in fact, extremely Western-centric.

There’s a few problems with this. First we fail to realize that our acceptance of humanism is a belief system. (It is no more scientifically demonstrable as any other religion.)

Second, as implied in the previous sentence, it can be turned into a religion. (That religion requires the worship of a ‘supreme being’ is another Western conceit). This second point opens the door to orthodoxy, dogma, interpretation, heresy and sects within humanism.

Third, we don’t realize when we start going on about humanistic beliefs (equality, human rights, liberty, etc.,) the rest of the world looks at us like we’ve grown a second head. That is not a shared frame of reference. For example, they see nothing wrong with inequality and racism. (Or as my favorite quote from Star Trek DS9 goes, “Oh no! We Ferengi aren’t against oppression. We just want to be the ones doing it.”) In order to believe there is something wrong with those, you have to be coming from a humanistic perspective.

Fourth, humanistic based morality can be twisted into my rights and freedoms are sacrosanct — and I get to decide what those are and what they mean. That last is a very short step from there to the source of chronic rage over perceived oppression and wrongs. Which brings us back to using Liberty/oppression as a basis for morality…

What do rights and freedom mean to you? What do they mean to someone else? Often individuals’ interpretation of their freedom becomes a form of zealotry regarding their selfishness. If they perceive you are infringing on their freedom to do as they will, they will come at you tooth and claw. You have no right to tell them what to do. While we’re at it, you have no right to judge them or to try to stop them.

But this is an incredibly one way street. You can’t judge them, tell them how to live their lives or tell them what not to do. You don’t have that right, but they do. They can judge and condemn you in a heartbeat. This behavior is especially common among those who feel oppressed or victimized by events in the past. In more extreme cases you can see this taken to where a person feels that it is his right to break the law (including assaulting you) because of past and currently perceived oppression.

Basically you’ll find this kind of sacred outrage comes in two basic flavors:
1) those that will act on their own and
2) those who act through proxies.

Either way, they’ll come at you with righteous rage. Not only do they attack, but they act in the absolute conviction they are morally justified in doing so. You have wronged them. According to their moral standards, you deserve it.
Someone who is acting in moralistic rage cannot be ‘reasoned’ down, nor can they be appealed to. At the apex of their rage they can only be deterred or stopped (as in physically). This is not a bluff, you have to be ready, willing and able to do it. If you aren’t they’ll see it and just escalate beyond what you’re willing to do. Acting as if you are or using your authority as a shield is another good way things can go bad. But especially do not try to shame them; that is a tactic that will blow up in your face.

That does not mean however they cannot be stopped — especially before they get a full head of steam. The question is how far down that road are they? Someone who is acting from anger is easier to deal with than someone who is acting out of fury. Someone who is being hostile is different than someone who is being verbally or emotionally abusive. Someone who is verbal is a on a different level than someone who is being physical.

Therefore the issue isn’t if that’s what they are doing, it’s how far down the road is it? This is going to have major influence on what it is going to slow it down, much less stop it. That is important, because you’re not going to be able to change the mind of someone in this state, all you can do is limit the damage they do or — more practically — persuade them to leave you alone.

Worse, if they can ‘win’ on their own, they’ll run to human resources, administration or other authorities to do it for them. In extreme cases they’ll doxx you, organize a protest, vandalize your property and stalk you — all with clear conscious and moral certitude. Again, you deserve it. In case you haven’t guessed it there’s a strong connection between the rising victimhood culture and this kind of anger based morality. They were wronged, therefore what they are doing is justified.

When it comes to zealots you will find a greater numbers among individuals whose moral frameworks function on only one or two foundations. In fact, let’s call them — uber-pillars. These are foundations that have been blown out of proportion and to the exclusion of others. No other pillars matter as much as what they’ve focused on. For example someone obsessed with Liberty/oppression often has no respect for authority (Authority/subversion foundation). The only moral authority they recognize is themselves. The rules don’t apply to them. That’s if they’re not aiming for subversion (overthrow).

For example, what will be the morality of someone whose entire moral framework is predicated on Liberty/oppression and Harm/care? What rules (much less laws) will that person be willing to break because of perceived wrongs and injustices? How much anger and fury will that person carry at the world? A world so obviously wrong and hurtful? A world that deserves to be hurt back. We tend to think of fanatics in terms of religion, but secular ideologies can become just as extreme and harmful.

Earlier in this article I said, ” In some situations not only isn’t negotiation not going to work, there’s a good chance trying will make things worse. ”

Those lines should make a whole lot more sense now. But let me state, trying to compromise with someone intent on hurting you is not impossible. What you’re negotiating for takes on a different shape though.

I will also say the definition of ‘good faith negotiations’ change when dealing with people whose morality either condones your destruction or doing you harm. They aren’t playing for a win/win. They’re playing of a win/lose. And just so you know, their version of winning is you losing. Many of them are willing to sacrifice for that goal. For example in a work situation they may lose their job, but if they can get you in trouble that’s still a win — at least in their book.

Recognize that with such a personality, the best compromise is a draw. In a one time situation, you both walk away still breathing and go on living your lives. In a more long-term situation, you both withdraw to and stay on your respective sides of the street. You do not tolerate, but neither do you transgress over those boundaries. If forced to deal with one another, both you remain formally polite so as not to trigger a negative response that would have unwanted consequences.

We’ll talk more about how to handle such folks next time

Anger, Belief, Moral Framework and Conflict: Part II – Marc MacYoung

Last time we looked at how anger, preserving one’s sense of self-worth and core beliefs can get us into conflict. Now we’re going to look at:

A – How beliefs shape our morality.
B – How different moral emphasis’s can keep us from coming to resolution.
C- How certain people have weaponized their so-called morality to justify their attacks on you.

This concept is is bigger and deeper than many people realize. It’s also the source of what I call “anger based morality.” A beast that is, unfortunately, on the rise in our modern society. In another installment we’ll deal with nuts and bolts on how to handle belief based anger and anger based morality. But in this this one, let’s introduce you to the growing trend of sanctimonious rage

We’re going to start with all moral systems are belief systems — even secular ones. (Veganism makes more sense when you look at it as a religion, focused on moral conduct and purity.) If you read the last installment you’ll remember how anger and preservation of core beliefs are connected. Thing is they need protecting. Beliefs, and by extension, moral systems are largely based on unprovable assumptions, assertions and conclusions that a group of people have made and maintained over a long period of time.

But just because they are beliefs, do not dismiss them.

First off, remember belief is how we organize our thoughts against being overwhelmed by the universe. The human ego is ill equipped to handle infinity without the safety net of beliefs to keep us sane.

Second, beliefs are crucial to our self-identity, self-worth, and worldview. They are the basis of our behavior, choices and how we treat others.

Oh, for the record, when I say that moral systems are based on unprovable assumptions that does not mean that the systems arising from them don’t have a proven track record. They do, usually a very impressive one. (Like keeping millions of people living together and functioning with minimal bloodshed.) So while the core assumptions may not be solid, the results can be. Or they can become a disaster. But the nature of our beliefs are going to affect self-identity, self-worth worldview, our morality and ethics.

Third: Our beliefs are a filter that we run almost every decision through.

It’s not an exaggeration to say: Beliefs gets us through the day. Think of how many decisions you make every day. Once we’ve made up our mind (picked a belief) it turbo charges our decision making process. When we encounter an event or idea we run it through a belief filter to find where we stand on the issue. If it fits, then ‘yes.’ If it doesn’t then ‘no.’ Putting this in computer terms, beliefs speed up processor speeds by automatically deleting many other options.

In a small sense it can be as simple as ruling out two local restaurants because you don’t like _____ (fill in the blank) food when it comes to ‘where to have lunch.’ But look at that same process in the bigger picture. Once we’ve decided a subject is good or bad we go from there. But how we go is we reject anything that doesn’t conform with our beliefs. For example: Violence is bad. Once we’ve accepted that belief. Any violence is automatically bad, as is anyone who does it. That saves us from having to think.

This filter idea is important, because it really isn’t thinking about the subject. It’s “here’s the template, does this new data conform, yes or no?” That’s not really thinking, it’s judging. And judging saves us the skull sweat of having to actually think about the complexities of the issue. (This by the way why a child asking ‘why’ is so annoying — especially about social issues adults just take for granted. We really can’t come up with solid reasons for belief filtered decisions.)

But here’s the fly in the ointment. Many of us believe ‘belief’ is weak, if not bad. We’re smarter and better than that. We identify ourselves as ‘rational’ because we tell ourselves we’re rational. (Yes, it’s a self-eating watermelon.) But it can go further, it can lead to a form of fanaticism about how rational we are. Many people have transferred their zealotry from religion to secular causes and ideologies. It can bleed over from just being convinced we’re rational into telling ourselves because we are so smart we are right and good — no matter how judgmental, prejudiced, hostile and violent we’re being.

Oh and in case you’re wondering about the science behind this idea. MRIs of brain activity show a decision is made in the non-logical parts of the brain, before the logic and speech parts are activated. That means, when faced with a situation requiring a choice or interpretation, the decision is usually made (filtered) immediately and then we ‘think’ about how to communicate it. In other cases, the stimuli is received, the decision is made and we immediately act on it without conscious thought. (Don’t condemn this process, it’s what allows us to drive a car.)

Putting it another way, most people’s thinking is actually done after the judging. That’s when they communicate their decision. Often they also supply ‘reasons’ to justify the decision. If resistance is met, it upgrades to defending their filtered decision. This does require ‘thinking.’ But, even then, this is not rational thought, it’s usually rationalizing thought. (With just enough cherry picked ‘facts’ to convince ourselves we made an informed conclusion.) Realize many people not only don’t distinguish between filtering and thinking, but they honestly believe filtering is thinking. Not even close. But recognize all the skullsweat we put into communicating and defending our decision is central to our belief that we’re being rational and base our opinions on facts, not operating from belief.

The truth is our ‘reasons’ for filtered decisions are usually pretty weak. When we self-isolate ourselves among like minded people we never find this out. If pressed we’re likely to resort to “soundbites” that work in the echo chamber. If those don’t carry the day, we usually just respond by becoming angry and doing personal attacks about the other person. (Spend a week on social media and you’ll see all kinds of name calling and insults). This is anger preserving our core beliefs. But recognize how it protects us too. This anger keeps us from seeing exactly how weak our arguments in support of our beliefs really are. Also if we’re lucky, it distracts the other person from presenting information dangerous to what we believe.

Remember how tied into anger self-worth and core beliefs tie are? How anger is used in the preservation of those? Well we’ve now laid the groundwork for bumping it up a notch and it become chronic, self-righteous rage. Rage that is fueled by offended morality out looking for targets. In case you haven’t been outside lately, there are a lot of people for whom outrage has become not just a philosophy, but a way of life. Despite your best efforts to avoid them, you might have even run into one or two of them.

Stop and think about the last time you saw (or were involved in) a discussion over a hot button topic. How dare someone not agree with our filtered decision! In many cases if someone disagrees, that person isn’t just stupid and wrong, they are evil.

Wait… you’re evil for just disagreeing with someone?

That isn’t just illogical, it is so left-field and emotional it’s unnerving. This especially when we see that the person saying it is convinced he or she has made a rational and informed judgment about that other person. (Which is a contradiction in terms; it should be a rational and informed decision. But remember we’re talking belief based judgments here.) From as little as one sentence, the accuser has the ability to judge and condemn the whole person because he/she is a ____ist, ____ive, ____ican, ___ian, or some other label? This venomous rhetoric, anger, blind conviction, and condemnation don’t make sense until you look at this behavior from the perspective of moral outrage and zealotry. It may not religious, but it is zealotry.

Focus especially on the authority behind this behavior. This is no longer “God is the authority for our actions,” for many anger has become the unquestionable source and justification for behavior. It’s not just that their moral beliefs cause them anger (which it often does), it’s more their ethics and morality are anger based. First, they are morally justified in what they are doing because they are angry. Second, their anger becomes sanctified because it arises from their beliefs and morals.

Anger based morality, that’s an ugly concept. If we consider anger as an act of ego, we’re floating into some dangerous waters. Because now we’re dealing with an individual’s self-righteous anger being sanctified as righteous anger because of a bigger cause than just ego.

What could have been selfish or misguided (how many times have you gotten angry and discovered you were wrong) now becomes an absolute and unquestionable TRUTH!™ This truth becomes the authority upon which they act. In case you missed it, that just became an excuse for abuse. But it goes further than that. The greater the perceived wrong, the more uncompromising and dogmatic the anger. Fury becomes their ultimate moral authority. Stop and think about some of the many ways that could go bad.

So know they’re out there, but also know it takes time and mental gymnastics before you run across that extreme. As such it’s worth looking at how — in less extreme cases –morality influences conflict. We’re going to look at that and a few other things.

One of those others we’re going to look at is how different systems of morality can create an abyss between us and someone we’re in conflict with. An abyss that makes it nearly impossible to come to resolution if you don’t recognize it. When you recognize it you can come up with work arounds. The trick is to recognize it.

This chasm goes deeper than “I’m an A and you’re a B.” That’s a crack in the ground. Often these are variations within a system (e.g., the difference between a Southern Baptist and a Freewill Baptist). These differences often manifest as doctrinal points and/or interpretation. Although these doctrinal differences can grow into schisms, there’s more in common than not.

A ravine is “I’m an A and you’re a 3,527” That is trying to communicate across totally different systems (e.g., Muslim and Buddhist). While difficult, the fact that there are complete systems on either side makes it possible for communication. Here the commonalities are fewer and more general (e.g., both have a long standing moral codes that address the same issues). Still the chance of communication and finding a working solution exists.

But things can expand to an irreconcilable abyss when positions become entrenched. It is this entrenchment I want to take a quick look at. This is because it’s important for understanding the unrecognized problem I mentioned earlier. Just so you know, the ‘unrecognized problem’ is when two sides have a different number of moral foundations.

With both anger based morality and different numbers of moral foundations you can find yourself in an unpleasant situation. That is when someone isn’t interested in compromise — up to and including to the point of doing you harm. In some situations not only isn’t negotiation not going to work, there’s a good chance trying will make things worse. When compromise is truly impossible, that’s not only when you need to shift to other viable strategies, but recognize trying to negotiate is a waste of valuable time and resources.

So if you have to shift, do so knowing why it was necessary; that way you can explain yourself when called upon to do so.

Anger, Belief, Moral Framework, and Conflict, Part I – Marc MacYoung

In his Anger Workbook, Dr. Les Cater identified three fundamental sources of anger:

1) Preservation of essential needs
2) Preservation of self-worth

3) Preservation of core beliefs.

Using this three-category model, you can analyze and dissect the motivation behind anger—both in others and yourself.

Let’s start with the difference between a basic and a fundamental. While in many respects they are synonymous, there comes a point where they split. That is where a basic is an introduction to a subject while a fundamental is a premise upon which a system is based and from which it rises. That’s why looking at these categories as fundamentals is important. When you look past the details of a specific incident, you can see these sources—and recognize where the anger comes from. Understanding why, you can do something about it.

Moving onto a fast explanation of the three categories:

Essential needs are those things necessary for our survival and to maintain our lifestyles. When they’re threatened, we respond with anger—after the fear. (Think of your reaction when someone almost hits your car. You need a working car, and the money it would cost to fix it.)

Self-worth isn’t just self-esteem, it’s also self-respect, pride, social status, and how others see us. Although the last is a bit of a self-eating watermelon because what we tend to give more weight to—and will become both violent and self-destructive over—is what we think others think of us. Meanwhile, we’ll blithely continue self-serving behavior that actually negatively influences others’ opinions of us.

Two points about that last. First is why. Man isn’t as much a rational animal as a rationalizing one. There’s a perceived profit in the behavior, so we rationalize doing it. Second is a warning. People who behave this way the most are the ones most tetchy about perceived slights. How dare you call them a ___ (fill in the blank) for being a ____ (fill in the blank).

Core beliefs  . . .   

Well, short version is core beliefs are how we organize the universe and our place in it. We’re seriously married to these ideas, and we will ferociously protect them—regardless of how much or little sense they make or how true they are. They are our TRUTHS™. They not only create, but maintain our individual reality. They literally create and maintain the whole of our universe.

Another way of looking at it is we need our beliefs to simplify life enough so we can get through the day. We function within boxes of our own—if not making—choosing. See, infinity is an awfully big place. Beliefs are the mental walls we build to protect ourselves from seeing how big. Such a view would leave most of us curled up and cowering in a corner. Our beliefs create a model of life and the universe that is small enough for us to grasp. So while “yay for beliefs,” they can also keep us inside our own mental and emotional prisons. But it’s a prison we want to be inside because outside is too big and scary. Anger is a fast and easy way to keep those walls intact.

We’ll come back to protecting beliefs because it’s a big part of anger and conflict—including how and why we get there.

Where things become interesting is when we realize how much overlap there is in these three categories and, at the same time how much of our self-identify is wrapped up in them. But let’s stick just with overlap for a second.

Even with these fundamentals, anger isn’t exactly a single cause issue. For example when a core belief is perceived to be challenged, it’s commonly interpreted as an attack on our self-worth, as well. It’s not about the idea anymore, it’s a personal insult. It’s not a question regarding our beliefs, it’s an attack. (If the belief is wrong—what does that say about our intelligence?) This is a big part of why people get so hostile and angry when their beliefs are questioned.

Before we go on, finish this sentence, “I’m a ______ (fill in the blank).”

First things first: Do you take pride from that identity? Your recognition of that emotional investment is important. Not because you have it, but other people do, too. Ignoring or forgetting said investment is a fast track to conflict, triggering belligerence in others and your own aggression.

Now ask yourself: How many of your beliefs are attached to that identification? What do you have to do, believe, and think to qualify as whatever that is? How does that self-identification influence how you look at the world and your expectations of how you’ll be treated? How does it influence your obligations to others (what they can expect from you)?

These simple questions show the connection between what we believe, our self-identities, and how we approach the world. They show where our reactions come from when our self-worth and beliefs are challenged. Think back to your last “you don’t treat me like that” reaction. What beliefs were violated?

In fact, let’s use that as a side track. I’m going to give you good way to remain both calm and nonemotionally reactive in a situation that could devolve into conflict. When you start to feel angry, ask yourself which of the three categories do you think is threatened? This assessment gives you a momentary pause, instead of following the—and I very specifically use this word—habit of reacting in anger. This allows another part of your mind to come up with a different response that isn’t habitual, anger driven, and likely to cause more problems.

Using anger to preserve beliefs opens the flood gates to all kinds of aggressive and hostile behavior by us that elicits the same response from the other person. This is important because although we perceive all slights as intentional and malicious—often they aren’t. When you aggressively respond, even if you weren’t in a fight before, you’re in one now.

Back to core beliefs being threatened, some belief systems require a villain. If you accept this ideology, someone else automatically becomes your enemy, oppressor, or target. It’s part of the identity of being a _____ (fill in the blank). The very existence of those hated others is a threat to your core beliefs. Hence, you’re always mad at them. To the rational mind, this seems silly. But to another part holding the benefits of identity of being a ______(fill in the blank) far outweigh the inconvenience of having an enemy.

Worse is how easy it is to slip into perceiving anyone who doesn’t believe the same as ‘us’ (the right, good, and knowledgeable) is evil, stupid, and wrong. It’s no longer just an established enemy. Anyone who doesn’t follow the exact same orthodoxy becomes your enemy. When you are surrounded by enemies, you interpret one of ‘those people’ just opening his or her mouth as an attack. And since he is already attacking our cherished beliefs, whatever we do to him is acceptable—because he deserves it. Even if he didn’t do anything, he still deserves it just because he’s a _______ (fill in the blank).

That last bit is integral to  justifying much bad behavior after the fact and giving ourselves permission to act in the first place. We know what we’re doing is wrong, but because of the anger generated by the belief, it becomes okay to act.

(By the way, I just skimmed by something important. Chronic anger can also be used as a way to keep us from examining—much less changing—the very beliefs that cause us pain and anger. This isn’t just a Catch 22, it’s a weird perpetuation and constant seeking of external targets as a distraction from having to look at ourselves. The world is constantly showing us the belief is askew yet our anger prevents us from seeing the source of the problem—our own beliefs and how they affect our behavior. Such people are constantly on the look out for people to focus their anger on. Being targeted by them is often shocking because of the dragon’s flame’s intensity over a small, trivial thing. You can call such people rage-o-holics because they use explosions of anger like an alcoholic uses going on a bender. It’s a form of venting their rage, as well as self-soothing. This behavior allows them to get rid of their pain and anger, but not change the beliefs causing them.

This brings us to an important point. There’s a difference between facts and belief.

While we can—and often do—use cherry-picked facts to support our beliefs, a belief is not a fact. But we believe it is and that directs our behavior.

A few key points useful in spotting the difference: First, facts are pretty widely recognized. For example, the effects of what we call gravity are pretty much a fact. (Point of interest, your knowledge of this fact is what keeps you from stepping off the edge of a tall building in everyday life.) Second, there is much less emotional investment with facts than there is with beliefs. How emotionally invested in your knowledge of gravity are you? Beliefs need emotions to be sustained. Third, just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true; it just makes it a popular belief.

Now you might be thinking I’ve been talking about religion. Well, that’s a part. Here is where things get . . . interesting . . . about beliefs. There are many people in our modern secular world who have countless beliefs—but won’t admit it. In fact, they show downright scorn for beliefs—especially other people’s. The reason they have such contempt for beliefs? In part, it’s because they look down on the beliefs of others as superstition, ignorance, and weakness. To a degree that’s because they pride themselves on how intelligent, enlightened, and sophisticated they are. And partly, they are absolutely convinced that theirs aren’t beliefs, but rational conclusions based on logic and facts. This gives their beliefs the same absolute authority—and even morality—as religious beliefs. But theirs are better . . . because they aren’t beliefs, but facts. (Yes, it’s a self-eating watermelon.)

Such people can certainly be as adamant and fanatical about their “non-beliefs” as any religious zealot. And they can be just as hostile, aggressive, abusive, and violent to preserve these core beliefs and force them on you. Knowing this, start looking at how ferocious someone can get to preserve deeply held philosophies. And more importantly, how ferocious you can get if you feel someone has violated one (or more) of your beliefs—whether that’s your faith, how you feel you should be treated, what the world owes you, what you owe others, how people should act, challenging your ideology, or daring to hold a different one.

If you can keep from falling into this trap, you can greatly reduce the conflict in your life.

It’s important to recognize when our self-worth and core beliefs are threatened, it’s very easy for us to react with anger. Anger is perceived power. It’s a rush. We feel emboldened to right wrongs. Anger also gives us permission to do things we know are wrong. It’s the pass we use to give ourselves permission to do all the things we claim we aren’t. “I’m a peaceful, open-minded person, you judgmental son-of-a-bitch!”

Wait . . . what?

A Roman named Horace once said, “Anger is a short madness (insanity).” I find that anger is often far more self-serving than that. Many people’s use of anger allows them to give themselves permission to behave in ways they recognize as wrong and know are hurtful, but are —most of all — self-soothing. In venting that anger, we feel relief. If something causes us emotional discomfort, the siren’s song of anger tells us, “Go ahead. Do something that will make you feel better.”

While it might not lure us to our doom, the truth is that giving into this impulse usually makes things worse. The momentary satisfaction of lashing out at someone—whether to punish them, share the pain, or preserve our beliefs or our concepts of self-worth—often provokes a negative response from those who can defend themselves and injures those who can’t. Or perhaps, instead of acting immediately, the angry person waits and seeks revenge through other means.

Two people (who have given themselves permission to self-sooth by acting out) create an ugly escalation where both parties are equally guilty of misconduct. Yet, both are convinced they are the victim in the situation—which gives them the moral high ground for their bad behavior. Often their blatant aggression is justified as, “I was just defending myself.” But more often, the excuse is simply, “I was angry.” In these modern times, there has been an emphasis on expressing feelings rather than controlling them. Many people have been conditioned to and have given themselves permission to be controlled by their emotions.

And why shouldn’t they? Given technology, social safety nets, plentiful resources, and a social abhorrence of physical violence, a life of letting oneself emotionally act out is sustainable. A person can emotionally fly off the handle and have little or no fear of physical repercussions. This tendency has been further accelerated through the Internet and texting where physical proximity is not an issue. People give themselves permission to go to any emotional, verbal, and behavioral extreme in order to win the situation. While physical violence is rare, you have individuals and groups with long-standing anger using a new tactic. If you confront them about their behavior, they first lash out at you and then run to authority (or the administration or human resources) to condemn you. This isn’t defensive action, it’s aggression. One way or the other, they’re going to ‘win.’ While we’re at it, large sections of the population have no fear of losing their low-paying jobs or going to jail because of their emotional outbursts.  Another perception of winning, is simply walking out of relationships.

I tell you this not as a condemnation of society or to scare you, but to give you an idea of what you are dealing with. Many people have weaponized their emotions, concepts of self-worth, and beliefs and have no hesitation about emotionally lashing out at you. There are still other people who are the equivalent of giant exposed nerves who are like undetected mines that explode when you step. Or, knowing about them, you become so overly concerned about handling them with kid gloves your stress level goes through the roof.

Oscar Wilde once notoriously quipped, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude.” If you consider it, there’s a double message there. Yes, you should be careful about being unintentionally rude, hurting people’s feelings, or stepping on their concepts of self-worth or beliefs. And quite frankly, if you find you accidentally have do not hesitate to apologize—within reason. If someone snaps at you, check to see if you’ve somehow inadvertently stepped on their toes. If yes, it costs you nothing to apologize in order to keep the peace. Since acknowledgement is what most people seek, the situation is quickly and painlessly resolved, and everyone can go about their business.

Unfortunately, if feeling outraged over being attacked, you choose to snap back  . . .  

Having said this, there is a time and place to call people on their bullshit and bad behavior. But make it an informed and deliberate decision. This puts you first and foremost in control of yourself. In general that puts you ahead in the game. And that strongly influences how others will see you and judge your actions. Now instead seeing two screaming assholes, there’s a better chance the witnesses will align with you (because odds are they’re tired of his noise, too).

Second, being in control of yourself, you can keep you from mirroring his behavior. This, too, keeps you from crossing lines that would lose you support or get you into trouble if called upon to answer for the conflict. (In this current climate, many people don’t lose gracefully. Plan on the loser running to an authority figure and claiming victimization.) Not allowing yourself to get angry keeps you thinking strategically and not reacting emotionally. It’s when we get angry about these perceived attacks on our self-worth and beliefs that we make mistakes and cross the line. This gives the loser’s claim of victimization credibility when you actually did say or do something in reaction.

Don’t give him that ammo to use against you.

End Part I.


Matrix Download Syndrome, Part III – Marc MacYoung

Part I

Let’s go back to the two college rape scenarios, drunken frat rats and walking alone. The mouse—who accepts moving in groups, not walking alone at night, doesn’t incapacitate herself through booze, or who at a party doesn’t go off into isolation with a frat rat to score more free alcohol—is in far less danger from either threat than her ‘more confident’ equals. I have known many party girls who have gotten themselves raped engaging in those listed high-risk behavior. As horrible as you might find this, they were still safer than Krav Chick. While I didn’t know her, her response, “But that could kill me,” tells me a lot. As in I can tell you that with the risks she was taking, she was the one who was most likely to get killed. And she didn’t even know it.

Conversely—like the mouse—someone who is willing to gouge someone’s eyeball out of his head while trying to tear out his throat with her teeth is at much lower risk. Why? Because both know there are circumstances they don’t want to be in. Therefore, they’re not going to put themselves into them. And if they find themselves there, they’ll do what it takes to get the hell out. (One, run fiercely; the other, whatever level of violence is necessary.)


It’s the person who thinks they can do what they want and nobody has the right to touch them who is in the most danger. That’s because they’re too slow to get out of the situation. Maybe they’re not at risk of dying, but they leave themselves open to all kinds of other nastiness especially if because of a little training, they think they aren’t afraid to hit. Ineffective violence only encourages a higher level of attack. Unfortunately, training these types in physical technique just encourages this attitude. Like deciding walking alone late at night is okay because she knows Krav Maga. (That is if this training isn’t empowering dysfunction—which is another problem [if not article] altogether.) Such a person will walk right into trouble—without the resources to get out of it. And odds are good she walked into it because nobody gave her nuts-and-bolts information on how to avoid it.

One of the major problems about teaching people who have always had the ability to walk away is their willingness to hit (or stab or shoot) is often a one-way street. News flash: Violence hurts (even if you win). If you aren’t willing to pay that price, odds are you’re going to try to fold when it starts hurting. That’s trying to fold in a situation where you can’t leave—because it’s too late.

Inherent in most modern day people’s thinking is, “If I don’t like it, I’ll leave.” Stop and think about this. How many people do you know who have left marriages, jobs, families, changed careers, relocated, etc.? How about yourself? These are the people who are asking, “But what if I can’t leave?” They have no idea what that really means.

Now mind you, this ‘leaving’ attitude has become far more rampant now that belonging to a group is more of a hobby than a survival requirement. But are they willing to bite off ears, gouge out eyes, break bones, much less kill someone to come out the other side? Again, if not, why are you teaching them physical techniques, especially ineffective levels of violence—like strikes?

That’s why it’s important to ask yourself, what does the ability to leave a situation do to our levels of commitment? To our development of coping mechanisms? Mental resiliency (find a way to deal with it versus running away)? To our willingness to do whatever we have to? And most importantly, our ability to recognize when we actually can’t leave a situation?

That last one is a really subtle, but important, question. In most situations, people can safely withdraw (but if you escalate just a little bit, you’ll ‘win’). That’s wildly different from a situation where—if it develops fully—the only way to not be victimized is to tear someone’s throat out with your teeth. Recognizing such a situation is critical to draw up the commitment necessary to do horrible things in order to survive.

Do your students (or you for that matter) even know what such situations look like while developing? Do they know how to tell when one has stepped into your life already fully formed? Do you expect your students to recognize such a situation if all you do is give it a hand wave? And that brings us to: Do they (or you) have the commitment to do it? If the answer to the last four questions is no—all the techniques in the world are useless.

With this in mind, would they not be better served being taught things they can do right then—much less be willing to do? How about telling when it’s time to go berserk (like when someone tries to take you to a secondary location)? Or when it’s time to let it go and walk away? (With a subcategory of: Is that guy who is threatening you physically walking away? Hint, don’t pull the trigger.)

Because people who for all their lives have had the ability to leave (and chose to do so) aren’t likely to be able to magically muster the ability and commitment to do what is necessary. Nor do they tend to come up with good use of force decisions. They will have found themselves in circumstances where they can’t leave, but they have no idea of the resources required to survive. Often, they will attempt to halfheartedly use techniques they vaguely remember. That seldom works out well.

Recently, I commented that gouging someone’s eye out was easy. The hard part was to know when it was time to do that and teaching people the commitment to do so. The responses were … interesting.

First, there were numerous stories about eye pokes failing. Now mind you, there’s a difference between an eye poke and gouging somebody’s eyeball out of his skull. Kind of like the difference between a domesticated dog and a wolverine.

Second, there was much pontificating about how difficult eye gouges were in a fur-ball situation. Oh really? Is it difficult or was it because you just weren’t committed to ripping his eyeball out and throwing it on the ground? Because with commitment, it’s really effective and pretty easy to do.

Third, to support these contentions, people referred a big name MMA fighter who said eye gouges weren’t effective against a committed opponent. Funny . . . while I don’t have as much ring experience as he does, I’ve found going in as if it’s foreplay for attempting to skullf**k the guy to death has a really impressive track record—at least in the streets. That and twisting the ocular nerve really makes ’em squeak. Most folks really just don’t have the commitment to keep on playing when it’s happening to them.

Fourth, there were people who immediately started quoting maiming laws to me. I can only assume it was to scare me. Didn’t I at least imply knowing when to do it was kind of important? (“Why did you maim him?” “Because he was trying to kill or inflict grievous bodily injury on me at the time.”) In other words, we’re talking lethal force would be justified, but you lack the means. So you maim to stop an attack that would maim or kill you.

Fifth—and perhaps most fascinating—was the automatic scaling back of the idea to their comfort zone. Notice that I very specifically stated gouging out someone’s eyeball. Not poke, not stick your finger into it, not spit, not throw sand in their eyes. Nothing half-committed, I’m talking a level of commitment where someone’s eyeball is going to be left swinging past their nose because the alternative is you being left lying there, unable to get up and walk away. Yet those reduced versions were the only things the commentators could imagine. They weren’t talking survival; they were framing things in terms of fighting.

Here’s a problem with what they were imagining. They’re right. Half committed moves tend to fail. In plain old fights, I’ve seen eye pokes and even attempted gouges fail—because pain alone often isn’t enough. But what works is entirely beyond their comfort zones.

As someone who has been in various degrees of self-defense situations (from punched to shot at) I found these reactions somewhat disturbing, especially in light of many of the commentator’s promoted themselves as self-defense instructors—who had no idea how savage things can get in violence.

Are you beginning to see a potential problem with trying to teach physical self-defense to people with neither the commitment nor mental fortitude to do whatever is necessary? Sure, teaching weak physical techniques that students—hopefully—will never use may boost their self-confidence that in a day-to-day, social interaction, job, and relationship context is a good thing. But it’s not self-defense. In fact—like it did with Krav Chick—it can result in overconfidence and an increase in high-risk behavior.

So my question is: Why aren’t you teaching people—who all their lives have been able to leave—how to safely withdraw from a situation? Why are you trying to teach them to stay there and shoot or use martial art punches and kicks? Instead of trying to boost their confidence, why aren’t you teaching people simple, real life, safety measures they can use right then?

Enough hand waving. People’s lives are depending on what you’re teaching them. And that must be effective information for whom—and where—they are now. So make what you teach closer to what they can do, not what they fantasize they can do.

Matrix Download Syndrome, Part II – Marc MacYoung

When I hear of a ‘horrible’ event I ask, “Did the person live?”
If yes, my response is, “Good.” This often provokes outrage. How
could I respond like that to something so terrible? They don’t
understand how different my scale of bad is from most people’s. As in
if the answer is no, my next question is, “How many parts was the body found in?”

Part I

I don’t think there is a self-defense instructor on the planet who hasn’t heard, “What if I can’t leave?” Now granted this is often is in the form of what I call a Twenty-seven Ninja Question. “What if I’m walking down a dark alley and I get jumped by twenty-seven ninjas with Uzis?” That’s the person’s imagination running amok and creating unrealistic, no-win situations. For the record stop trying to answer these with anything except, “You die.” You will never be able to come up with workable solutions faster than their imagination can come up with no-win scenarios.

The real problem, however, with “what if I can’t leave” is who’s being asked. How many instructors give the subject of withdrawing from a dangerous situation anything more than a hand wave? “Well of course, you should always try to withdraw. But when you can’t, here’s all the cool mayhem you can do!” That’s more than a small mistake—it’s a real issue that can get your students killed or put into prison.

What does a situation where you can’t withdraw look like? How does a situation where you can’t develop? What do they look like when they step out of the shadows fully formed?  How do you know when it’s time to walk away and when to run? How do you withdraw? How do you know when withdrawal is working? When it isn’t? Why do most people think they can’t withdraw? More importantly does your student know how to withdraw (and thereby end) a situation without provoking further aggression?

Notice I was vague about all this? Well that’s another article, but after seeing multiple incidents where someone did follow someone ‘trying’ to withdraw, I can assure you most of them were provoked by the so-called victim. Do you have any idea how this provocation happens? And if not, how can you teach what you’ve never thought about?

I’ll give you another titillating tidbit to consider. It’s the people who ask, “But what if he follows” (another version of can’t leave) who are the ones most likely to provoke that very reaction. I highly recommend you invest skull sweat thinking about what causes someone —who was willing to let your student walk away—change his mind and attack.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about in this article. The issue I want to discuss calls into question much of what is being taught as self-defense. It’s based, not on the hypothetical “what if I can’t leave,” but the realities of when you can’t. That is: Do the people you teach have, first, the dedication and, second, the commitment to do what it takes—no matter the cost?

This is sort of important in a “what if I can’t leave context”? If the answer is no, then why are you wasting time teaching things that require dedication and commitment in order to work? Why are you not teaching something that they can use right now  to keep themselves safe? Like that it’s okay to withdraw before things get to the point where you can’t? Like how to safely withdraw? Like how violence tends to happen and how not to contribute to the escalation? Like how strong emotion can blind us to developing danger — especially when we’re mad or offended? Or do you figure that if they keep practicing, in five years they’ll be able to do the physical stuff you’re teaching?

Now I’m not talking all the mumbo jumbo about instilling confidence. We’re in the self-defense business, not self-help. If they need therapy, send them to a psychiatrist or counseling. Self-defense isn’t about feelings and self-esteem. Can this training affect those? Yes, of course. But that is a byproduct of self-defense training not the goal. Let me remind you: People’s lives, freedom and finances depend on the quality of information you provide.

Why am I so adamant about this? A violent life has taught me: Confidence without the ability to back it up is not just arrogance, but suicidal. You have to know the limits of the training you provide and tell them that. That’s because confidence without competence, knowledge, and willingness to act leads to bad decisions. Decision-making often based on willful ignorance about the degrees of danger someone is putting him- or herself into. Levels of danger far beyond their training or abilities.

I have a friend who, despite having a PhD, grew up on the streets and had seen the savagery and horrors of predators. He had a young co-ed who told him because she knew Krav Maga, she was safe walking, late at night, alone, on the campus. My friend said, “Not a good idea,” and she got defensive. It resulted in her demanding, “Well, how would you attack me?” He told her. Her response was, “But that could kill me!” His response was, “Honey if I’m a monster who wants to rape you, I don’t care if you’re conscious, unconscious, or dead when I do it.” Welcome to the realities of the differences between a drunken frat boy (who ignores no) and real-life monsters. The kind of monsters no amount of training will prepare you to go head-to-head against. Training is good, but the survival requirements come from another place

That was the knowledge of the limits of her training I was talking about earlier. Would her Krav and confidence have worked on a drunken frat boy? Probably. But a woman walking the campus alone at night isn’t going to get attacked by Chip (or others of the Izod set). What will be coming at her is a whole different animal. And that’s assuming it’s not a run-of-the-mill mugger, who will just shoot her at the first sign of resistance. (Oh, like say, dropping into her fighting stance.) Sure, she was willing to kick and punch, but that’s a social violence strategy. It doesn’t work well with asocial violence and predators. Those are the kinds of monsters that prowl the night she was so confidently walking through.

This is why: “Do the people you are teaching have, first, the dedication and, second, the commitment to do what it takes—no matter the cost” is a more important question than you might think.

Now I will be the first to admit we’re in a market-driven field. For example, I recently had a woman call me up and ask, “If I did an eight-hour, one-day women’s self-defense seminar”—because that’s what she and her friend wanted. I told her no and began to explain why. She hung up on me before I could tell her, “Almost all one-day seminars are more dangerous to you than no training at all.” Why do I say that? Well for multiple reasons.

One, anything she’s likely to learn in what is being taught in most seminars like that she’ll forget in three days. Not just improving but retaining newly learned physical skills takes practice. Practice most people don’t do. Two, most self-defense seminars are about fear management not danger management (soothing fears instead of teaching you how to manage danger.) Three, violence does not have a simplistic, one-size-fits-all, this-works- for-everything technique that you can learn. Four, violence is a spectrum of levels and types. An answer that works beautifully for one type doesn’t work for others (for example, drunken frat boy versus lurking serial rapist or murderer). Five, under adrenal stress you cannot effectively perform (hell, arguably even remember) techniques you haven’t practiced and ingrained prior to any dangerous incident. Six, even though my caller wasn’t in college, she was looking for equivalent of what Krav Chick thought she had: Something that would work on drunken frat boys, muggers, and monsters —except in this case learnable in eight hours. Sorry, lady, there are monsters out there that the only thing the average person can do is run screaming from. Eight hours won’t prepare you. It’s arguable eight years won’t be enough to cover all the possibilities of just three of those scenarios.

The list goes on for a bit more, but it ends with: Overconfidence and false confidence based on misunderstood information. That’s what eight hours is most likely to teach you.

Here’s an example. And what I am about to say flies in the face of the most cherished SD myth there is. Yet it’s a staple of eight-hour seminars. That is if you walk with confidence (like you’re going somewhere) the bad guys will leave you alone.

This. Is. Bullshit. There are countless more factors that go into who is targeted and why. Taking this idea to an extreme, walking alone through gang territory at night, unarmed, you can project all the confidence you want—but it’s not going to keep you from being targeted. Yet, I have encountered people—who have a little training—who believe it does. Enough so they’ll foolishly walk in such areas. “I can take care of myself.” That’s over confidence. Conversely, someone who is afraid and has no training has no problem being behind locked doors in that kind of area at night. As such, the person with no training, but common sense is safer than the person with some training who is taking unnecessary chances. Often this escalates into high-risk behavior among half-trained people because they believe they can take care of themselves.

Here’s a reality break. It is seldom the mouse that is the victim. That’s because mice have no problem running like hell—and doing it right up front before danger has a chance to really manifest. It’s the person, who has too much unfounded confidence, who walks into the tiger’s jaws. (Look up Dunning Krueger Effect.)

And why shouldn’t they be overly confident? How much time do you spend empowering them instead of telling them the limitations of the training? Or are you so busy trying to build confidence, you never tell them what the training doesn’t prepare them to handle? Two examples pop immediately to mind. One, mixed martial arts training won’t save you against four opponents. Two, carrying a firearm isn’t much help for non-lethal force situations.

If you’re not telling them their limits—why not?

Part III

Matrix Download Syndrome, Part I – Marc MacYoung

“Don’t think that your book learning is the same as my experience.”
Terry Trahan

Someone recently asked me how to keep calm when someone is in his face (threatening him). My response was:  Start with the fact that your ability to do it is developed BEFORE you need to do it. Without previous work, there is NO way to succeed on the spot. You asking “How do I do it in the heat of the moment” is too late. You’re screwed.

Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

This is going to be a series of articles about what you can do to keep yourself from getting killed out in the streets. But I’m not going to talk about techniques, combat mindset or even legal details. That’s because being able to easily access that kind of information is part of the problem. Instead, I’m going to help keep you alive by addressing assumptions, modern thought, how you’ve been conditioned to learn/think, how changes in technology, how “internet intelligence” and easy access to excessive information is negatively impacting our ability to safely navigate dangerous circumstances.

Here’s the booger about that. You won’t even know this problem exists until you’re either laying on the ground bleeding or sitting in the back of a cop car in handcuffs. Even then while you recognize something went horribly wrong, you won’t know what.

Let me start out by pointing out that you cannot learn self-defense in the classroom, training hall, dojo or even at firing range. This is biggest misconception there is and it often shades into an outright lie. A lie we are told and worse yet, a lie we tell to ourselves to bolster our confidence. But it won’t be until a situation turns into bloodbath that this lie will reveal itself.

Simply stated we can’t see these inherent flaws with our approach to self-defense because it’s how we’ve been educated. I’m talking public schools here. University education is years down the line. Here’s a news flash: Learning how to effectively defend yourself is not the same as learning geography. Here are some bullet points about that.

  • Self-defense is not a fixed subject; it’s a reaction. On both mental and physical levels, it’s on-the-spot and high speed problem solving. That requires assessment and judgment abilities be in place before the situation requiring them.
  • Self-defense doesn’t have a fixed way it happens, there are many levels of danger and even more ways things develop. Unfortunately many people train for only one level of response and believe that will cover ever possible scenario. Mostly these training scenarios are imaginary. They train for their fear about how they believe violence happens, rather than how it occurs (or how to recognize its development).
  • Nor is self-defense a set of techniques, a formula, a ‘mindset’ or a just-do-this ‘strategy’ you can learn on the internet; it reaction to changing circumstances and conditions  you find yourself in. Circumstances that are going to be impossible to predict before. Conditions that are completely situational  and impossible to develop universal tactics to handle. Circumstances and conditions that will change depending on what you (and others) do.
  • Nor is it just physical skills (whether punching, kicking, stabbing or shooting), it’s assessment. It’s knowing when to use those physical skills, when not to, when to start and most importantly when to stop. Self-defense is way more than physical. It’s also knowing what is danger and how to asses its development and degree (including that danger exists outside of perception). It’s having an understanding of human behavior and how your actions are going to positively — or negatively — influence the other person. It’s understanding how adrenaline and emotions can distort both our perceptions and thinking — and overcoming that to still make appropriate calls.
  • Most of all, it’s self-control. That is not something one develops in a class room or from reading the internet. You need to understand what self-defense isn’t, because come that dark and lonely night, it’s not what style you know. It’s not the caliber of gun or ammo. It’s not who your teacher was. It’s not whether he was a bad ass, a cop or a soldier. It’s not about your past, your self-esteem or empowerment. It’s not about your fears, emotions or ‘what ifs’. It’s about your ability to function and make good decisions under pressure.

    If you can’t do that, you’re screwed.

Does this mean classroom training is useless for self-defense? No. Not at all. One of the foundations for making good assessments, is having a working knowledge of multiple topics and –stable –data about those subjects. There are many issues related to self-defense that can only be learned from quality classroom time (e.g., what are the legal parameters, limits and consequences of self-defense?) You can’t gain a full understanding from just reading. You need class time where you can ask qualified instructors questions about the subject.

Does this mean reading on your own isn’t important? Au contrarie mon frere. The reading you do on the widest spectrum possible of topics is critical. But do NOT get all your reading materials from one source. For example, martial arts sources are not the last word on self-defense. They certainly suck as a source of legal expertise — starting with what is self-defense.

Read up on boundary setting, psychology, law, anthropology, conflict resolution, negotiation, leadership, social graces and anything else on human behavior you can lay your hands on. The wider the range of your knowledge, the more options you will have and the better you’ll become at managing conflict before it escalates to physical self-defense. Nobody has a monopoly on this subject, reading show you this truth. The wider the scope of your reading, the more you’ll realize how limited certain perspectives are about this subject.  Better than that though, such knowledge helps you in relationships, career and just getting through life.

Does this mean physical skills aren’t important? Oh this is a can of worms question. It’s especially problematic when someone has Matrix Download Syndrome. Hey Neo learned kung fu and karate by downloading, why can’t I? Ummm. How about, because this is real life and real life is more complicated than movie tropes and sound bites?

So why, even without MDS are physical skills when it comes to self-defense a can of worms? Short answer is: They’re critical, just not in the way you think.

Physical skills are a complex chicken or the egg issue. You do need to have physical skills that work. Yet even that is a multifaceted issue. Starting with dividing two fundamental concerns  so we can see how they interrelate. One is: What does it take to ingrain physical skills so you can do them under pressure? Two is: Is what you are being taught actually effective?

Someone can be extremely well trained in a bad system. This is the basis for my detailed -car -without-an-engine analogy. If important parts are missing, no matter how shiny and polished it is, that car isn’t going anywhere. Another way of looking at it, is just because an instructor can make it work, doesn’t mean you can. This especially because how often an instructor can have internalized an element so well he doesn’t think to mention it. It is therefore missing from his instruction. That’s the happy version. The not-so-happy version is the only reason it works for him is because of his strength and speed. Without those, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of pulling it off.

So ask yourself. Are you being trained so you can do something or are you being trained in what the instructor can do? Does the instructor identify the components of movement that must be present in order for the move to work and then drill them until they are ingrained? (Literally, you can’t do the move without these because it feels wrong.) Or does he show you a move, have you do it a few times and then move onto more sexy stuff?  If that’s how you’re being trained, you won’t be able to make those moves work in a situation.

You also need to have physical skills so ingrained that you don’t have to think about doing them. By that I mean not wasting bandwidth to figure out what’s the best move or where you have to step to do it. When either circumstances are right, you recognize something bad is happening or you’ve given yourself the go order, the process is automatic. That’s the result of understanding the move so well that you know when (and how) to do it without conscious thought. This, no matter how stressed or emotional you are.

The third can of worms element of physical skills is what I call faith. This concept is best exemplified with a simple question: Are you willing to bet your life on that move working? Do you have faith in your physical skills to get the job done?

If the answer is no, not only will you freeze, but when you can move, you’ll do it half-heartedly and without commitment. You will not commit to something you do not trust to work. Which increases the odds of it failing.

The final element of good physical skills has nothing to do with the physical. More than that, it flies in the face of the old maxim about “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Good physical skills give you the confidence to try other options. Will those other options work? Well you can’t really say until you try them, but having the physical ability to handle it if they don’t gives you the confidence to try. That’s a confidence you won’t have if you don’t have the physical elements ingrained.

Going back to the “Does this mean…” line of questioning.

Does this mean that scenario/adrenal stress training is the cat’s ass? No. It’s critical, for you to be able to apply your information, but like any other single topic approach to the subject it’s a failure waiting to happen.

Many people from traditional martial arts go into scenario-based training and fall apart — the first time. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth comes from this experience. In fact, many people use this as the basis of their claim that traditional martial arts are useless (and why this new, scientific and reality based training is superior). What these nimrods are overlooking is what happens when someone who has many years of training takes scenario training and finally learns how to function under adrenal stress.

There’s an entire mythology that has sprung up around scenario training. A mythology that often overlooks a simple truth. That’s in order for scenario training to work, you have to have ingrained skills beforehand. Skills that you’ve developed and ingrained over long practice.

Mix physical skills with class room knowledge and understanding and you end up with a process that can be understood akin to swimming. You learn how to swim in the current-less and shallowness of a pool. That’s where you master the component parts and refine your techniques. After that, you add another level of complexity to it by trying to swim in the ocean or river. The currents do not change what you already know, you learn to apply them under different and variable conditions. Scenario training can be best understood as “Okay, you know how to swim in a pool. Now it’s time to learn to swim in the ocean.” That’s a next level of issues affecting your swimming. And yet, when you’re playing in the surf, you’re still under the watchful eye of a lifeguard. This oversight is critical because, there’s a plethora of next level mistakes that a person can make.

Scenario training (or at least well run scenarios) can help you debug your reactions so you don’t make these common mistakes at the same time you develop faith in what you know working. But having said that, it’s still training. It’s not self-defense.

The final ‘does this mean…’ I’m going to leave you with is: Does this mean all training is bullshit?

No, but what it does mean that any training (no matter how good) is a simulation of reality. Training is not the same thing as doing. More importantly, training doesn’t mean you can do it. If we stick to the swimming analogy all that training, reading, classroom and scenario training isn’t the same as being swept overboard (an actual self-defense situation). But they will all contribute to you being able to swim to the life preserver (or to the shores of safety).

I liken training to building a bridge across a canyon. Many people believe if they find the ‘right’ system/approach/teacher, then it’s going to be like driving across the bridge. No problem at all, they just cruise right on over to the other side. When they end up falling off the end of an incomplete bridge they wonder what happened? Why didn’t it work? They’ve done everything right! It should have worked!

This is why I tell you you can’t learn self-defense in the classroom. The best training in the world will only partially complete the bridge, you have to make that final jump yourself. You have to reach inside yourself and pull that out of you to make the jump. Without this final component — and it can only be found in the situation — your training will not work.

At the same time, this is why the quality of the training is important. If the bridge is three quarters done, it’s a lot easier for you to complete the last quarter when you find yourself in a situation. But, if through bad training, the bridge is only one quarter done, then odds are strongly against you being able to make that leap. Some can, most fail.

The thing is, it’s entirely too easy for someone to decide that an instructor is offering them everything they need. This is a big part of why people buy into bad training. They have no frame of reference about how violence happens (and this includes someone who had one bad experience and decides to train). Instead they pick a training program based on their Hollywood based or imagination fueled beliefs about what violence is — and train for that.

In the rest of this series we’ll talk about other cognitive biases and misunderstandings that hinder your ability to act in self-defense. And how the belief that your training will do the work for you is a disaster waiting to happen.

Part II

Part III

Talking Knives: Part II – Marc MacYoung

Robbery, although wounds or killing are not common (unless the victim attempts to resist) this can be best understood as a ‘stalled attack.’ Violence routinely comes with instructions how to avoid it. These instructions tend to occur before a physical attack is initiated. With muggings this order is reversed. Basically using deception to cover the significance of his actions, the criminal sets up the range and positioning for an attack, starts the attack, and then stops before it lands. What was an attack stops and is followed by instructions how to keep the attack from finishing (e.g., give me your wallet). If the person resists, the completion of the attack often follows. While a single slash as punishment is common to the face, neck, upper chest and arms. Depending on the degree of resistance by the victim depends on the amount of injury.

Message blade use is common among criminals and certain ethnic groups. It is sometimes fatal (e.g., decapitation) sometimes not (i.e., nostril slitting, cutting off ears and nipples). The use of a blade is very deliberate in order to send a message to others, often through sheer savagery. For example the individual is not just killed with a blade, but hacked apart for intimidation. Especially in situations where more effective weapons are available, the use of a knife sends a clear message about crossing or betraying certain groups. Whereas deliberate but non-fatal maiming (i.e. nostril slitting, cutting off ears or fingers) combine sending a message to others about crossing a group, a lesson for the maimed person, and also demonstrates contempt for the individual left alive (i.e., you/your group are not strong enough to stand up to me/my group).

Brandishing/Menacing is fundamentally a threat display, negotiation tactic— that also happens to be illegal. A distinguishing difference between this and robbery (or kidnapping) is brandishing usually occurs in the middle of an altercation. There is usually conflict, build up and instructions to avoid before the weapon is drawn and displayed. This is repeated when the blade is drawn.

Like other kinds of threat display, brandishing can be based in either ‘do what I want or I will hurt you’ or  ‘I’m too dangerous to attack.’ While either type can result in the blade being used, both require closing distance. If the draw and deployment occurred outside of knife range, somebody has to move into range for there to be wounding.

The question is: Did the aggressor (using it in the first method) close the distance to enforce his demands when he perceived the desired reaction didn’t occur fast enough? Or perceiving this, did the aggressor attack in rage? Or did an aggressor unexpectedly encountering a knife, close the distance to show the defender his (the defender’s) knife didn’t scare him (the aggressor)? Or did it turn into a fear attack by the defender?  All four will result in knife wounds.  

A fifth option is the knife is drawn and deployed with intent to brandish, but is done inside attack range. Due to ‘compression’ and proximity, this attempt to ‘scare someone away’ often backfires in various ways. In these sorts of situations, the question inevitably comes up: Why didn’t he flee when under threat? Simply stated fleeing is only a realistic option when

1) the range is great enough

2) when the person fleeing is in better physical condition than the potential attacker. Failing either or both criteria, turning one’s back at close range is a high stakes gamble for being attacked from behind.

Defensive uses of blades tend to have four common elements. First, even though only one side typically has a knife, there must be immediate threat of death or grievous bodily injury by the other person’s actions to warrant the blade’s use. More often than not that danger comes from other means than a knife (e.g., clubs, guns, improvised weapons or conditional disparity of force). As stated earlier, knife to knife is exceptionally rare, but that doesn’t mean other dangers don’t exist.

Second, typically, once the threat stops the defender stops his actions. This tends to cause a limited number of wounds as when the initial attacker stops and breaks off, the defensive action stops as well.

Third, except in specific circumstances, wounds are to the front of the attacker (that the knifer was defending against).

Fourth, defensive wounds on the attacker tend to be non-existent or minimal. In essence while attacking, very little attention is paid to defense and arms are not used as shields. Often what could be described as ‘defensive wounds’ line up with other wounds (e.g., a cut to the arm that aligns with a cut to the chest from the same slash).

As a subpoint of #2, defense stops when threat stops, the amount of damage an attacker takes is often dependant on his or her commitment to attack. A committed — usually intoxicated —attacker can often take multiple fatal wounds and continue attacking before being overcome by those wounds. Again, usually on the front.

Fear can be considered a catch all category. It can be viewed as a third subset of brandishing gone wrong, sheer panic, or a defensive action that turns into a frenzy.

Under the combination of fear and adrenaline,  the individual—to use layman’s terms— ‘freaks out’ and starts attacking or leaves defensive action moving into excessive force. This flavor of knife use tends to create yet another pattern of wild, untargeted, multiple wounds. These wound pattern are indistinguishable from a rage or FMA attacks.

Fear knife use is also the basis of someone chasing a person down the street and slashing at the other’s, back, then later claiming ‘self-defense.’  Due to adrenal stress, fear and continued proximity the person honestly — although not reasonably — believes the other person is still a threat.


Talking Knives: Part I – Marc MacYoung

I am a court recognized expert witness regarding knife use and violence. Yes, lawyers pay me. Don’t be a hater. The down side is I have to deal with lawyers.

One thing lawyers always tell me is “Your job is to educate the jury.” I politely smile and respond, “My first job is to educate you about knife use so you can ask me the right questions …so I can educate the jury.”

Ever tried to teach a lawyer anything?  

This especially when it comes to your field? It’ll drive you to drink. Or if you’re an author, it will drive you to write something. I wrote this ‘appendix’ so I can hand it to lawyers. (I’m also planning a series on “Violence for Attorneys.”) After they read it, we are talking the same language when it comes to knife use. Prior to that? The Tower of Babel. Now they can ask me intelligent questions to educate the jury.

This break down also explains how I can look at autopsy photos and ER photos and — while I can’t with 100% tell you what it was —I can rule out a lot of things. Basically, I can  tell you what it wasn’t. This just from looking at the wound patterns. How do I do this? Simple, different attack methodologies result in different wound patterns.

Knife Use Stratagems

This summation was co-created with Terry Trahan to articulate different types of knife usage among humans. The purpose of this list is not to demonstrate what a specific incident was, but to help rule out what it wasn’t.

Knives are first and foremost tools. Their primary purpose of tools is paramount in both design and use. Having said that when these items are used as weapons, there tends to be broad categories usage strategies. These strategies tend produce recognizable wound patterns and targeting.

Overwhelmingly ‘knife fighting’ is a myth. While certain cultures have systemized arts, (escrima, silat, piper) these tend to be poorer countries, where knives are easily accessible because of a high reliance on manual labor. The marketing of these ‘martial arts’ and Hollywood are why the idea of ‘knife fighting’ exists. In reality knives are used in a much different method.  However, let’s start by referring to one specific branch of martial arts that claims to teach knife fighting.

FMA/knife combatives. Filipino Martial Arts (FMA  such as escrima/eskrima/kali) and combative knife systems tend to be largely ‘dueling systems.’ The strategies largely are predicated on mutually armed opponents fighting over issues of honor (mutual aggressors).  As such, the danger posed by the equally armed opponent must be neutralized for the safety of the duelist. This often results in multiple, wounding slashes — especially to the arm (“defanging the snake”) and torso. Allowing for honor to be satisfied, engagements using such training can result in no wounds at all (the two participants ‘dance around’ showing their bravery but never connect). Another result can be multiple and extensive wounding patterns without a fatal blow. Still a third option is extensive wounding with a ‘closing’ and finishing/fatal wound (delivered when the opponent is incapable of resisting.)

Commercialized FMA systems — as taught in the U.S. — often leave out closing and finishing moves. They typically hang back and repeatedly slash.  If they do close they often continue to slash and stab ineffectively. Much Americanized FMA training encourages what the author refers to as ‘the weedwhacker of death’ approach to inflicting multiple slash wounds; this strategy is ingrained by the training drills. This makes it impossible to distinguish between commercialized FMA trained attacks, rage or fear attacks by the wound patterns alone.

Knife combative systems are often marketed as having military roots. In reality, most of what is taught is commercialized FMA techniques performed with militaristic looking equipment. Use of these systems also tends to result in excessive slashing wounds and an overkill approach.

Having addressed the knife-to-knife approach, ordinarily, only one person has the knife. But even there predictable patterns arise from strategic goals:

Prison methods are more of an assassination strategy where specific vital targets are aimed at and repeatedly attacked.  For example, seven or eight stab wounds under the left armpit. The gang and prison connection extends this knowledge outside prison walls. Due to the improvised nature of the blades in prison, cutting is restricted inside, but can be incorporated outside. (Often resulting in multiple, targeted fatal wounds followed by a larger ‘finishing one.’) The safety of the attacker is usually ensured by a second person holding the targeted individual while the attacker with the shank delivers multiple fatal wounds to a specific spot. This can also occur with multiple attackers targeting different vital areas while other hold the victim. Although an individual attacker doing the same cannot be ruled out, coordinated multiple attackers are most common.

Military methods tend to focus more on immediate neutralization and fatality —starting with sentry removal. U.S. military knife tactics were primarily influenced by Colonel Rex Applegate (who learned under Captains Fairbairn and Sykes of the British Army in WWII) as part of commando operations. Although method has changed over the decades, doctrine remains the same, immediate neutralization of an enemy soldier via massive damage with one strike. Specific actions, once the knife is inserted, combined with selective targeting can create faster neutralization at this range than a bullet.
The targeting, size and the degree of the injury usually renders one’s opponent incapable of prolonged threat or resistance. Additional safety of the knifer is ensured by concurrent techniques that render the enemy incapable of resisting, counter-attacking or crying out.

Rage attacks tend to result in multiple large wounds as the attacker attempts to ‘beat the person’ while holding a knife. Slashes and other wounds tend to range from 10 up to 24 inches and appear all over the body (including on the back as the victim attempts to flee). They also tend to be not specifically targeted at vital areas, but instead are aimed at head, torso and arms. Also common in these kinds of attacks are defensive wounds, when the victim puts up his or her arms to shield the body from the attacks. Also slashes occur on front, side and back as the victim. This often occurs because realizing he or she is being injured, the victim often attempts to flee during a barrage of attacks.

If and when the attacker changes to stabbing attacks it is not uncommon for the attacker to self-wound.  Most vital targets are soft. A rage attack often hits bone. Often, as the attacker is trying to strike with as much force as possible, he loses grip on a utility knife and his hand slides off the handle and onto the blade creating a specific type of self-injury. Also common in these kinds of attacks are massive amounts of blood spatter on the attacker. This is mostly due to the extended nature of these attacks, closing and continued wounding.