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The Learning of Violence

This will not be the blog post you think it will be. This is a bit off topic from my normal post for this site but it’s an interesting topic and one that has been on my mind for several years. Most likely there will be people who get upset about it. I’m cool with that.

It will be long-ish but it’s important so let’s get to it.

Within the martial arts there are many…more than many…who have never seen real violence beyond what they might have encountered within the confines of their training. And that…most often…does not compare to real violence. It is one thing, for example, to teach a woman how to fend off a rapist within the confines of a training program and another for the woman to actually have to do it.

If we’re honest, this gap is good because it means that we’ve largely avoided situations that have required violence to survive.

For anyone who has dealt with any kind of violence, a mugging, a forced entry, robbery, an assault, or domestic violence there is a reality that can never be replicated within a training program and, quite frankly, shouldn’t. There is only so much any training can do to prepare you unless you are willing to actually fight for your life against someone willing to take it from you.

Now, depending on your training you will encounter a variety of methods that are used to try and replicate whatever aspects we can within that paradigm. The more you invest in understanding it as a coach, the more you can bring to try and prepare others. But understand, as a coach, you cannot actually prepare someone. You can only attempt to improve their ability to be prepared. And to be is a state of being—not something you buy—it can only happen in the moment. That critical moment in time when and if something ever happens.

As a result, any good self-protection coach (and others) is constantly seeking out more and more information to try bridge that gap. That also means looking at other people who have experienced violence or who have perpetrated violence.

It makes sense right? If a person has experienced violence then they are more prepared to help someone bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.

Like many things in this industry I don’t necessarily agree. Then you ask me, “don’t you think that a person with a history of violence can help?” Well the answer is maybe.

Let me lay out a scenario… A person is walking down the street and suddenly two people step out of the shadows and approach the individual directly from the front. The person can tell something isn’t right and tries to avoid. The would be assailants intercept and one of them immediately pull out a knife. One of the two tells our person to hand over their wallet. Our person complies, and as he is handing over the wallet to one of the assailants, the other stabs him in the abdomen. The assailants run off. Our person applies pressure, and someone comes along and calls 911. He lives and now is a self-defense instructor who has encountered real violence.

So I ask, are they an expert in knife encounters by virtue of getting stabbed? My belief is that they are not. Then what makes a person an expert if not experience? Well… consider this. If you are a welder and you weld one time, are you an expert?

The answer is obvious, yet in the field of violence, for whatever reason, an individual who has one encounter—or even two—can often be held up as someone who is an expert. Particularly if they are good at marketing themselves….

Now, to be clear, what I’m not saying is that you cannot learn something from that person about that particular encounter and perhaps about violence generally, but survival itself does not actually imply expertise. If that person had encountered 20 knife assaults and survived them all by doing exactly the same things we could start to draw some real-world applicable knowledge from that.

However, even then, if the person had been stabbed 20 times, the best we could learn is where to be stabbed, and perhaps the medical skills they used to survive. Valuable knowledge to be sure, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can suddenly advise on how to avoid being stabbed or that they are now a knife fighting expert. Mostly it shows that they are resilient, maybe have medical knowledge, have no awareness skills, and/or perhaps they are excellent at escalating inter-personal conflict into violence.

In contrast, the person who has avoided violence may actually have a more useful and valuable skill for the vast majority of people to understand and utilize. Perhaps the individual who has avoided violence and its use has more highly developed instincts, awareness, and natural survival skills than the person who doesn’t.

So ask yourself… if you are studying from a person who claims to have had 600 bar fights as a doorman and has never lost. What are you learning? I would suspect that you aren’t going to learn anything about avoidance, de-escalation, or awareness. (I’d also suspect that you are about to give your money to a lying salesman but that’s another topic. )

It’s one thing to identify the violence that has happened to people and acknowledge that something unique has happened in those instances where the individual has survived. But please understand that every single situation is at least slightly, if not significantly different from the last. Yes, there are parallels in violence and how it manifests but there are also differences.

For the individual who survives an encounter there may be things they take away—in other cases there may not be. In any of those situations what you’re likely to find is that there will be the development of biases that are specific to that individual and the situations encountered. It’s what we do as humans.

Those biases are never left behind, and most of the things we look at moving forward are tools that we use to identify and support those biases. The human conditioning process is inherently setup to do this. It’s how we have stayed adaptable and survived but they are not a complete picture. They are the experience of an individual.

Now assuming the individual is inspired and chooses, they could go on to study and further expand their understanding but they will often hold their personal experience to a higher level of knowledge than anything else they encounter—because they lived. Even other people’s experiences. It’s what we do—rightly and wrongly.

Surviving violence doesn’t equate to expertise in violence.
Expertise in violence doesn’t equate to surviving violence.

Coach Sean

© Firebrand Alliance, 2022