Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Politics of Fighting

Martial artists are a weird bunch.

Come on - putting yourself in a position to allow people to hit you with things is kinda weird, isn't it?  Wearing stylized uniforms based on the dress of a culture that no longer dresses that way, and rank belts on any day other than Halloween or a costume party is weird.   Studying archaic fighting techniques using archaic weapons that you will never, ever use in your real life is weird.

That's fine - I'm good with weird.  I like weird.  I am weird, in more ways than just this one.

In some quarters, this is stylish. Go Chiefs!
But when you look at it another way, we're just like every other sub culture that exists.  We have the same group dynamics, and the same political issues.

For example, in pop culture fandoms the political issue is often early fans vs. later fans, where early fans claim a sort of moral superiority to those who came later.  In sports fandoms - people who have been fans of the team for decades have a slightly superior status versus those who are relatively new fans.

Isn't this the same attitude of direct students of an art's founder, versus those who train later - that the later people can never be as good as those who trained directly with the founder?  People who have trained 30 years are always seen, somehow, as somewhat better than someone who's trained 10 years, even if that 10 years training person is a savant and physically and mentally gifted, aren't they?

You'll never, ever be as good as Pei Mei, but that's a general principle.
You have people who claim the old or early days of martial arts training were better or more pure, and that today people don't have the proper values or are watering down the training (especially if they teach children).  This is not unique to us; you hear the same complaints in everything from toy collecting to the maker communities - that in the early days, these hobbies were populated by heroes who only cared about the hobby and were giants in the field, sacrificing home and family in pursuit of their passions, versus the n00bs who aren't worthy to offer an opinion about anything at all (or god forbid, do the hobby so well that they are successful at it).

If you aren't putting cops in the come-along wearing a fabulous hat, you're weak.
Most martial artists are always jockeying for status in one way or another - rank vs. rank, style vs. style, teacher vs. teacher - and it ends up with little knots of people angry with other knots of people over perceived slights of respect and honor.  Friends, this stuff happens in societies like the Masons and Lions Club and Knights of Columbus and any other group larger than two people that's ever existed.

This stuff - politics - can ruin a training group utterly, and the pain of this is very real and honest and true.  Some folks try to dismiss these things as just "politics", but I don't think that's achievable.

I don't think we can avoid politics.

This "political" stuff that we often decry is just the nature of humankind.  We are generally somewhat competitive in some way or another, and it's a part of our social makeup as human beings that we have to jockey for social position.  It's built into us, as a species.  We do it in our families, in our friendships, in our workplaces, and our hobbies - it's one of the many reasons that we have survived and thrived as the dominant mammals on the face of this planet.

We martial artists are not immune, as much as we want to believe sometimes that we are above it all due to the code many of us follow.  In fact, I'd argue it's worse for us, as most of us follow a pretty conservative, hierarchical culture that rewards rising in status (rank) and frowns upon too much challenging and asking questions (low ranks have fewer social "rights" than high ones).

So you get political problems in the smallest training group, in every martial arts school, in every martial arts organization.  It's just a fact of life.

The trick, I think, is to be aware of this, so that we can avoid the conflicts that inevitably arise, resulting in schisms and hurt feelings and misunderstands that are detrimental to our arts.  We can't avoid the politics, but we can avoid them devolving into something destructive.

Here's my challenge to you - and for me, too.

The next time you perceive a slight to your rank, or your honor, or what have you, instead of getting angry and not saying something to that person and nursing it into something bigger, maybe it'd be more productive to 1) take a deep breath and calm down and 2) look at it from the other person's perspective.  Don't automatically assume the intent was to hurt or slight you.  We all make mistakes like this, all the time. And then, once you've calmed down - talk nicely to that person, and see if you both can't come to a better place of understanding.

I'll just sit here until the urge to punch you in the jugular goes away.
While we will always have this pressure, these politics - I think it'd be better for our arts if we tried very hard to not let these things spiral out of control.  Let's take our egos down a notch.  Let's give the other guy more slack and benefit of the doubt. Let's accept that we can be great while somebody else can be just as great too (and better in some things - it doesn't make you or your art lesser, really).

What do you think? I'm not looking for political horror stories - we all have those. Instead, tell me about a time where you were able to overcome politics and make a better group or training situation.  Tell me how you try to avoid these natural group conflicts, or what you think can be done to cope with them.