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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Honors and Ranks and Titles, Oh My!

In the martial arts, ranks and honors and titles are a big deal, usually.

I've written endlessly about rank on this blog so I won't get back up on my soapbox here. Just let me say I think we spend far too much energy obsessing over rank, who has it, who doesn't, and from whom, and why, and whether it's legit or not.

Titles are also a big discussion point in the martial arts, but I don't think I've said much about titles here.

In my lineage of my style, the term for black belt is "Lakan" and then the Filipino terms for numbers (Isa, Dalawa, Tatlo... aka one, two, three in English).

Unless you're female, and then we use "Dayang".

So Mr. Chick is a Lakan Tatlo, and I'm Dayang Tatlo.

Those are our ranks. Our titles, at this stage, is "Guro", which means teacher or instructor, a lot like "Sensei" in the Japanese arts. After a certain point, I may reach a rank (Lima, or 5th) where I'll have the "Punong Guro" title.

Here's the thing, though: as much as I am proud of the rank(s) we've attained, and the title I have... I don't actually use it very much in real life.

My students, especially now that they're all adults, call me "Jackie" (when I taught kids, I was "Miss Jackie", a US Southern-ism that I like a lot). If they MUST be formal, they use "Guro", but I don't ask that of them, myself.

I've discovered, though, that some students absolutely need to have a title for a teacher for their own well being, so "Guro Jackie" or "Guro Bradbury" it is.

For many of you, it's really important to be called whatever title you have in a martial arts context, because you worked hard to earn it, and are proud of it. Your title is the outward measure and proof of all of that, and it's also proof of the trust and value that you have from your teachers and peers.

That's cool by me, too. I respect hard work, and for most people, that's what the title represents. Others using it is a sign of respect for that work.

What I find not so cool is all the drama around titles - who has them, who should have them, who gets to use which one in which context, and the pearl-clutching that happens when someone doesn't use the right title at the right time for someone.

Humans just have this innate need to enforce a pecking order, don't we? And wow, if you don't follow whatever relatively arbitrary rules we establish around those things, some folks noses REALLY get out of joint.

This pecking order thing why there's a market for fraudulent belt-mill titles, rank-trading and outright lying about a lineage so you can claim you're Hanshi or Soke or Anshu or Grand Master Supreme or whatever.

If we didn't put so much drama and energy into these titles, the market for these fraudulent claims would diminish, and we'd far fewer Grand Soke Hanshi-Professors claiming a high rank in 50 different martial arts running around.

Outside of plain fakery, I think the most damaging thing about titles is how this drama over it all is used to hurt peoples' feelings when it's just not necessary.

Arguing over who has the right to which title, or recognizing/granting a title you don't have the right to, or questioning the rank given by a recognized master because you don't agree with that master's assessment of the person, withholding a rank because of non-martial arts skill reasons...

All that stuff happens, and too often, titles are used as a weapon to punish some and reward others, versus as a measure of skill.

Look, rank and titles are not always given based on objective standards as determined on a mat, and it's always been that way. Unless you are in a combative sport style that only measures "rank" by win-loss records (and I'd argue that there's problems with that as well), "standards" are a lot like art - you know it when you see it, but you can't define it objectively as there's always so many exceptions to what you try to describe.

Martial art, y'all.

The titles that come with rank are highly, highly arbitrary and inconsistent not only from style to style but even within organizations within a specific style, too.

I do Filipino Martial Arts. There are literally dozens and dozens of different titles based not only on rank, but what dialect the founder(s) of the system speak.

The Philippines have anywhere between 120 and 187 dialects (this article HERE discusses just a handful of them, but you can get the idea). I don't speak any of those dialects (I'm from Missouri, so my English is also suspect), so I don't know what half these titles in the FMA's actually mean anyway.

Yeah, I'm not going to get too excited over who has which one.

I won't say that there haven't been cases - I can think of one specific one - where a title was given to an individual where I think it isn't right to give them that title (and it wasn't just a fraud doing fraudulent things). My objection in that case doesn't have anything to do with the individual in question, it's that the people who granted that title believing they could grant it.

Nobody cares about my opinion in that matter anyway, and at the end of the day, that person having that title doesn't affect me in what I do at all.

I will say I think it's necessary and desirable for the head of an organization or a founder of a style (often it's the same person but not always) to have a title that denotes that. That is supposedly what a "Grand Master" is, but there are groups now with multiple "Grand Masters" so that title is losing its meaning.

Or we end up with "Supreme Grand Master" or a "Great Grand Master" over a bunch of "Grand Masters". Which has actually happened, so... yeah.

Again, it doesn't affect me in my day-to-day, but you can see how it might start looking a little ridiculous to outsiders, can't you?

In any case, like rank, titles have a whole lot of drama around them in the martial arts world, and I wish we'd just let a lot of it go, because it really doesn't matter that much in the overall scheme of things.

I think, ultimately, it harms our community more than it helps. Like rank, I wish, for the most part, titles would disappear.

I think we'd all be a lot happier if they did.

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