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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

On Politics

Have you ever noticed that in the martial arts world, when we say things are "political", it's almost never in a positive context?

We almost always talk about "politics" or "being political" as being a bad thing.

"Oh, so-in-so's organization is great, but be careful, it's really political."

"I'd love to train with Sensei such-and-such, but I can't because he and my teacher don't get along. Y'know, politics."

This is not unique to us, mind you. Every group - hobbies like ours, businesses, religious groups, as well as nations and cities and everything in between - is "political".

Humans are social creatures. We organize ourselves into groups all the time, because we're built that way, generally speaking.

This is true of ANY group of humans gathering for ANY purpose. A martial arts school or organization is a group of humans like any other, and thus, needs some way to resolve conflicts and to make sure the needs of the individuals of the group are being met.

"Politics" is the word we use to describe the process of figuring out how the group can stay together, deliver the benefits it's supposed to deliver to its members, and resolve conflicts.

Any group of humans has conflicts and disagreements, after all. We have to have some way to resolve them. So, when we say "politics" or someone is "political" we are really describing the way that a group decides who's in the group, and who isn't in the group, and how you can tell, and what rules make someone "in-group".

Every group that exists has "in-group" people ("our side") and "out-group" people ("their side").

"Our side" are the people that live the right way, have the correct moral and ethical values and behavior, and do the "right thing". "Their side" are the people that don't have the same high purpose and values that we do, certainly aren't as honorable or trustworthy as we are, and are usually seeking to hurt us in some way.

"Their side" almost always consists of people who are too ignorant, to selfish, or even too downright evil to see that our way is the right way. "Our side" consists of good and honorable people, and misdeeds of theirs are almost often honest mistakes (within certain boundaries, of course).

The thing about the martial arts world is that we are almost always authoritarian in how we organize ourselves. We are usually a lot more like absolute monarchies versus republics or democracies.

I wear this with my nice gi on formal occasions.

We tend to have a single head of a group, maybe a council of senior students who are leaders in their own right but defer to and advise the head, and the rest of the group members fall in line with the rules, with little to no say in what those rules are.

If a member of the group disagrees with a rule or a decision by the leadership, they usually have two options:

✔ Accept the rule or decision, keep their doubts to themselves, and stay in-group.

✔ Reject the rule or decision, express dissatisfaction, and eventually become out-group.

It is a rare organization that allows dissenters to remain in the ranks and be vocal about it. Either directly or indirectly, dissenters are usually encouraged to leave the group if they can't be quiet, and heck, people who aren't high ranking in the group don't even have the standing to question the group's rules at all. They just have to leave.

Don't let it hit you on the way out.

Dividing into "in-group" and "out-group" happens all the time in the martial arts world.

One obvious case is what often happens the founder of a system or organization dies. In rare cases where a clear inheritor exists AND is accepted by the senior students, it usually ends up with the senior students deciding how to keep the group together.

This means that the original organization quickly disintegrates into splinter groups, because why should Senior A submit to the authority of Senior B and Senior C if they don't agree? They are all equal students of the Founder.

Rather than submit to the authority of equals, they splinter off into Senior A's group and Senior B's group and Senior C's group, each with its own rules, each with a new hierarchy with a Senior student as the new leader who makes the rules to his or her own liking.

Sometimes these splinter groups get along, and sometimes they don't. Even when they do get along relatively well, there's still the process of "in-group" and "out-group", even if it's mild and seems a little petty.

"Oh, Senior B is a pretty good martial artist, but he didn't know the Founder like Senior A did. Senior A is teaching the real authentic stuff as intended by the Founder." Of course, this is usually said by members of Senior A's group.

It is impossible to escape politics. All we can do is follow with the rules and be in the group, or don't and go off and do our own thing (maybe with like-minded people).

Do we have to be so toxic about it, though?

Maybe we can grant that maybe the out-group isn't dumb or wrong-headed or evil?

Maybe we can give people the benefit of the doubt, and that perhaps the out-group isn't out to hurt or embarrass us?

Maybe we can be a little more self-aware about how our comments about the out-group are perceived by them? Put ourselves in their shoes a little bit?

Perhaps we can respect the contributions of the out-group to our community, and maybe because they disagree with us on some things, it doesn't make everything they do bad?

If we do that, maybe we can have a little more... fun? Grow a little more? Be and do more than we are?


What do you think about "politics" in the martial arts world? Do you play the game, or not? Let me know what you think!

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