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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

The Vagaries of Self Promotion

Some time ago, this video made the rounds in martial art circles.

I don't want to debate whether or not the man is in the right, but it did start a lot of conversation about rank - what it means, what is legit, and whether it matters or not.  If you are interested in more details about why this man did what he did, there's an interview with him here.

Rank (and titles and belts) and what it means, is always a source of debate in our community.

We endlessly talk about who deserves whatever ranks and who doesn't, what the requirements should be, who has the right to give out rank and who doesn't, how rank progression works, what represents fraudulent rank and what doesn't...  it's a huge topic, one that seems integral to the core of our community and what we do.

I believe, due to the nature of what we do, some sort of ranking system is in place by pure necessity.  We cannot fight/measure ourselves against every person we run across, nor can many of us tell the difference. Plenty of systems have survived for years without such things, but in modern times, especially without being able to battle-test what we do (even the competition/sport martial arts have gap), some way to say "So-in-so is 'better' than so-in-so based on these criteria" is needed.

Ranking in the martial arts works like a marketing loyalty program in our "business". I wrote a long post about this but just think of all the times your personal decision making has been influenced by whether or not you can earn rewards of some sort in other parts of your life, like grocery stores, credit card loyalty programs, points for travel or hotel stays, etc.  For us, ranks serve a similar function. 

However, while I argue that fundamentally rank functions like loyalty programs do in other small businesses, I don't want you to think that I believe it's the ONLY function. In our world, it can often mean much, much more than that.

Our culture is somewhat hierarchical in nature, by necessity and by tradition.

We have the lead administrator or teacher - the highest ranking person - generally making decisions for the group and the individuals within the group.  Then you have the rest of the group arrayed in varying levels of authority and skill below that person in most of our organizations and groups.  No matter what martial arts style we're talking about, this is generally true.

A hierarchy requires that certain people have certain roles to fill, and often, the higher in the hierarchy you are, the more authority you have.

In our world, "authority" generally means you set and maintain the standards of the martial art (we punch this way, we kick that way, we use those weapons, and we don't do that other thing over there) and you manage and monitor the progress of students in that style, to meet certain standards required by that style or system.

So, the higher the rank, the more authority a person has.

The ranking system we have is the main way of communicating the appropriate levels of authority within the group without having to prove it on every person you run across via combat.

We in the martial arts are also somewhat traditional and change averse.  That means we prefer to do things as our teachers have left them to us, and we only change things when there's a pressing need or desire to do so.  So our rank requirements (and other cultural norms) tend to be whatever our "ancestors" in our school or style decided back in the day.  We maintain the ranks, the requirements, and thus, the resulting authority by sheer inertia.

Rank in most martial arts schools is a short-hand, then, for determining who has the authority, and who doesn't, with an assumption behind it that those authorities are legitimate and have the right to make the determination.

Rank generally comes from time in the martial art (training time as well as calendar time) plus an examination of your skill in that martial art by a qualified individual or individuals.  Sometimes a win/loss record is also something that is taken into consideration, if your martial art values that sort of thing.

The outrage over the self promotion above comes from the violation of the "examination of your skill by qualified individuals" part of our ranking tradition.

As a community, we fundamentally believe it is impossible to accurate assess one's own skills, so therefore some external authority has to do it.  I admit, I tend to agree with this line of thinking, as I have found, if I am honest, I am not a very good judge of my own skill (both what I'm good at, and what I'm not so good at).

It's "normal" in our world to have rank conferred FROM authorized people TO an individual.

There are people out there who claim black belt rank - VERY HIGH black belt rank, up to Grand Master (and beyond, making up nonsense titles) - in a laundry list of martial arts, collecting ranks and titles like Pokemon.  

Many of them have been granted those ranks by belt mills for a fee (or for a trade - I'll rank you in my organization, and you do the same for me in yours).  Or, after earning a belt in a legit martial art, they go off and create their "own" martial art, and then claim nobody else is qualified to rank them in their made-up nonsense martial art ("How can you judge me, the creator of Chartreuse Dragon Karate-fu-do?  I'm the creator of the art, on the same level as Bruce Lee and Ed Parker!").

So, barring frauds and fakes, the idea of someone promoting themselves to a rank just seems so contrary to how things are done in the legitimate martial arts world.

Frauds are often pretty easy to spot, but not always, especially when you are a newbie or you come from a very different martial arts tradition.  That's why you get people obsessing over being able to prove one's lineage to underscore one's authority and legitimacy as having come from a line of legit people before them.

Lineage says, "My teacher says I am (x) rank, and his teacher granted him (y) rank, and her teacher granted her (z) rank, who was a direct student of the founder of our style as the ultimate authority", which makes our authority greater as a result than just some guy waving around nunchucks in his mom's basement or garage having watched a lot of YouTube videos.

Of course, when challenged, we have to back all that up on the mat, but it's impossible to do so for every person we meet, due to time and distance and expense.

But let's grant, for a moment, that we aren't talking about Fakey McFraud and his "rare" martial art nobody practices but him or his worthless piece of paper and Hall of Fame plaque from the Martial Arts Buddy Glad-Handing Club (only $19.99 for lifetime membership!).

Let's assume we're talking legit martial artists creating a legit martial arts style.  Is self-promotion ALWAYS something that's bad?

I think that really depends, and it's hard to tell at the time it's happening.  It may be something we can only truly judge in hindsight.

Ultimately, to be legit in your rank, you have to have other legit people confirm it somehow. You can't just claim it and expect that everyone in the world will just go along without questioning it or testing it.

Skill always tells the story, and no martial art develops in a vacuum, even if it is a new style.  So that's one way, the best and most reliable way: he or she proves it by contesting against other highly skilled martial artists, either in sparring or in friendly demonstration and geeking out. And then those people will confirm or not confirm it.

Is self promotion of Joe McCaffrey legit?  Honestly, time and training on the mats will tell the story.  If he wishes for the outside world to consider him legit, he has to roll with experts from outside of his school that can assess him properly.

He may or may not care if the rest of us consider him legit at all.  That could affect his ability to attract students in the long run, but hey, it's his choice, right?

So what do you think about self promotion?  Is it legit?  Or is it always something that just shouldn't be done?  Let us know in the comments!

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