Saturday, January 17, 2009

Drinking the Koolaid

“They drank the koolaid” is our shorthand for martial artists who have displayed even low levels of cult-like behavior. It is a reference to Jim Jones who took his little cult to Guyana and convinced them (forced them? Some? All? Who was there who lived and can tell the whole story?) to drink poisoned grape koolaid. It offered them a chance to go to the next world as a unit, I suppose.

There are a few words I have to explain here that I may not use in the common way- bias, prejudice and bigotry.

Bias is just a statement of preference. I like steak better than cauliflower, as do all right-thinking people. Jamieson’s Irish whisky better than Bushmill’s and Ardbeg scotch better than either. I don’t have a lot of trouble with biases.

I don’t have a lot of problem with prejudice, either. We all pick up clues based on appearances about what is likely to trigger our biases. I expect a green glass soda bottle to have something citrus in it, not a cola or root beer. I prefer to not eat at a restaurant that smells bad from the outside.

In human terms, I don’t like stupid, lazy or rude people. I just don’t. Those are some of my biases. My prejudices, however (and I try not to show it, that would be rude) are that I expect slow people to be stupid, obese people to be lazy, and loud people to be rude.

It’s not always true. It is true often enough that it is reinforced.

However I know and cherish people who have triggered all of my prejudices without proving them out.

Here’s the thing- prejudice only becomes bigotry when you cling to your belief in the face of facts. When you treat someone as if they are lazy or stupid when they have proven that they aren’t, that’s bigotry. These are my personal definitions.

It is related to the talismanic thinking in the martial arts.

We all have our preferences, biases. I’m an infighter. I know people who like grappling; who like striking; knife guys; gun guys; people who work out in pristine white pajamas and people who work out in their work clothes. It’s all good. Just preferences.

Then there are prejudices-e.g. “sports martial arts are better for streetfighting”; “grappling is the most practical”; “winning at (insert your contest of choice here) is the best way to find out if something works”; “the guys in white pajamas don’t play hard”; “the guys who wear camo are bad asses”; “older styles are more real”… These are just beliefs that people have about what constitutes a valid clue. If you have been paying attention, have both an open and a critical mind, you can use your prejudices to quickly narrow down the field and choose something you are likely to be happy with. Generally, that’s cool.

It becomes a problem when facts cease to matter. Actually, only a problem for me.

For most people, martial arts is about fear management, not danger management. It is a way to feel that they have “a pretty good chance” or that they can “take care of themselves”. It’s about the feeling, not the ability.  So becoming blindly dogmatic, absolutely certain that your Purple Lotus of Screaming Death Style is the end-all and be-all vastly increases your fear management. It makes good sense, from that point of view, to ignore those annoying little things called ‘facts’ and even to shut out experience- in extreme cases, even your own experience. So it generally really isn’t a problem for the koolaid drinker himself (and no one seems to be able to call it koolaid while they are drinking it). It’s only a perceived problem, and only for me, because I look at it through that dastardly danger-management lens.

There are levels of koolaid drinking. People who believe that their master has a scroll that is older than the native country’s written language or that their unarmed style was designed to fight mounted warriors. Those are pretty extreme.

It’s a group thing, too. Martial arts (and other specialized societies) create tight little self-reinforcing communities. Sometimes it is formal- the hierarchy specifically discourages dissent. Sometimes it is informal with the students banding together to protect the integrity of their fantasy.

More later….

18 comments:

ush said...

The audio recording of the Jonestown suicide is available on the internet. Worth listening to. Most of Jones followers were cheering him on even when the children started screaming.

And Black Bush is nicer either than Ardbeg or Jamesons but that's probably just a prejudice of mine...

Steve Perry said...

I've been thinking about this one lately. I think the division between fear management and danger management is a good notion.

Consider the USMC's basic training. It's what? Twelve weeks? You shave heads, put the recruits through some intensive training for three months, at the end of which they believe they are baddest asses on the planet.

Are they really? Is a guy who comes out of boot camp, a fit and buffed twenty in the same league with a sergeant who has three tours under his belt in an active war zone?

Or even somebody with less -- or no -- formal training who has been out in the same mean streets getting shot at and shooting back?

This goes to the long-standing idea that the fight is under the hat and not the glove. All things being equal, I tend to agree with that; however, a guy with fight under the hat AND the glove is better off than one or the other.

So the question is, how to get both FM and DM ... ?

Scott said...

Confucius said: It's a whole life time practice to get our words to match our actions.

And by "words" he also meant "intentions." The further away our fantasy takes us from what is real, the harder it is to get our actions to match our intentions.

Fantasies lead to all sorts of inappropriate actions, not just danger management failures.

Irene said...

Is there value to fear management, though, in how it is perceived by others? Take someone has earned his blackbelt with three years of McDojo, and deeply believes that he is a total bad-ass who can handle any threat that appears. That self-confidence (unjustified though it may be) will come across, and at least some two-legged predators will decide that he is not worth the risk of trying to prey on. So he is, effectively, safer - he won't be attacked, so he won't have to actually manage the danger.

If he runs into a predator who can see through that, of course, he will be in serious trouble.

Master Plan said...

Pedantically I must point out that it looks to have been Flavor-Aid and not Kool-Aid. Because...when you know a certain factoid...you gotta assert your knowledge...right?

I think that because for most people Fear is uncomfortable it's easier to abandon critical thinking for talismans.

Similarly for most people Danger is basically non-existent in their daily lives, so, again, it's easier to abandon critical thought for talismans.

In fact the security of blanket of MA often provides that sop for having to actually confront the fear itself. It's enough to think you are doing something about.

I think this is slightly different than what you (Rory) at talking about in that it's not a kind of *rejection* of Facts but rather a surface level reassurance in the face of a lack of facts and the lack of desire to investigate same.

It's not drinking the Flavor-Aid because old Jimbo asked\told you to, it's drinking the Flavor-Aid because you didn't know anything else was available at the party.

The stats, to me, suggest that most folks who enter in to MA training have essentially no background and no basis for comparison. If you take a college class in...whatever, grammar let's say, and they give you invalid rules of syntax, absent anything else in that information field how will you ever know?

Furthermore in MA you usually (in my limited experience) see mono-style practitioners and so even when they come together to talk to other martial artists...it's just another monostylist with no clue that they are missing the clues. So then you get little chance to even become aware of how small your world is. That is, like the grammar example, if nobody ever corrects your misusages perforce you will continue to assume you are in fact correct.

And thus keep drinking the Flavor-Aid without any idea you are doing so.

I think the relative paucity of crime in your stereotypical MA practitioners world (white, middle-class) enhances this.

Master Plan said...

Ooh, I got a better one.

You take a Spanish class. They teach you "bano" is the word for "toast". You get together with your Spanish group twice a week for 2 hours and practice speaking to each other. It's a closed loop, no real Spanish speakers.

As you then engaged in Flavor-Aid drinkery when you take a trip to TJ and tell them you like jam on your "bano"?

Steve Perry said...

Well, I am compelled to point out that even a stopped clock (analog version) is right twice a day, and sometimes blind pigs find acorns ...

Worg said...

The main metric for me has been that all of my instructors can quite comfortably mop the floor with me.

My jujitsu sensei was probably 5'9 and not built. My silat instructor is probably 5'4 or 5'5. The fact that these guys can destroy me at 6'5 280 tells me that there's something going on there.

20 years ago I was already able to clean house simply because of my size and a small amount of book training (the book I liked was "Tiger Style Kung Fu, forget the author). I don't know how much of that kool-aid I ever drank but the other metalheads and street trash with whom I skirmished certainly didn't seem to like the taste of those tigerclaws very much...

Point is, if your instructor knows more than you do, you're most likely learning something. IMO, arts like jujitsu that involve direct contests between the students, and between them and the instructors, are very important for "base" arts at the very least. Once an effective base is established-- figure jujitsu shodan level or the equivalent-- then the student is probably safe to branch out into non-contestive arts.

I think when the instructors don't spar with their students, that's where the problems start.

Rory said...

Ush- nope, that's a bias. It's a prejudice if you assume an older whisky is better before you even taste it.

Steve- Honestly, too much connected thought to answer your comment quickly. So notes to myself- confidence and skill; confidence, skill and character. 12 weeks of BCT versus 12 weeks of X; Bootstrapping experience; well-trained versus experienced; motivated, unmotivated and dedicated; even the glove is under the hat; teams and individuals. There might be more. If I can tie it all together and explain it in a post, I'll call it "For Steve" or something.

Scott- Absolutely. The trouble is how do you tell your own fantasy beliefs from solid beliefs before reality decides which ones to crush? BTW, you aren't shyly wearing a nightie right now, are you? ;)

Irene- Exactly. Most of the time, superstitions work. Seriously. I do not know a single person who regularly wears a cross who has ever been nailed by vampires. False confidence averts almost as many problems as real confidence (which you almost can't distinguish until it fails) and I've used pretending as a tool to become:
http://chirontraining.blogspot.com/2005/10/pretenders.html
The bigger problem is the attachments that people put on it. "I'm good." is fine. "I'm good enough." begs a question.

Jonas- Right with you on the lack of facts and even the inbreeding (two martial artists may not necessarily have more facts about violence than one, but they have nearly twice the knowledge. If the knowledge isn't about facts, then what is it?) And an interesting, to me, side question- if your data is only 50% accurate, will the person with 1, 10 or 1000 'facts' make a better decision? What if it is 10% accurate? 80%?
However, one of the things that appalls me are martial artists who disregard not only facts but their own experience? It does happen.
http://chirontraining.blogspot.com/2005/10/grasping-at-illusions.html

Worg- It's a good rule of thumb, but one of the things with the really skilled frauds is that part of their training is conditioning you so that things work in a certain way (see the above link). It's interesting because it is subtle and really only takes a few minutes to get someone to just assume that he should fight the way everyone else fights in class, a way that the instructor is already highly skilled in. I can't think of five instructors who I have ever seen take someone completely fresh and unknown and invite them to attack any way they want. One of the ones that did, I (me, sheep gene still intact) did the classic long lunge punch- giving him a feed more than testing anything. Oh ell. That's learning.

Rory

Anonymous said...

My metric is can the instructor pass along skills so that I might stand a chance of mopping the floor with him.
;)

MikeK

Steve Perry said...

Devil's advocate here:

"I can't think of five instructors who I have ever seen take someone completely fresh and unknown and invite them to attack any way they want. One of the ones that did, I (me, sheep gene still intact) did the classic long lunge punch- giving him a feed more than testing anything. Oh (w)ell. That's learning."

As a demonstration of ability to deal with an attack, this is a fair test: Come at me, your choice, let's see what happens.

Instructor dusts your broom, that maybe means he has some skill. If, however, it is to be a teaching moment, how many students are going to be sharp enough to see what the guys does if the set-up is all bets off, go for it?

Some teachers might be able to do that retro-Tom Cruise memory trick from The Last Samurai, where they replace the attack and defense in glorious slo-mo, so they can restage it for onlookers -- here's what he did, here's what I did, this is why it worked.

I expect that in an at-speed and even moderate power situation, some teachers might hand an attacker his head, but not know what the guy did exactly because the thought process got bypassed.

He came in, he's on the floor, I can't quite recall the specifics of how that happened ...

The serious tai chi folks sometimes talk about the "Teacher Test" which involves rooting or fajing or somesuch. If they cross hands with somebody who has it, they seem to believe that indicates a certain level of competence. MIght not be enough in itself, but the lack of it means the guy ain't got what it takes.

Short of all-out, and let's see what we remember when one or both of us recover, do you have a teacher test ... ?

Rory said...

What do you call a guy who plays devil's advocate with the Devil's Advocate?

Fencing, IMO is the fastest sport in the world. Yet the director is expected to be able to accurately report back the series of moves that led to the touch. My memory is a little fuzzy, but one guy going for his maestro was expected to be able to recount the last thirty moves of an exchange. The ability to do it is one thing. Reporting is something else, another level. I think practicing recall really helps make a better teacher. Come to think of it, having to write all those reports (to an incredibly high standard- if it went to court it could be compared to video and any discrepancy would be grounds for the attorney to claim a deliberate lie).

The testing thing. I'm not that good at it, but there are ways to generate considerable power without the limb moving through space. IMA guys are big on it and expect their instructors to be able to hurt them without visibly moving. What's cool is trying to do it while moving, but I've met very few who can do that, much less while fighting.

Test for a good instructor? That's hard. Better skill than you and someone you can trust your soul with? Maybe that's marriage.

Steve Perry said...

In Be Here Now, Ram Dass talks about the difference between a teacher and a guru. (Not referring to the SE Asian title for a fighting teacher, but the more common applied-to-a-holy-man meaning.)

A guru is your spiritual master, and you only get one. A teacher can be a lot of things, good, bad, and ugly, and you can learn from him or her, but it's a different beast.

My Guru is not my guru, if that makes sense ...

Steve Perry said...

Fencing is a good example. I watched some of it during the Olympics. Two guys standing there, a blur, and the expert announcer is all excited and going, "Wow did you see that?" and rattling off a list eight moves long.

No, I thought, I didn't see shit. And I have forty-odd years of martial arts training, including some with swords.

So as a demonstration of technique, it's great. As a teaching demo, not so much.

I once saw a MA teacher in the office after a class. People are getting dressed, wandering around, I was maybe eight feet away from the guy. A student approached the teacher. Hidden behind his back was a training knife. He said, "Guru, what would you do if I did THIS!" and whipped the knife out and at the teacher's belly.

I was standing right there, looking right at them.

Next thing, the student is bouncing off a file cabinet across the room, the knife is on the floor, and the teacher is next to the student helping him get his balance, say, "Oh, sorry, you okay?"

It was years before I was able to reconstruct what the teacher had done to disarm and knock the student flying.

The nature of teaching is that you have to slow and sometimes dumb it down ...

Rory said...

"Some teachers might be able to do that retro-Tom Cruise memory trick from The Last Samurai, where they replace the attack and defense in glorious slo-mo, so they can restage it for onlookers -- here's what he did, here's what I did, this is why it worked."

My point was that this skill is a requirement for a teaching rank in fencing and actively tested. Outside of fencing it's not formally tested but every good instructor I can recall could do it. For some of the best when playing at speed it's one of the major teaching methodologies.

It seems like a basic instructional skill to me, but you made it sound unusual here, with 'some' and 'might'.

Steve Perry said...

I think that ability is less common than you do, given my experience.

From what I've learned, if I have a pre-set sequence in mind -- he will punch, I will parry thus, and then follow up thither -- that never works unless the guy gives me his arm and stands there waiting. Doesn't matter how close to the moment you trigger the pre-set, it rarely does the job.

The teaching moment is that if a punch comes, you have tools to deal with it, and here are some examples. Come the real thing, you might do something else altogether, but with enough experience of punch-coming, from different size folks, different arts, different angles, you might have enough wherewithal to do something instead of just standing there.

What works for me is paying attention and doing what my body knows has a chance on the fly. But since I don't know what that is going to be until I do it, and because it bypasses conscious and deliberate thought, then I'm not thinking, I'm doing.

Maybe afterward, I can reconstruct what I did from muscle memory, or by the effect it had -- he fell this way, so I must have swept that way -- but even a touch of tachypsychia can screw up your perception of space and time. Autopilot kicks in and something gets done, but exactly what isn't always readily available.

I'm reminded of those japanese sword schools that return the katana to the sheath at speed after a cutting sequence. One sword play book I read offered that if you are still standing there after you have clashed with another swordsman, there is no need for a quick re-sheathe -- you have all the time in the world, and why hurry?

If I invite an unscripted attack from somebody whose skill level I don't know, that is a different event from saying, "Okay, give me a right punch to the nose." In theory, it shouldn't matter -- I'm gonna do what I do, and it doesn't matter what you do if I get where I want when I want. But I'm not that good, and my response might be more, um, active than necessary to do the deed.

First time I ever sparred with a kung-fu guy, he did a fancy clawing at my eyes, leaping move I had never seen before. Style I was in, we stayed on the ground, zipped straight in or straight back. The flying kung-fu guy scared the shit out of me and my reaction was to get a counter sidekick up. Broke a couple of his ribs. I was sorry, but Iwas happy to have both eyes still in my head ...

Charles James said...

You said, "there are prejudices-e.g. “sports martial arts are better for streetfighting”; “grappling is the most practical”; “winning at (insert your contest of choice here) is the best way to find out if something works”; “the guys in white pajamas don’t play hard”; “the guys who wear camo are bad asses”; “older styles are more real”…"

and I say: "All bottles are good, they all serve a purpose!"

I know for years I felt or lived the type of prejudice you mention but have since, hopefully, grown up a little especially these last few years to finally understand what the little Okinawan who created the striking style I like to practice said when he said the thing about bottles.

A lot of Marines were there when this happened and upon leaving remained oblivious to it and today profess this or that about Isshinryu, etc.

You said, "becoming blindly dogmatic, absolutely certain that your Purple Lotus of Screaming Death Style is the end-all and be-all vastly increases your fear management."

and I say: Yea, ain't it to bad. as the first quote from that little Okinawan said nothing is either bad or good but what you make of it. I remember this from my days at Parris Island. A Staff Sergeant who was my Drill Instructor saw me at the chow hall long after graduation from training and came up to me, sat down, said hi and we both talked about how to make it work. The most important thing he stated as a Marine War Vet, i.e. Viet Nam, was the "Marine Corps will be and always was only what the individual makes of it, nothing more, nothing less." I guess it applies here in the MA as well don't you think?

You said, "It’s a group thing, too. Martial arts (and other specialized societies) create tight little self-reinforcing communities. Sometimes it is formal- the hierarchy specifically discourages dissent. Sometimes it is informal with the students banding together to protect the integrity of their fantasy."

and I say: "Wow, been guilty of it and now see it more openly than before maybe because I am finally opening my eyes more to the truth. Not easy and easy to fall back into the "story" but hopefully I can persevere.

Thanks Sergeant!

Charles James said...

You said, "there are prejudices-e.g. “sports martial arts are better for streetfighting”; “grappling is the most practical”; “winning at (insert your contest of choice here) is the best way to find out if something works”; “the guys in white pajamas don’t play hard”; “the guys who wear camo are bad asses”; “older styles are more real”…"

and I say: "All bottles are good, they all serve a purpose!"

I know for years I felt or lived the type of prejudice you mention but have since, hopefully, grown up a little especially these last few years to finally understand what the little Okinawan who created the striking style I like to practice said when he said the thing about bottles.

A lot of Marines were there when this happened and upon leaving remained oblivious to it and today profess this or that about Isshinryu, etc.

You said, "becoming blindly dogmatic, absolutely certain that your Purple Lotus of Screaming Death Style is the end-all and be-all vastly increases your fear management."

and I say: Yea, ain't it to bad. as the first quote from that little Okinawan said nothing is either bad or good but what you make of it. I remember this from my days at Parris Island. A Staff Sergeant who was my Drill Instructor saw me at the chow hall long after graduation from training and came up to me, sat down, said hi and we both talked about how to make it work. The most important thing he stated as a Marine War Vet, i.e. Viet Nam, was the "Marine Corps will be and always was only what the individual makes of it, nothing more, nothing less." I guess it applies here in the MA as well don't you think?

You said, "It’s a group thing, too. Martial arts (and other specialized societies) create tight little self-reinforcing communities. Sometimes it is formal- the hierarchy specifically discourages dissent. Sometimes it is informal with the students banding together to protect the integrity of their fantasy."

and I say: "Wow, been guilty of it and now see it more openly than before maybe because I am finally opening my eyes more to the truth. Not easy and easy to fall back into the "story" but hopefully I can persevere.

Thanks Sergeant!