Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sweating Koolaid

Writing about koolaid and martial arts cults had me all set to go off on a rant.  I do know, personally and by reputation, people that I consider absolute frauds in the martial arts and training communities. Instructors who have verifiably lied about their past or changed their personal stories to reflect changes in research. People who claim ranks and experiences that never happened.  People who were unsatisfied with the 'highest possible rank' and bought or created or manufactured yet a higher rank than the 'highest possible'. I also know people who I like who are absolutely committed to these frauds.
And some of those frauds are damned good teachers and/or teaching something pretty valuable.
I really wish stuff could be all bad or all good.
Often, these frauds are protected by a group (self-appointed in one type of cult, designated in another) who try to quell any dissent or discredit any other point of view.
Here's one of the things- if you can point at a leader and a group it is fairly easy to say, 'they drank the koolaid. That's a cult.'  So I was all set to rant about the teachers that feed on this, the teachers that let this happen. Justifiable. The instructors like that are pukes and it does piss me off... but sometimes the instructor has nothing to do with it. Rabid fanboys on the internet display the exact same behavior and you know damn well that they have never rolled with their MMA hero or been in a gunfight alongside their designated infallible handgun guru.
Maybe I'll still rant about those instructors someday, but that would entail going very deep into what teaching means to me.  Not yet.
Sometimes the students make their own koolaid. 
When you enter into a student relationship, you expect the instructor to have knowledge, at least, and maybe even answers. So you enter predisposed to believe.  If the instructor is good, and the definition of good is heavily reliant on the students previous knowledge (or ignorance) and experience, you get impressed. It is a very small step from there to dropping your critical reasoning. It becomes a point of epistemology, the instructor becomes one of the sources that you accept without fact checking, just like some people believe CNN or their priests or their horoscopes or Scientific American.
That, too, can be okay. It crosses the koolaid line when the student decides that the instructor's words are more real than reality. When what you train contradicts the world but the students agree that the training is right. Some students make their own koolaid, even if the instructor had no intention and would happily correct himself.
There's another dynamic that happens, too. Sometimes a good instructor, a damn good instructor can make almost anyone drop their critical faculties. In the book I talked about one "charismatic young instructor" who had gotten a veteran jail fighter to completely forget what he already knew.  That instructor was Kevin Jackson, for what it's worth. Kevin didn't teach anything wrong and I give him the highest accolade in martial arts that I know- he once taught a knife defense class that wasn't stupid. But one of the fighters (not sparrers, not martial artists but fighters) that I respect most in all the world (That's you, Bill K.) was willing to go with Kevin's instruction without even considering his own experience.
I've rolled with some guy named Renner. I don't know if he is as good as his dad, but that young man was good. He was so good that he got an entire room of cops to absolutely believe that techniques they would never be able to pull off in body armor and a belt full of weapons (and some of which were pretty clear violations of force level common sense) were the best things ever. He absolutely believed that his stuff was the best, but Renner never discouraged questions, never did an appeal to authority, never made any claims that in any way could be interpreted as cultish behavior... but he inspired some very creepy cult-like behavior. He was that skilled. It was like he sweats koolaid.
How far does that go?  Is everything koolaid to someone? The better one teaches, does that just give higher quality students a chance to drink a more rarified flavor of koolaid?

Is there any caveat or warning strong enough that what I say won't become kooliad to someone? When I say "Never, ever delegate responsibility for your own safety. Never, ever, ever take the word of some self-appointed 'expert' over your own experience and common sense." Will that, my talisman against koolaid drinkers, become koolaid; just words that people chant without understanding?


Stephen Grey said...

A lot of these posts touch on some things that I've always found very interesting.

I'll tell you what *I* think is bizarre. It's not when an instructor is a charlatan lying about his own abilities,

It's when an instructor is of some estimable level of ability, and is STILL lying about his abilities and usually about a great many other things too.

The martial arts are an esoteric set of practices. Along with the martial arts part often go a lot of even stranger practices, for one reason or another depending on the art.

What I think happens is that martial arts sometimes attract people partly because of the bizarre practices. Some of them are SO interested in the bullshit that they put in the sizable amount of effort and commitment of time to get very good at the more-or-less-legitimate part of whatever art they've chosen.

I've stood lined up in a room while a very good and very experienced kenpo instructor talked. Now, this is a guy who is the real deal as far as martial arts go-- maybe not world class but no slouch either.

And he stood there and said things to the class, one after another, which tweaked my bullshit detector in a big way. Knife fighting instructor to the personal guard of the Sultan of Brunei? Whatever. Could happen I suppose but there were all kinds of other things like that as well, just one right after another. The other students seemed to eat it up.

Point is, this guy was not satisfied with his own skills, or with the fairly nice dojo and store he'd established and maintained and made a living off of. No, for some reason he had to embellish to a degree that amazes me even later.

I suspect that this and other symptoms of fantasy-world-dwelling are much more common in MA than it seems on the surface. Not just drinking the koolaid but opening up a factory.

Anonymous said...

One of the most unfortunate things I've noticed down through the years is how a good instructor slowly, and often unknowingly, begins to buy into his student's beliefs about him.

I have seen this occur more that once with some fairly well known intructors. The problem is people forget that the instructor is human and while he may be a "master of combat" he still suffers from human weaknesses like ego.

We all look for people to pattern certain aspects of our life after, or "model" if your into NLP, but once we begin to invest ourselves into a certain way of thinking our ego begins to assert that this has to be the way or we may just have been wasting our time.

The trick is not to drink the kool aid or at least to recognize when you are. This whole concept was summed up by Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon". Think back to the scene where he is lecturing the student and uses the finger pointing to the moon analogy. The line goes something like "don't focus to much on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory".

The instructors in your life are the fingers pointing the way, but the real lessons are hopefully where they are pointing.

PS No I'm not one of those Bruce Lee is the end all and be all of martial arts people, but the guy did have some pretty advanced insights for his time. Oddly enough he inadvertantly created one of the biggest bunch of koolaid consumers of all time and probaly spins in his resting place frequently.


Anonymous said...


Stephen Grey said...

One thing also is that I think a lot of MA instructors are not doing so well in life otherwise. They've spent huge amounts of time studying in a field that has become extremely saturated and where power laws hold sway (Zipf distributions) meaning that a few large players control most of the students and money and the reward drops off rapidly from there.

Thus, it seems to stand to reason that they would be highly susceptible to becoming addicted to the few ego-strokes that they get, which are all going to be related to their skill (real or perceived) as doctors of asskicking.

Then there are the guys who are making fair amounts of money by whoring the arts, or selling outright bullshit, but at least their motivation is more obvious if no less odious. These guys tend to "read" a lot more like used car salesmen and I think they're less interesting.

Anonymous said...

And, perhaps, the best of instructors are not worried about themselves, or technique, concept, spirit, dues, floor space, or being the toughest and baddest; they simply help you define your goal, point out the interrupts in your path, and give you a few drills to help you realize, emotionally, that a change needs to (if one wants) be made and that you can make that change. But the student, not the instructor, needs to define that goal; which of the six areas of martial 'arts' does a student wish to become skilled in: philosophy, health and wellness, art, sport, defensive tactics, self-defense or combat? The higher up the scale (toward combat) one wishes to reach, the less an instructor can contribute - i.e: to become good at combat one must kill, and survive the attempts to be killed - even a Marine Corps drill instructor cannot give you this ability. Short story long - seek definition of your goal and then find an instructor who can get you as close as possible to that goal. (Mac)

Anonymous said...

OK, 7 categories; math was never my strong suit (: (Mac)

Anonymous said...

What you describe Renner doing doesn't strike me as all that different than some things you've described yourself doing.

In particular, you once described how you persuaded a man much larger than you to become cooperative and turn aside into a room via merely posture and intent. You communicated a belief to him, the belief that things would be easier for him if he cooperated.

I would call this "the taking of mind". It isn't mystic foo-foo, it's a directly observable phenomenon that can be studied and practiced.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the seven areas of martial arts... I personally think the distinction in some of those are a little iffy. I like a 3-part model for martial sciences: martial system (combative), martial sport (competitive), and martial art (aesthetic or personally focused). Philosophy as in "why do we fight" only figures in the last mode. Boxers and MMA types, or other competitors don't need philosophy in their endeavors: they're simply fighting for that prize. And in the combative arena, the "why" is simple: to survive. While the tactics chosen are different and the end goal is different, self-defense, survival combat, and defensive tactics are all very much inter-related aspects of the combative side of things. I'd actually reverse the role of an instructor; while an instructor can do only so much to shape the mindset, they can provide the tools for competition or sport -- but they can only lead a student in the philosophical arena.

Regarding "taking of the mind" (nice phrase, by the way), I've found it to be an important skill. I've watched people back off because my presence/personality/attitude conveyed that the cost to resist or bother me would be much higher than they wanted to pay. It's a matter of confidence -- and it's something that I've seen deputies who work the jails really master. Much more so than street cops... who can always fall back on various tools on their bat belt that deputy doesn't have.

Finally, on kool-aid... I think that Rory hits the nail on the head with the requirement for each person to accept the responsibility for their own training and practice. I don't know why some very skilled, very respected (and very much due respect) instructors decide to embellish or come up with silly stories... But it's disconcerting when you realize that a person you respect and trust is trying to sell a line of crap that just doesn't add up, too.

Master Plan said...

This one popped in to my head just now.

A potential reason for otherwise no-BS people to use made up, factually incorrect, etc, bits of info in their instruction might be, not to defend it, just as a possible reason for doing so, to increase the impact of the teaching.

This would depend on the audience as well of course.

If you are, for instance, a woman instructing a womens self-defense seminar, maybe you take a story that you know happened, but that did not happen to you, and rephrase is such that it was a personal experience. It's dishonest, it's not accurate,'s also not made up. By couching in a "this happened to me, this worked", do you increase the impact of the story on your trainees?

If so, is that valuable to them?

Similarly if you read a study, in a book, by a guy, about a thing, with a bunch of caveats, but none of that is applicable, do you want to soften your message by adding all of that in?

It would certainly be more honest, but it might also result in certain kinds of confusion on the part of certain kinds of students.

It's easier to say, "90% of all fights end up on the ground therefore you should probably be at least somewhat conversant with rolling around on the ground stuff", than to say, "In a very hard to find study, confined to the arrest techniques of a certain subset of LEO officers, it was shown that in 90% of the arrests used as data that the suspect was at some point on the ground during the incident".

I suppose it's in the "lies you tell children" category of kool-aid, but then...people often do lie to kids, theirs, others, and for reasons they consider to be valid. Given most folks experiences and understandings of violence in the subset of folks that learn "Martial Arts" I would think many ways they *are* children.

So. Not to defend the practice, but, as a possible reason why folks might engage in such behavior in spite of being "good" people.

Stephen Grey said...

That's interesting. It's one of the few arguments for telling people that unarmed knife defenses work.

They don't work, of course, against a determined attacker. None of them do 100% although there are certainly qualitative variations.

But if you told someone something as simple as "grab the knife arm and wrestle the knife away from him as aggressively as possible, it will work 100% of the time" then the confidence created by the lie might very well cause the "defense" to work much better as something much more sophisticated but done timidly.

I do southeast asian MA but I am very skeptical about FMA knife defenses, even though they are certainly the most savvy in the world in that department. I often think that japanese methods which seem much more perfunctory and crude may work just as well if not better. what I'm skeptical about in particular is tapitapi and other forms of knife trapping... on the other hand it could be that the training methods look much different from the actual practice.

Steve Perry said...

I think Rory's intent -- reading his mind here -- is that teaching somebody something really wrong for the situation is worse than teaching them nothing.

If you don't know anything about knives and somebody pulls one on you, your attitude might be different than if you think you can take it away and shove it up his arse.

Against somebody who knows little about his knife or has no other skills, grab his arm and wrestle it away might have a prayer.

Against somebody with skill, it gets you turned into steak tartar. The problem is, you won't know how much skill they have until it is too late. (And if they follow the standard dictum, you won't even know they have a knife until you feel it.)

I don't claim to be an expert, but part of our training is to let folks grab our knife hand and try to wrestle it away. Even if you are a seriously-strong weightlifter and you do that, I fancy my chances are pretty good I can carve you like a Thanksgiving turkey. Because it isn't just your two hands against my one ...

I used to hate knives. I'd rather have anything else in-hand -- spear, staff, sword, short stick, hammer, anything. Then I got into silat and realized that if I was the guy with the knife, that could be to my advantage.

The only knife defense that works 100% of the time is to be elsewhere. If you think you can always dance it and not get cut, you might be in for a nasty surprise.

Stephen Grey said...

"teaching somebody something really wrong for the situation is worse than teaching them nothing."

Is that true? I used to think that it was true. I must be wishywashy because now I'm not so sure, provided that you convince them that it will work 100% of the time :)

But maybe it goes back to the "vestigial spear" idea of battlefield situations.

On a battlefield, if I've lost my weapon and I'm faced with a knife, I'm almost certainly dead. Can't run away.

And in that situation, even if I die while disarming the enemy, I've effectively killed him because now he's in the same situation of being disarmed on a field full of my heavily armed friends.

If this is the case, and it would explain a whole heckuva lot about Japanese knife disarms and a great many other things, it's certainly not the right thing for teaching soccer moms to survive against knifewielding crackheads.

I guess the question is, how much is 100% confidence and commitment worth. My guess is it's worth so much that there is a point of diminishing returns between that and bad technique.

Ultimately I suspect that intentionally or not the people who are trying to teach "the reality of the knife fight" are just pushing another kind of kool-aid.

Steve Perry said...

A guy who is ready for ai-uchi, or mutual slaying, who is ready to die has a different attitude than most folks.

Story I've told before, forgive me if I did here already:

One of the irregular guys in our silat class is very highly-ranked in another quite respectable art. One night, one of his fellow black belts was out partying with friends. A situation arose, somebody pulled a knife. The black belt and friends did the smart thing, they ran, but the bad guys chased them, and the upshot was, the BB got stabbed and died from his wound.

Our student was most upset over this, and part of it was because he knew the dead guy had a bunch of knife defenses in common with his own.

So he went to his school, grabbed a high-ranked friend, and said, "Look, come at me with a knife, no bullshit, don't give it to me." to test his stuff in real-time.

None of his technique worked. He got stabbed every time.

So he quit teaching knife defenses, on the notion that offering something he couldn't make work was fraud, and could be deadly to somebody who trusted it.

Anything we do bare against a knife has at its heart what we call "Oh, shit!" moves. If you have to use them, you are in trouble and it is absolutely the last resort. Things are gonna be bad, it gets to that, no matter how -- pardon the pun -- you slice it ...

Stephen Grey said...

"So he quit teaching knife defenses, on the notion that offering something he couldn't make work was fraud, and could be deadly to somebody who trusted it."

That's a great argument, but on the other hand, you also put up a situation where someone didn't do anything, ran, and got stabbed.

This subject of course is a whole huge rat's nest. I tend to agree with you on it, I am just trying to understand it for myself. I never thought about the angle that confidence might matter a whole hell of a lot and that there might be some situations where the lie is beneficial.

Again, it might be that the lie was beneficial on a platoon level at some time in the past, and that it's not such a beneficial lie at all for modern folks.

I try to stay the fuck away from anyone who MIGHT have a knife. What little I know about knives I've learned from filipinos. They wrote me textbooks in bruises.

Rory said...

You have channelled me well. The only thing I would add is that being sure and finding out you are wrong triggers a harder, longer freeze than knowing at the outset you might be wrong.
I understand the value of instilling confidence and it can work- but when it is insufficient, the failure tends to be more catastrophic. "If sensei was wrong (or lied) about this, maybe_ everything_ is wrong and I can't trust _any_ of my techniques."
I also believe that you train for for the problem- which means accepting the fear and uncertainty and possible failure. With these out in the open from the beginning, the student wastes a lot less time and, if they truly understand the stakes, with a lot more attention.

Worg- have you ever seen a genuine Japanese knife defense? In almost 30 years concentrated in Japanese arts I've seen exactly one (with two variations). It was very good. The thing that got me was that the attack was a very close range assassination technique controlling the body with the free hand- which more closely mirrors my expectations of a knife assault than anything I have seen elsewhere.

Steve Perry said...

"Is there any caveat or warning strong enough that what I say won't become kooliad to someone? "

There's the rub, isn't it? If you know something -- or think you do -- and you offer it up for consumption, then by that action, you claim a kind of expertise. You can hang qualifiers on it: This is what has worked for me, might not work for you; or, there are other ways, but I've used this successfully; still, the nature of the offering has an inherent risk of Kool Aid-ness.

Especially if you demonstrate that it works.

You are making a statement. If you believe it, then it is no sin to try and convince others of its validity. How do you do this? If you demonstrate it, in a situation that offers some connection to reality -- You punched at full speed and power, I did this,you are on your ass on the ground, exchange went my way, can you see? -- then you have offered at least some proof of your expertise. Might not be all-encompassing, but that's the scientific method -- theorem, experiment, result. And it if can be replicated elsewhere, it moves closer to valid proof.

There's a Latin phrase I like: Peritis nec crede, which means,"Put not thy trust in experts." And yet, that's what an expert is, is somebody who *knows.*

There are experts and then there are experts, of course.

If you show me that you know, you prove it, and I believe it, then not trusting what I have seen is illogical.

If I try something my teacher taught me and it fails, maybe I will question the rest of it. That didn't work, so none of it will. But, if I try something he showed me and it does exactly what it is supposed to, that is apt to cut the other way, isn't it?

Neither of these is particularly logical, either.

I think it is good to question yourself, to be cautious, to avoid false confidence. But I also think that there comes a point where too much doubt can cripple you.

If you don't have the skill to do a job, that's bad. But if you do have the skill and worry so much that you don't that it causes you to hesitate when you shouldn't, is that any better?

You can say, Well, it's not a good idea to believe that what you will do in a violent situation, no matter how well you are trained, will always work 100% of the time. And that if you do believe that, and it doesn't, it can mess you up. There is no boiler-plate, ironclad certainty.

Fair enough.

It is also not unreasonable to say, Well, I have done this action before and it worked for me. Others have done it an it worked for them. Therefore it might be applicable if called upon in a similar situation again. Even if previous experience isn't guaranteed 100%, the odds are maybe better if I use this tool than not.

Stephen Grey said...

"Worg- have you ever seen a genuine Japanese knife defense?"

Genuine how? And how would I know if they were genuinely Japanese or not?

I was told that they were Japanese, and I was taught them in a context of what I was told was Japanese arts, but to be honest, I've often had my doubts about whether the arts that are taught as Japanese in the US are really Japanese at all and not some watered-down version that was given to the gaijins.

For all I know, they were fish-filleting techniques from Reykjavik.

Steve Perry said...

"That's a great argument, but on the other hand, you also put up a situation where someone didn't do anything, ran, and got stabbed."

Actually, as I recall, the guy stabbed was getting into a car, if I recall correctly, and caught a thrust between two ribs. His misfortune, since going for the ribs is a risky stab. Inch or so either way, you could get your knife stuck in bone.

This was a situation in which the knife was out and shown, the defender knew about it and ran, but eventually was in a position whereupon the attacker caught up to him. At that moment, with the knife coming in, he couldn't stop it. I don't know if he tried, but if he did and was using the defenses he had in common with our student, then what he had obviously wasn't enough.

If he tried and failed, and if you were the guy who had taught him the move, that might make you wonder. And if you then checked the technique and you couldn't make it work against a similar attack, that might make you feel like shit.

If I can't pull it off, then teaching it to somebody else doesn't seem like a good idea. If I can do it every time, or even most of the time, then I can justify putting it out there.

Take the double-wrist grab defense. If I let a guy who is bigger and stronger than I am grab my knife hand, then I'm able to stab him anyway, then teaching the technique as viable is foolish, bordering on criminal. What I would offer him is, "Don't do this. It will get you filleted faster than a catfish on Friday night at the seafood house."

A lot of knife stuff is about what you better not do.
And as Rory has pointed out, the assassination-style knifer isn't going to whip the knife out and give you a fancy twirl to impress you with his skill; he's going to bury the blade in you before you realize he even has a knife. Which goes to threat-assessment again. If you assume that somebody who is menacing has a knife even if you don't see one, you are apt to be safer than if the thought never enters your mind.