Tuesday, June 07, 2011

"Tried by Twelve..."

There is a saying you will hear in the self-defense community: "I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six." If the reference isn't obvious, it means I would rather stand trial, and risk going to prison, than die.

And that's perfectly cool. Given a choice between those two options, prison beats crematorium any day. In my opinion. You can make your own choices.

But almost every time I hear it, it's a platitude. It is not said to clarify a truth. No one ever slaps their head and says, "Shit, I was wrong all along. I always thought dying was better! Thank you Mr. Wise One."

The first time I watched a self-defense class was in 1981. I saw a big, burly guy teaching women that if someone grabbed them in a front hug they could beat on the chest of the bigger, stronger man until he would magically loosen his grip and then they could hammer fist him in the nose and they would be safe. Then I saw the instructor teach that if someone grabbed a woman's wrist she should just chop his throat.

Even as a seventeen-year-old with just a couple of months in judo and some weird hybrid striking art, I knew something was wrong: Low levels of force (that wouldn't work) when high levels were needed? And potentially deadly force to a stimulus that might just be a child reaching for your hand? Ineffective AND inappropriate offended me on two levels.

When someone says "I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six" and they are sincere, it's simply unnecessary. But in almost every instance that I hear it, it is an excuse. The instructor has some idea of how to hurt a person and absolutely no idea of force law. So they say this to convince the people listening that force law is not nearly as important as what they can teach.

In logic or debate, this would be called a 'false sort.' It only has any validity if those are the only two options and they are mutually exclusive. "I'd rather hit myself in the head with a hammer than stab myself in the leg with a screwdriver." Simple fact is, you can do both of those things or neither. Dying might take going to prison off the table, but going to prison certainly doesn't take dying off the table.

The essence of self-defense law isn't that complicated. If your life is on the line, it doesn't hamper you at all. If you want to Monkey Dance or teach somebody a lesson, that's a different story... but you already know those aren't self-defense. Plus, most of self-defense law makes sense. It's not some esoteric weirdness.

If someone refuses to teach it, it is because they don't know it. If they offer the excuse that they are afraid worrying about the law will freeze you I would question, well everything. Their knowledge, first. Their common sense. Their commitment to your survival over their ego...

There are lots of reasons people freeze. In my experience, scary ignorance is far more freezing than informed fear. "I'm going to get sued but I know the ropes" is far less freezing than, "OMG, am I going to get sued? What will that be like? What should I do?"

One of the keys, though, and even good, knowledgeable instructors might miss this, is that knowing force law isn't enough. The students have to practice articulating decisions. Even most cops could use more practice at that.


Anonymous said...

I never actually heard that phrase in my martial arts background. I encountered it first when I took a course for defensive handgun. I'm not sure what that means except maybe the greater likely lethality of firearms makes people consider the issue more? Really, the general advice I got from my sifu was hit really hard and then run like hell. I know that doesn't always work or apply (hitting first being assault or something on those lines) but under the right circumstances it doesn't seem like a bad foundation for a civilian individual like me.

Jim said...

I hate that phrase. Passionately. It's usually quoted by someone who can't be bothered to learn the consequences and laws on use of force.

My usual reply is along the lines of "Personally, I'd rather learn a little more and avoid either."

Craig said...

I agree with Rory that the phrase is an often an excuse.

I usually hear it from people attempting to live some sort of macho self defense fantasy. It's often people who have no experience with the legal system beyond traffic court.

As if facing a jury trial for malicious wounding is no big deal.

As if spending five to 20 in maximum security is automatically better than death or disability.

For the record, use of force tests apply to civilians as well as professionals. While admittedly the definition of such terms as "reasonable" are looser for a civilian than they would be for a pro, a civilian's actions still need to pass legal scrutiny for a claim of self defense to hold.

So using "tried by 12" as your tactical foundation is foolish.

I'm with @Jim. A little intellectual honesty goes a long way.


Charles James said...

In 1972, on Okinawa, my instructor - my then company first sergeant also - said he was going to teach us his self-defense technique.

First, assume a seisan-dachi. Either leg forward is good.

Second, raise the right arm where the upper arm is parallel to the deck and the forearm is perpendicular with fist pointing to the sky.

Third, the left arm has the elbow out toward your rear with the fist pointing to the ground.

Now, when danger comes, start "runnnnnning."

He would then laugh hysterically. The pose was a classic runner start position but we didn't get it till the punch line, typical.

Yea, I know this has nothing to do with the twelve-vs-six maxim but consider this much like Rory's statement that if convicted there is a very good chance someone or something in prison is going to kill you.

After all, if your ignorant enough to believe the 12-vs-6 maxim you have not taken the time to try and learn about all of it...or maybe I am just full of it.

In my opinion and I am repeating a meaning, it is just an excuse to teach fighting and aggression.

A good sound bite for the movies...

Steve Perry said...

As Rory points out, the phrase is perfectly valid if it is spoken mindfully, i.e., knowing what it means at the core level: It is generally better to be alive than dead.

Dead cuts off all your options.

Anybody here rather be dead than alive? Anybody?( If so, why are you still here?)

If you can justify the use of lethal force to save your life, then the theory is that while being tried for using it might be a hassle, it beats the option.

Be my choice.

(I like the old saw that says "Growing old is hell, but it beats the option." for the same reason. Old saws come from the rule-of-thumb, the heuristics that slap common sense onto life's little trials -- A stitch in time saves nine; Birds of a feather flock together; Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas. They aren't always literally true, but they convey a point.

Metaphors and similes get stretched and they are like slide rules sometimes, near but not exact.

Being tried does not automatically mean conviction. And in a just world, the innocent go free. Not that we live there ...

Stepping over the line into using more force than necessary s illegal, and touting the 6 vs 12 to justify it won't fly.

Those knife vids that show the defender bending down to cut the throat of the guy they have disarmed and put onto the ground so hard he can't move? Probably not going to do the trick for a jury.

Jake said...

Nice post. That phrase (along with a number of other stupid martial arts platitudes) really hacks me off.

Jim said...

A point often missed is just how much even a successful use of force defense costs... It's on the order of a couple of tens of thousands of dollars as a starting point. That's assuming things go relatively smoothly. Throw a wrinkle or two in and the costs go up...

That's assuming a win.

Maybe I'm funny, but I'm kind of attached to my stuff. I worked hard to afford it, I picked most of it because I wanted and liked it. I don't want to give it to someone else. I don't want to see a huge chunk of every paycheck for the rest of my life given over to someone else.

So I learn what I'm allowed to do, when, and why. I train with that in mind. My end goal is simple: I WILL GO HOME at the end of the day, and I WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES to do so.

Steve and Rory make a great point: alive and tried or sued beats all hell out of dead. But even better is to be alive -- and reasonably safe from that court experience.

Anonymous said...

The phrase is a good one, and I totally agree with it. What it really means is "face the task at hand" and don't go down the road of What if. I've seen far to many fat and out of condition martial artists worrying about the consequences of their actions, the force continuum etc.when really they should be thinking about their fighting ability and fitness

Josh Kruschke said...

Anon 12:19 -

That intellectually lazy. With that one phrase you no longer have to think about the consequences of your actions and decisions. You're divorced from taking any personal responsibility for the things you do in the name of self defense.


Josh Kruschke said...

Think of it this way if your goal is to keep yourself safe, how is going to prison improving your odds of doing that?


Anonymous said...

see you don't know what you will face, that's what is so difficult about martial arts,self defence etc you have no control over anything. People like to think they do, but they don't.and to weigh yourself down with some more emotional baggage is just plain dumb.........I'm not talking about the instant use of deadly force here, I mean you don't shoot someone for spitting at you, but when you fight you should have no restraints

Josh Kruschke said...

Anon -

So if a guy comes up to you and ask for your wallet, you would be ok with killing/maiming him for the twenty dollars in it?


Anonymous said...

How do you know he will do that?
he may just shoot you for the $20.You see the point is you are being hyperthetical.
There was a case in Canada a few years back when a guy got decapitated on a bus, and more recently an english woman was decapitated in spain.......there is so much randomness to violent acts and I know that if you were thinking of consequences to your reponces then it would slow you down..and don't misunderstand me running is a very good option

Anonymous said...

Let me just add something else. If you are talking about deadly force from a weapon that's a different thing entirely, and I would most likely agree, however, if you are talking about unarmed self defence I don't think most people are any better off than the girl getting taught by the big burly guy. How do you know your technique is any good? how many people have you knocked out or incapacitated?A lot of self defence guru's talk about the "Chemical cocktail" and how you will only be able to use gross motor skills.but then expect you to be able to control them!! when you may never have actually been in a fight ever.......I had an epiphany recently when I realised that most of the MA people teaching me how to fight had never had a fight, they were not teaching from experience.In Okinawa they teach you to punch a makiwara because they say that in a real fight you will only be able to use maybe 40% of your power..and I agree with that

Josh Kruschke said...

Anon -

"...I'm not talking about the instant use of deadly force here, I mean you don't shoot someone for spitting at you, but when you fight you should have no restraints."

Not shooting someone for spitting on you is showing restraint.

This is what I was trying to say in my flippant comment in the previous post. If you go all out and someone is seriously hurt or killed, their will be emotional consequinces I would think. But what do I really know I've never had to go there.

I'm going to go to bed now as I'm not sure if I'm making any sense.


P.S. Most of this is just intellectual exercises I've never had to put into practice.

Josh Kruschke said...

Sorry, Rory.

I tend to talk in declarative statements. Even my questions tend to come off sound like I really know what the hell I'm talking about.

Something I need to work on.


zzrzinn said...


The fact that you don't know what you will face is the EXACT reason for thinking about this stuff.

In fact by that measure "fighting ability" and fighting fitness is only a very small part of self defense, as the kind of fighting ability measured by most dojo sparring and grappling is hard to measure with the same yardstick as you would a serious encounter.

The reason to listen to guys like Rory is that they have actually been in encounters that blow away where many martial artists have been, even on their most intense days of sparring, grappling etc.

There are a ton of people out there who are in great shape and can fight, doesn't mean they know )(*& about 'self defense', or about surviving actual violent encounters though.

Again, that is the reason to listen and evaluate the words of people who have been there, if you've ever experienced actual violence, you know there are no panaceas out there to solve it, so a critical, experienced voice should be welcome.

Anyone who offers a simple, slogan-based explanation or cure-all answer to violence and related issues is not worth listening to..it's a deep, complex, old subject and reducing it to this kind of thing is nothing but an intellectual cop out.

Anonymous said...

Platitude may be the right word...

It is however a shortcut to more involved truths, and subject to be thrown around sometimes with as little thought as a mixed metaphor or other attractive statement we might think helps validate.

So, I was thinking isn't it funny that probably the two of the biggest fears people tend have are that of death (the unknown) and public speaking (being judged). Everybody assumes winning means being John Wayne. Does the statement hold water if say "tried by 12 while in a wheel chair, holding my colostomy bag and popping pain pills". And, I'm not a gun guy or LE. I can't assume to say that without reprise either. But I do hear handgun carrying folks especially repeat this. Out here in Mass. I tend to think being tried for self defense would be much like being boiled in purgatory, and sent down a lava river. For one thing, if your not wearing a badge here there are some strong legal currents of thought that self-help should be discouraged, even prosecuted in the name of "fairness". Its not right, but its an environmental truth to consider.

I assume being alive is most of the time a better choice than being dead. Otherwise we wouldn't hav eto try so hard to be good at it. I also agree, especially in my home where I'm the guy who's job it is to make sure everyone goes to bed and wakes up safe. However, most of the time it really isn't a kill or be killed world. It is a survive or be dead world. What that equates to is maybe not so matter of fact as evoked in a phrase like this.

Just my two cents...

-Billy G.

Anonymous said...

Survival is a necessary but not sufficient condition for self-defence success. That's what the cliche misses.

The optimal self-defence outcome is not being tried or killed at all.

I would add another line: "I'd rather be mocked by crowds than tried by twelve."

That's a hard pill to swallow for those whose egos are larger than their sense of self-preservation though.

Anonymous said...

"...I'm not talking about the instant use of deadly force here, I mean you don't shoot someone for spitting at you, but when you fight you should have no restraints."

Anyone following this advice deserves exactly what happens to them next.