Not surprisingly people associate martial arts and self-defence. I believe your physical training should help you in this regard, rather than make you even more vulnerable (that’s the subject of another article or two).
But for most of us, we don’t need to physically fight aggressors often.
It’s many years since I’ve been in a scrap off the mats, and on da streetz where I am now, agricultural machinery is probably the biggest physical risk to my family.
But there are attacks on us, every day.
There are attacks on our integrity, attacks on our relations, attacks on our capacity to focus, to connect to act well in this world.
That’s what this article is about. It includes:
- Tips to strengthen yourself against those attacks,
- How to read where those attacks come from
- How to remedy at least some of the damage that has already been done.
Because I’m a martial artist, I’ll use our martial sphere as a lens to look at something broader than our subcultures.
I’ll pick out certain dynamics that I see repeated, look at the motivations driving them and offer a perspective that I think is broader than the divisions and the combination I hope will help at least one reader see beyond the stupid games.
Warning: I’m going to annoy some people with this one. Chances are I’ll trample on someone’s beliefs. If that’s you I apologise. I’m as infuriated about stuff as much as you are, which is why this article is likely to involve swearing.
Though we might not be infuriated about the same stuff, I bet it overlaps. Remember those overlaps if you start to disagree with what I have to say.
Here are a few things I think we can agree on.
- There is a wealth of disinformation out there – and the tide of bullshit is rising
- Manipulative shitheads stoke division between people because they profit from it personally – we’ll discuss how below
- Humans are manipulable – some people start from a shakier base but even smart, healthy people end up in ridiculous sects/cults sometimes – I’m not immune and neither are you
It’s going to be hard to write this without touching specifically on some polarised topics. If my ‘side’ appears to be different to your side, rather than throw this article down in disgust, take a couple of breaths and imagine that I’m actually arguing from ‘your’ side of the topic. It’s about the methods, not the content.
Take what I describe and apply it to the groups you disagree with. Then, when you are ready, with a pair of mental forceps examine what is going on in the groups that you belong to. What similarities do you notice?
I think it’s likely that are you are angry about some kind of injustice and suffering that stems from lies and manipulation. Focus on the shared anger about the suffering, rather than arguing about sides and faults for now.
A quick example of two fears, typically told by ‘opposite sides’: Great replacement theory or rising sea levels? In either case, certain people are going to suffer. Both sides want to prevent the suffering of others (and themselves) and that’s the thing to remember, that’s the place to meet people – the desire to prevent suffering.
The landscape: Martial arts and self-defence from delusionality
When you think of delusionality in martial arts what comes to mind may well be magic qi powers. You might be on either side of this one (I think I’ve made it clear which side I’m on).
Look online and you can find plenty of examples of martial artists who thought that they had ‘special energy skills’ but were beaten down by mediocre combat athletes. In these cases, it’s clear that there is some kind of delusion going on.
Despite these examples, the qi gurus keep many of their followers and continue to attract more.
But it’s not just the magic qi people who go off on weird tangents. Being realistic about your ability to strike and grapple doesn’t immunise you from other kinds of strangeness. There are plenty of cases of people with genuine skills who believe and promote bizarre shit.
Eddie Bravo, a great grappler and founder of 10th planet Jujitsu, is a flat earther. Mega-rich podcaster and UFC commentator Joe Rogan has good TKD skills and a BJJ black belt (with Eddie Bravo) but regularly platforms and promotes various kinds of utter bollocks.
Dig into some of the cultures around martial arts and you’ll find that many espouse fringe ideas. Some of those shade into what many call conspiracy theories.
How did it get this way? Lets’ start by examining some motivations.
Examine motivations – Qi gurus
Questioning motivations is a vital part of martial arts and self-defence in this domain. Ask yourself, what do people have to gain?
The qi gurus gain followers, who usually pay money to learn the magic qi skills. Qi gurus have a great model for repeat custom because their followers will never actually achieve those magic qi skills.
The qi gurus also often get sexual services from select followers as well. This is not universal, but there are plenty of stories and more will surface.
Finally, the qi gurus get adoration and obedience, both of which can be a little addictive.
But what do the followers get if they aren’t actually getting magic powers?
They get practices that almost certainly lead to feeling good. They get a sense of specialness, a feeling of access to deep currents of wisdom, and possibly a tantalising sense of (nearly) breaking through into bright new possibilities.
Beyond this, they have a sense of belonging, to a community, to a lineage. They get to feel superior to those martial ‘fools’ who sweat and hit bags, who spar and risk injury. Their practices, or if you like their beliefs defend them against doubt and fear, give them a reassuring sense of certainty and of understanding.
That last one, the certainty, is not to be underestimated. Most of us are entrenched in some kind of status quo. It’ll vary for all of us, but change is unsettling so we gravitate to beliefs and groups that preserve or protect our sense of certainty about ourselves and the world.
Examine motivations – combat athletes
As to the fringeward movement of combat athletes, their training lives (and businesses) were turned upside down by the pandemic. They depend on close physical contact and need to work hard to cover their space rental.
Their status quo was under severe attack during various confinements, they had a strong motivation to jump on alternative theories that might preserve their business model.
Once you take a few steps in that direction, algorithms will automatically offer you links to take you deeper. The companies that create the algorithms profit from your attention and they will use whatever tricks they can to capture it.
Outrage is one of those tricks
Martial arts and self-defence against outrage
Outrage is a key tool by social media tool to capture attention, and on the internet attention is money.
Outrage is a strong and addictive emotion. It doesn’t make you feel good but it grabs attention. The appealing part of outrage is that it stops me from feeling my doubt, my sadness and my pain. It cuts clear through them, or rather it papers over them.
Outrage doesn’t only hide sadness or doubt. Outrage drowns thoughtfulness, curiosity and nuance. Outrage also raises my general level of anxiety and is not good for my health.
On bad days I’ve found myself clicking from one link to another, each one offering some comfortingly predictable cocktail of outrage and superiority to another group.
I see outrage used this way by groups/channels whom I find myself more aligned with as well as the ones I’m less aligned with. There are people ostensibly on ‘my side’ of the culture wars whose channels I absolutely avoid. The videos might gratify me on some level, but the level of assumption and ill-will layered in commentary over simple events is ridiculous.
I don’t need those people to tell me what to think, and they rarely add any context. If you follow or engage in the culture wars, it doesn’t matter what side you are on it’s probably the wrong one. It’s not either side that is right, it is the war itself that is the problem. Don’t feed the war.
If you find or follow a commentator that uses outrage frequently to bring people in or keep them engaged, stop rewarding them with your attention. They don’t deserve it.
If you practice a martial art, you have a tool to defend against outrage. You can move your body, feel it in the present moment, get yourself into a calmer state and engage with people from that state.
Martial arts and self-defence against evil outgroups
Anytime there is a strong good ingroup and an evil outgroup be suspicious.
I’m not saying there isn’t evil in the world, there clearly is.
However, look to your own experience of people that you actually know in real life and have known.
Most of them are pretty much like you, nose to the day-to-day grind, seeing their friends, pursuing some hobbies, occasionally they are total dicks (c’mon and tell me you’ve never been a dick to someone, you might have had an excuse, or just been thoughtless).
How many of them would you classify as actually evil ? A couple in a life time if you are unlucky.
This is true of people whether they are woke or racist, godless or godfearing, left or right, indigenous or coloniser.
If a leader/influencer tells you to shun any massive group of people because of some integral fault then that leader/influencer is in the business of division and control.
In my opinion, division and control are the actual beginnings of evil.
Who stands to gain by encouraging you to cut relations with your neighbour, with your family member?
Except in a few very rare cases, it’s as sure as fuck not you.
Good relations with the people around you are what you need when things get hard. That idea works best when it extends across borders. After fire, flood, or earthquake how much would you care about the martial style/nationality/race/religion/gender of the person coming to help dig your family out?
You know who that person isn’t likely to be the influencer/leader/podcaster telling you how bad those over there are.
Martial arts and self-defence against individual heroism
Much of the martial arts, alternative health, and spirituality world espouses the idea that if you just purify and improve yourself enough you will be immune to sickness, to pain, to poverty, to physical attack. The worship of the self in our culture, the central place given to celebs and influencers can create a sense of inadequacy if we do not perceive ourselves in unrealistically heroic terms. There are endless messags that tell us we need to stand out, to be special individuals.
It is not in the financial or egoic interests of people who sell ’empowerment’ to admit many problems you cannot be solve at the individual level. We depend on others, we owe what we have to those who came before (more broadly than the guru/lineage). As a martial artist your skills come not just from your own efforts. Your skills have roots in the people who came before, from the people who you train with, from the adversaries who find your limits, and the people who support your training.
There are broad commercial incentives to fragment communities. In communities, people provide for each other. We entertain each other, cook and share meals (perhaps grow food), offer shelter, share skills and labour. Much of this is takes place outside of financial and commercial systems in which companies can seek profit.
Truly what makes us special is what we belong to in a way that extends beyond the interests of teachers, gurus, influencers, corporations or countries. Individuals depend on the commercial world to survive, for food and shelter, for entertainment and distraction.
There are also political interests in fragmenting communities. When there is bickering and antagonism internally it makes it harder to organise against outside hostile forces.
Martial arts and self-defence against bad humour
People often accuse the other side of having no sense of humour. A sense of humour, an ability to laugh with people is vital for health and perspective.
But there are two kinds of humour. If your group’s humour is based on ‘Isn’t the other side stupid’ it’s bad humour. It’s just another way to reinforce the ingroup-outgroup dynamic. If you see that kind of humour, don’t reward it with your attention.
We use good humour within families to keep the members connected healthily. Humour is used with affection between people who care for each other to show that no individual is above the weave of the family.
Affection is key. Good humour can be cutting, but it is not cruel. It does not exclude, it invites.
As a martial artist can you laugh at your mistakes, your slips, your clumsiness, the effects of age on your body? Can you encourage you laugh at and encourage your classmates at the same time?
When an individual or leader can’t laugh at themselves it is unhealthy. A leader that refuses teasing is not one I would trust. Does this apply to groups that you observe or are part of? As a member, can you tease the group, the leader, or shared beliefs and not be attacked, punished or excluded?
Good humour reveals new possibilities, it questions certainties and it doesn’t confirm prejudices. That’s why tyrannies of all kinds actively suppress humour.
Keep your humour and make sure you can share it kindly.
Martial arts and self-defence against bad faith arguments
It’s a common tactic to misrepresent, to twist words and take things out of context to score points. It gets justified because of ingroup-outgroup belonging.
I’ve seen martial arts drills that are useful for specific purposes, but portrayed as how a person/style would actually fight.
Sometimes this is easier to recognise this kind of thing than outright lies. The bad humour I described above often accompanies the distortion. Also if you take some time to check the context is often available and the context shows another story.
I know, we are all busy and there is too much to check, but from time to time you might want to look at the full context of some clip or quote. If your group discourages this then that’s not a good sign.
If you discover that someone you have followed does this regularly, perhaps it’s time to stop rewarding them with your attention and put the energy you save into more genuine relations.
As a corollary to this trolls never argue in good faith. There differnt kinds of trolls, some who just stir shit for fun. But there are also professional trolls, paid to create division and destroy consensus on important issues. A lot of them aren’t subtle, they are 2d characters with whom it is a waste of life to argue.
There are real people out there who deserve your attention.
Martial arts and self–defence against misplaced reverence
Martial arts teachers, along with others like Yoga teachers often expect a breadth of respect that they may not deserve. What is it about these arts that fosters misplaced reverence?
Beyond a set of specific skills Yoga and martial arts are often described as a way of life. The way of life label implies that if you master Martial arts/yoga you master life. The arts do cut to the heart of certain core aspects of being human – body use and metal focus and I do think you can apply the principles of these arts broadly.You might be able to use those principles to learn more quickly in other domains, they do not confer genuine knowledge or skills beyond the limits of the discipline.
These disciplines also encompass and foster subjective states that are often described in mystic or spiritual language. These states are subjectively extremely pleasant, often blissful. They counter stress and many of the ill effects that it can have physically, they can shift us out of constricted selfish perspectives. They have value.
However, there is often a strong sense that the insights gained in such states are universal.
Parrallel to this there is a refinement of self-awareness that comes with conscious breath and movement. This allows finer distinctions in choice that can lead to improved health and other desirable outcomes. It is genuinely true that in many ways you are the authority of what is happening in yourself, that you have a degree of sensitivity to your physical state that nobody else has. It is also true that mainstream medicine often prescribes treatements that do not take a patient’s subjective experience into sufficient consideration. But medical imaging and diagnostic technology can observe things in a body that medtitative insight misses.
The idea of universal principles, the states of oneness and flow, the refined interoceptive sense can all encourage an impression of global insight and understanding.
Given a respectful audience willing to listen it can be easy to apply insights and talk confidently about subjects that you don’t know much about. I know, I’ve done it. My confidence has tended to swell with the admiration or at least absorbtion of the audience. On good days it leads to a crackling series of new insights and connections that can feel almost oracular. The insights can sometimes help people, and riffing on principles in a group is a an enjoyable, bonding experience. It is reassuring to think you and your group have special knowledge and can see the truth beneath all things.
But if there is no testing, no pushback, and no checking that processcan spiral into an inflated sense of universal wisdom.
I know a fair bit about exercise, about martial arts, about physiology but that doesn’t in any way qualify me to offer medical advice. My intuitions about my own body, however subtle they may be, do not qualify me to pronounce on public health. Yet I regularly see people in the martial arts world who are willing to diagnose and prescribe based on the scantiest of information.
When an insight from such a state is questioned or challenged it can feel as if all of this is under attack, the art, the principles, the self knowledge, the tradition etc
This is where you find people proclaiming that you can’t deny their ‘personal truth’. I agree there’s no use to deny or argue with subjective experience, but the limits of that experience are do not extend far into the inter-personal world. They don’t extend into engineering for example. My understanding of body structure might give me useful intuitions into how a suspension brdge works, but they won’t allow me to calculate the thickness of cable of a specific material necessary to hold up the bridge. You need an expert for that.
If you see some teacher authoritatively pronouncing on all kinds of subjects that they are not expert in don’t take them at their word. They may genuinely believe that their insights trump those of people who have dedicated their lives to a specific subject, but that does not mean they are correct.
Martial arts and self-defence against increasing weirdness
A tool used by dodgy leaders as well as algorithms is to feed people increasingly weird and often very specifically weird information. Within some martial arts this takes the form of intricate but not testable theories of energy flow in the body, or points that must be struck in a special order, or trivia of body position – like ‘correct’ angle for the little finger during a form/technique.
Weird and specific information is an obedience test. It can be used to see if a student is a good follower. It can also be used to identify members of outgroups, who question or have different (though possibly equally strange) ideas that they adhere to.
If you notice such weirdness in a group around you, ask whether the information can be genuinely tested (how would you test it objectively?).
Ask whether the information can even be questioned without pushback or punishment. Can the people claiming the weird and specific tell you where they learned those things other than mystical insight, cryptic ancient texts, or some anonymous source?
Martial arts and self-defence against conspiracy
Why or how are conspiracies attractive and seductive?
It’s a big subject, but here are few reasons. A common reason given is that they offer a sense of certainty, in an uncertain world. ‘Things are going to shit because of them‘ It puts the problem ‘out there‘.
Membership of the group conveys the sense of specialness, with a strong sense of belonging and a clear path to social recognition that comes for advocating for the conspiracy.
Less well appreciated is that conspiracies are often built on a metaphor that is then taken literally. As Naomi Klein puts it conspiracists often “have the feelings right but the facts wrong.”
There are nanobots that can track your every move in the vaccines! No, but your every move is being tracked by the accelerometer on your portable phone.
Big pharma created the pandemic/plandemic? No, but they have done some seriously bad shit both broadly and specifically. The opioid epidemic in the US which was started as a cynical profit grab by the Sackler family. Unlike conspiracy theories this is something well documented though, if not sufficiently punished.
Vaccines make you soulless/autistic! No, but surveillance capitalism and addictive online technology do suck the joy and colour from life. Too many screen hours do leave the eyes flat.
‘They’ are taking hundreds of thousands of children and sacrificing them to live forever! No, but a system that prioritises short-term profit genuinely steals from the futures of children. It is the highest earners who benefit the most and actively resist change.
These are real fucking issues. The conspiracy narrative taps into them, but in a way that makes these issues harder to address.
The conspiracy peddlers get rich using the tools of monetised attention capture. The platforms that host them benefit from the same attention. Then real-life communities fracture and fragment leading to greater dependency on the online world.
If you have friends or family who have gone that way, meet them at the level of the real issue that the conspiracy is a metaphor for. It rarely helps to argue about the convoluted and impossibly complicated conditions that conspiracies demand to remain ‘secret’. If you can do something with that person, however small, to address the real issue, even better!
Alright, that’s quite a few subjects to consider in martial arts and self-defence. If you think the article is useful, share it.
If there’s a very short summary it goes something like this. You aren’t immune to manipulation. Connect to your body, disconnect from sources of outrage. Connect to the people around you. Maintain connections to people with different opinions, do good things together.
Withdraw support from people playing us and them games. Be suspicious if someone flatters you flatter you as being a hero on the side of the angels. Be suspicious if they try and terrify you. Remember pretty much everyone you know is just trying to get by, is as flawed and vulnerable as you. Don’t attribute malice where incompetence or thoughtlessnes is as likely a reason.
Knowledge needs to be checked and double checked especially if it is weird or weirdly specific. Withdraw support from people who take things out of context deliberately or are sloppy with their sources.
Consider how these ideas can be useful when you meet someone from the ‘other side’. It’s probably not useful to use them as a club to beat that person over the head and win arguments. I hope they can be useful to create good connections and filter out bad information.
Want to be part of a community in which healthy humour, teasing and testing are encouraged? That what Practices beyond style is for. You won’t find macho martial arts and self-defence nonsense there. You can join paid courses in Bagua, Qigong and Xingyi, but membership is free. Not free are Zoom classes but they are a good place to learn and ask questions about Bagua and Xingyi.
Robert Anton Wilson wrote a lot about these ideas. He was very interested in conspiracy theories, and as 60s counter-culturalist orignated quite a few. For this subject I reccomend ‘the Cosmic trigger’. It is very much a 1970’s book in style, which you might love or hate, but it’s a fun ride. I haven’t mentioned the influence of psychedelics in this article, but they are resurfacing and old Bob knew a lot about them( he was a close friend of Timothy Leary). You can probably find the books asfree pdfs/epubs if you dig a little
Conspirituality podcast: Some really good insights into the way modern wellness culture gets distorted. Sometimes it can seem a little polarised – constantly banging on about this or that manipulative influencer/guru/politician but they are scrupulous with their sources, do their best to keep a compassionate regard and issue retractions when they get things wrong. They released a book recently too.