“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” ― Christopher Hitchens
I am currently in the process of editing, researching, writing and re-writing a multi-volume book entitled “Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Work”. It is a project that I started around 2005 as an examination of the legacy of the R.B.S.D. (Reality-Based Self-Defence) movement, but has since evolved into a critical overview of martial arts subculture in general. My initial belief was that self-defence teachers were the modernist antidote to what had gone wrong in the combat arts. This left me with a huge scope of study and it wasn’t long before I realised that I had underestimated my task.
I expected to find charlatan instructors who had either been corrupted by commercialism or were hopelessly deluded by their own mythology and other, well-meaning teachers, who had simply become stuck in their ways. Cutting these away cleanly I thought I would just be left with the heroes of a rebellion fighting for truth across the history of martial arts. Such a view was naïve in the extreme. What I discovered was that critical thinking is a cold and hard tool of reasoning that has no loyalty to style, teacher, tradition, testimony or anecdote. It isn’t impressed by an individual’s level of experience or where they have taught. What I found was something that did not filter out a bunch of villains, nutcases and relics, but a condition that permeated every part of martial arts subculture including the R.B.S.D. movement. Even when I deconstructed the most notorious controversial figures in the martial arts world, I often found uncomfortable reflections.
A lack of overall regulation, the persistence of tribalism and a general under-appreciation of the scientific method has allowed something comparable to a social virus to mutate and break down walls of logical reasoning in many a hardened fighter or a reasoned teacher. I called it Bullshitsu, primarily because it made a mildly offensive title for my book, but also because it was a good martial art portmanteau equivalent for what many sceptics have used to loosely bracket all sorts of nonsense and magical thinking in society.
My sales blurb to one sid
e, below are a selection of some reoccurring questions that I have found help to identify the existence of Bullshitsu in one’s training, learning and teaching.
What do you know about your system’s history?
Even a modern system has its roots in something and will be modelled on the experience of an individual that has then been taught by someone else. As techniques and concepts are passed from teacher to teacher, changes are invariably made. Many martial artists rightfully argue that they are continuing a living tradition that they can prove has an unbroken lineage stretching back for generations. Others are trying to reproduce a system that died long ago, sometimes as an immersive historical investigation. In both instances a type of irrational thought that psychologist Bruce Hood calls “essentialism” often takes place. Nothing, not even physical objects, can age without some form of change taking place. This isn’t to discredit individuals who try to preserve a tradition or resurrect one, but to acknowledge the inevitability of constant change influenced by a wide variety of forces.
A third group, which operate alone or as part of the other two, are those who believe in and/or propagate martial arts mythology. These are individuals who put their faith in the word of teachers who have no evidence to back up the roots of their art. Many martial arts have attached their origins to unprovable lineages, sometimes stretching back to pseudohistories about the Japanese Ninja, the Korean Hwarang, the Chinese Shaolin Monks, the European Knights Templar, the Russian Cossacks and many more besides. Ethnocentric ideas of hyperdiffusionism have put forward many creation myths where one country is seen as the root for all martial arts learning. Russia, Greece, India and China all have persistent martial arts creation myths. This often backed up by the natural human instinct to see patterns and be driven by confirmation bias. Despite the fact that any culture with access to wood has independently developed a hunting bow seems to escape this mind-set. The bow and arrow stands as just one example of convergent evolution in combative systems.
A variation of this group go to another extreme and offer an Immaculate Conception theory that dismisses clear evidence that their system is either the development of another system or was influenced by other cultures. History is often turned and distorted to satisfy certain politics or ideologies. This leads to many martial arts leaders using pseudohistory to distance their respective system from its undesirable foreign roots or to insert philosophical ideals to soften an art’s warlike reputation. Furthermore, an Immaculate Conception theory elevates the value of a more recent head of a system in the eyes of his students.
Understanding what the evidence tells us about a system’s roots and its evolution helps
prevent us from operating off a false premise. We can see why changes were really made and decide which model we might want to follow in our personal training.
Have you ever properly questioned your teacher?
Many martial arts operate in a tribal hierarchical subculture. The person at the top is the seat of all knowledge. This descends through his most senior instructors and down to the various instructors under them. It is a top down system of control akin to feudalism. If the chief instructor changes his mind on something, which virtually all of them do to some degree, the entire martial art he heads changes with him or splits off in protest. If he dies then his named successor takes on the mantle and so on. Other instructors do have a say on matters, especially if they suddenly prove themselves to be successful, but the changes are often subtle. Martial arts associations have often proudly displayed their committees, but these are rarely elected officials. There isn’t usually an established or respected line of feedback coming up through the ranks that will have a regular impact on the head instructor. Meanwhile, in the even more tightly controlled environment of the regular classroom, the students work to please the instructor (or a grading panel) more than improving their actual education in the martial art.
Pretty much every system of martial art in the world is somehow the result of direct or indirect cross-training. Tribal protectiveness led to many associations and clubs banning their students and instructors from training elsewhere. We live in supposedly more open times, where cross-training programmes have become more common. However, what has happened now is that it is often the club that controls the cross-training, providing experiences in other arts to retain their students’ interest. Even systems that pride themselves on progressive and open-minded cross-training tend to stick to the same predictable martial arts systems.
Having a teacher who is above being questioned can lead to all sorts of problems. I have seen combat sports teachers and even world champions buying into pseudoscientific remedies and endorsing self-help ideals that have no basis in actual proven application. Likewise, I have seen both traditional and modern martial arts teachers use their authority to endorse both sides of the political spectrum. What’s worse is the way such politics get integrated into the actual teaching.
Encouraging critical thinking as part of a teaching process is not about being ridiculously liberal in a class and allowing argumentative ti
mewasters to nit-pick at an instructor. Argument for the sake of argument is just pseudoscepticism, which can be as damaging as unthinking credulity. A line of respect should be afforded to whoever is leading a class. However, encouraging an environment where students can investigate, question and feedback is progressive and makes martial arts more in line with science than a belief system.
Do you have any sacred cows?
Martial arts are full of concepts that have come to distinguish individual styles. It’s easy to see it in the traditional martial arts. Some stick rigidly to principles of linear movement, others throw their lot in exclusively with circular movements, there are those who focus everything off the centre-line principle and some have compulsory set forms; then there those who place their belief in the existence of esoteric energy. Finally we have the various philosophies – religious and otherwise – that have become welded on and intertwined with the teaching of martial arts.
Modernist martial artists might scoff at such adherence to certain structures or belief systems, but they would be wrong in thinking this was something restricted to traditionalists. The R.B.S.D. world has accumulated its own stockpile of concepts that are often referenced as if they were holy sacraments of knowledge and wisdom. They are often linked to the mid-20th century luminaries of the USA. From the military we have Colonel John Boyd’s O.O.D.A. Loop, Sergeant Dennis Tueller’s Drill and Lt. Colonel Jeff Cooper’s Colour Code. From psychology we have Hick’s Law created by William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman and Guthrie’s Law theorised by Edwin R. Guthrie.
How often are these theories held up to scrutiny? How often are they questioned or properly tested within martial arts/self-defence lessons? I
t’s a rare occurrence. Yet all have been readily questioned outside of the R.B.S.D. subculture, resulting in mixed conclusions. Times move on, a society moves on and so does science. Critical thinking martial arts are not dismissive of established principles but they don’t accept panaceas and are wary of certainty.
Perhaps your sacred cows lie in people. All the great martial arts pioneers had their faults and often questionable belief systems. Accepting these icons as fallible human beings and understanding what influenced their decisions allows you to take more responsibility for your training. We can honour a person’s work without having to slavishly defend all their idiosyncrasies, quirks and ideals. We can even separate art from artist in some instances. However, believing in total inerrancy of a leader promotes cult-like thinking and prohibits rational progression.
Do you practise pious fraud?
I have an entire article/chapter dedicated to something I have come to call “Jessop Thinking” in the martial arts world. It is named after the main antagonist, Colonel Jessop, in Aaron Sorkin’s famous military courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men”. The part was memorably played in the movie adaptation by Jack Nicholson. Jessop’s notorious “You can’t handle the truth” rant in court, which ultimately leads to his undoing, is based on his self-righteous belief in practising pious fraud. He thinks that his huge responsibility of heading the Marine Corps at Guantanamo Bay permit him to lie as he sees fit. Martial arts teachers often have the same arrogant assertion. They will tell stories about things they don’t necessarily believe to be true, as if they were true, in order to help keep a student’s dedication. They will propagate urban legends about crimes under the misguided belief that it will help make a student be more streetwise and aware. This just promotes a paranoid attitude and it might feed false data regarding likely criminal behaviours. Whichever way you look at it, the matter is a violation of trust. This problem combines the false premise issue that occurs when a martial art gets mythologised with having information controlled by teachers who are seen to be above criticism.
Do you rely on appeal arguments?
The martial arts subculture is riddled with appeal arguments. Appeals to authority ensure a cult-like subservience to the top down process, including total veneration of a style’s founder, living or dead. Appeals to tradition or antiquity enforce the “time-tested” myth. When looking at history with a critical eye, the survival of a system can be down to the influence of its practitioners or their ability to adapt it to the changing mood of the time rather than the value of what is being taught. Appeals to novelty enforce the idea that just because something is modern it is also somehow better and more up-to-date with the changing world. New doesn’t automati
cally mean progressive or better informed. A modern system might be responding to a founder’s personal biases or a desire to create a distinctive style rather than to actually improve anything about the original system. This brings us onto appeals to popularity, which is very common in the martial arts world. Like any other human being, martial artists are susceptible to trends and can get caught up in them without engaging critical thinking. This can lead to a system’s direction being more influenced by a popular view rather than one that is grounded in logic, wide-ranging experience and empirical data. The popularity of a martial art, regardless of whether it is being picked up by law enforcement or the military, is usually down to its marketing rather than any a measurement of its effectiveness or efficiency.
How tribal is your martial arts club and community?
This brings us onto something I call “Stylism”. Humans are naturally tribal. We operate in groups and as these groups grow they often fracture. Groups are bound by codes and practices. These same principles apply to martial arts subculture. Whether one group is trying to protect their business or their emotional investment, they often view other similar groups as being inferior. Martial arts “Stylism” is a complex subject and happens in many ways, but here is a rough overview.
At the microcosmic level there are those that see their club or particular branch of a style to be above anything else. We have seen this type of tribalism occur within many famous martial arts institutions and even within actual families. Then we move onto those who view their particular art to be superior to
all others. Next we get an ethnocentric or nationalistic view, where everything outside of their chosen art’s country of origin is viewed as inferior or derivative. Finally, there is the big three-way divide in martial arts between Traditional Martial Arts, R.B.S.D and Combat Sports. These three macrocosmic distinctions of martial arts tribes are fair even if all three overlap significantly. It can be seen as a battle between traditionalism/classicism, modernism and postmodernism respectively.
“Stylism”, when it is properly examined, hinders progression. It smacks of essentialism in that martial artists are forced to view their arts, systems and methods as tangible properties. There is a lot we all can learn if we become aware of our personal prejudices and the prejudices imposed upon us by our training culture. Self-awareness and critical thinking allows us to remove intangible obstructions and better research our training.
When did you last make a mistake (and admitted making it)?
Humility is a common theme in martial arts. The western martial arts world endorsed it through their distorted romanticisms about chivalric knights. The eastern martial arts world pushed it through their melding of religion and philosophy at the turn of the 20th century. However, if you listen to the autobiography of most martial arts teachers you won’t hear much personal humbleness, unless it is the story about how they had nothing and made their way to the top. What you will hear is the incredible life story of someone who has nearly always been right. He will have had his hardships and problems – perhaps he was a target for bullies and/or suffered from a disability of some description – but you will rarely hear about when he was wrong. Instead you will get a smug figure of authority who casts himself as an icon of wisdom in various anecdotal stories.
Such self-belief fits in with the Tony Robbins empowerment guru model observed by investigative reporter Steve Salerno. Empowerment gurus automatically believe they can advise on anything in life and they are self-appointed experts regardless of whether they have the specific knowledge, experience and education on any given subject. With the advent of social media, we have seen martial artists regularly using their position of authority in martial arts to preach on a wide variety of subjects as if these subjects were mere extensions of their job role. Without apparently doing much impartial research they propagate to their martial arts flock conspiracy theories, urban legends, pseudoscience, pseudohistory, pop psychology, sensationalist journalism, quack remedies and their own personal politics. In so doing they are continuing a
martial arts tradition that goes back to the turn of the 20th century, where we find the roots of Bullshitsu in nationalism, pre-scientific beliefs and the proliferation of pulp fiction literature.
The average martial arts teacher obeys his tribal instincts and asserts an alpha position, exerting little discipline over his ego in the process. He will certainly tell you about humility, but don’t expect to hear about how he totally messed up a technique today or his second thoughts about a certain martial arts concept he has been teaching for the past 20 years. And so this model is copied by his students when they become instructors.
Cognitive dissonance is not something the average martial artist takes into account. Yet it is something we often see in the subculture of martial arts. When uncomfortable realities about a martial art – be it history, theory, science or practice – hit home, the typical response is for the devoted martial artist to go into denial, make excuses or fall back on what psychologist Carol Tavris calls “the engine of cognitive dissonance”: self-justification. What they don’t often do is learn, especially if this information has come from outside of their respective tribe. However, a teacher who acknowledges their mistakes is more likely to be able to relate and connect to their students. They have the best chance of being able to move forward with training and to gain more productive results.
T.W. Smith’s excellent podcast featuring this article. Listen here.
My critical thinking journey into martial arts subculture is covered in my upcoming multi-volume book, “Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Work”.