Jessup Thinking & Pious Fraud in Martial Arts (Martial Arts Scepticism Series)

pious fraud meme“Do not suspend necessary scepticism [US sp.] because of the righteousness of the cause.” – Steven NovellaThe Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe

As I continue researching and writing my upcoming book on critical thinking in martial arts several reoccurring themes crop up. The Pious Fraud logical fallacy is a new one on me, but it seems to be quite popular in martial arts subculture. I found it when I kept coming across martial artists persisting with the propagation of myths they had discovered to be false. I first put this down to cognitive dissonance, and it does represent an example of this psychological phenomenon, but I knew there was something quite specific about this reasoning. I looked up “the ends justify the means logical fallacy”. After all, this wasn’t a case of faith based on denial. Although it is true that faith tends to increase in followers who have invested a lot in a prophesy that proves to be untrue when the date expires, the justifiers of Pious Fraud argument don’t need to wrestle with their perception of reality to resolve a challenge to their belief. Their response to having a myth exposed is: “I don’t care if the actual story is untrue. The point it makes is more important than accuracy. Therefore, we should insist on telling the myth, as if it were true, to teach the lesson”.

I am a fan of fables, legends, myths, parables, anecdotal tall tales and all sorts of literary folklore. I can see the validity in using fictitious and allegorical stories to illustrate a point. Didactic literature has a rich heritage across all cultures and the transmission of ideas through imaginative tales or verses can be a more effective way to impart wisdom than telling someone straight or even delivering a case study. For the purposes of art or entertainment, I also don’t see any problem in suspending the reader or listener’s disbelief with the pretence that the tale is true or might be true. The horror podcast, “Pseudopod”, had a wonderfully eerie introduction line to each of its many spooky tales: “And I promise you, it is true”. However, only people with a high level of gullibility would take such tales to be truthful and not the entertainment value that was intended. The Pious Fraud is a wilful act of propaganda and has a history of being used in this way. Heinreich Himmler once justified this in a chilling speech that echoes postmodern arguments for Pious Fraud and pseudohistory:

“We don’t care a hoot whether this or something else was the real truth about the pre-history of the German tribes. Science proceeds from hypotheses that change every year or two. So there’s no earthly reason why the party should not lay down a particular hypothesis as the starting-point, even if it runs counter to current scientific opinion. The one and only thing that matters to us, and the thing these people are paid for by the State, is to have ideas of history that strengthen our people in their necessary national pride. In all this troublesome business we are only interested in one thing – to project into the dim and distant past the picture of our nation as we envisage it for the future.

“Every bit of Tacitus in his Germania is tendentious stuff. Our teaching of German origins has depended for centuries on falsification. We are entitled to impose one of our own at any time.”

ends justify meansI have seen comparable arguments put forward for persisting to forge ancient religious or philosophical underpinnings to the historical practice of martial arts.

After a heated debate with some practitioners in traditional Chinese martial arts regarding the myths surrounding the Shaolin Temple, I was taken to one side by a friend who explained to me the point I was missing in this discussion. I did not understand the concept of cultural tradition. I listened as he explained to me how these Englishmen had all trained in China and had been accepted into a Chinese martial arts family. Even when faced with hard facts produced by Chinese martial artists and historians that debunked the role the Shaolin Temple played in the development of martial arts, it was important that the message was conveyed to students. When teachers in Japanese martial arts were faced with the fact that an association between Zen Buddhism and the training of the historical samurai was more a late 19th and early to mid-20th century construct to repackage Japan to the outside world, a common retort is to say that Zen teachings help martial artists and therefore reinforcing this myth is helpful. Of course, both examples of Pious Fraud tend to undermine the value the respective religion/philosophy places on honesty.

The cultural excuse doesn’t move me much either. I was told by my friend that I did not understand the nature of tradition. The insular nature of martial arts culture always fascinates me. Even with the proliferation of martial arts cross training and martial arts conventions, the average martial artist often exemplifies the tribal nature of our species. I explained that I thought I had a fairly good working knowledge of cultural tradition. In 1984 my family were commemorated on British stamps for over 300 years of public performance. When I performed my martial arts act as part of a professional wrestling show, I became the eighth generation in a supposed unbroken line of performers.

Growing up amongst circus folk, I learnt a wide variety of superstitions and I heard a lot of mythologizing. The latter was often a regular frustration for me when I was researching my historical circus book. A good amount of the documented material I had found was told by people who spun tall tales as a means of entertainment. I guess this often seeped back into home life and then to a point where generations of people didn’t know when the history story and mythology began. Even my own family have a huge gap of years between the first recorded performer who bore my mother’s family name stepped onto the frozen River Thames to entertain visitors to the frost fair and the first recovered Parish records that start a documented genealogical line. Nevertheless, we celebrated this legend and linked it in our travelling show publicity and told it to each other. It seems that it would be a huge coincidence that this 17th century entertainer was not a direct relation to our family of travelling performers, but a good historian suspends making such assertions.

However, my friend did have a point about Chinese culture in particular and this is where the Pious Fraud issue butts up firmly against social culture rather than just traditional culture. It also might help us understand why Pious Fraud is so common in martial arts, which often take on Eastern philosophy. Stemming from 4,000 years of Confucianism, the motivation to save face is embedded deep in the Chinese nation’s collective psyche and can be seen in the way business is conducted.

As explained in China Mike’s succinct and information article, “The Cult of Face”, the Chinese definition of “face” (mianzi or lian) is not easily translated to a European or western audience and probably has more in common with the Middle Eastern cultural concept of “honour”. The West tends to see “saving face” as an individualistic and egoistical issue and, on that basis, we can make arguments for a person humbling themselves by admitting a mistake. As we have seen, admitting error is something that is universally uncomfortable, but there is still a cultural difference that might be lost in translation. Many sociologists see this cultural distinction coming from the West being a guilt-based culture and the East being a shame-based culture. For an individual in the East, and particularly China, to lose face in front of his peers is to bring shame on the rest of his community and, depending on the way the shaming individual has acted, the . To this extent, it might be culturally acceptable for an individual to lie in order to not only preserve the face of the community being represented, but save the face of the person doing the shaming.[i]

So, I am not unfamiliar with the cultural endorsement of legends. My friend mistook my disagreement for a lack of understanding. I understand family culture, rituals, the tradition of keeping secrets and the reasons why certain cultures would see the virtue in lying, but I also understand responsibility. Critical thinking and scepticism are blunt instruments. The philosophy of scepticism might have its scholarly foundation in the teachings of the legendary (ironically some might say mythical) Western philosopher Socrates, but the act of critical thinking is universal. A good deal of the debunking of Asian martial arts myths did not first come from pragmatic and intelligent westerners, but from martial artists who were native to the country of the art’s origin.

Many modern martial artists might dismiss the Pious Fraud Fallacy as an example of what Bruce Lee called “The Traditional Mess”. When a person ties themselves to a culture they often feel pressured into embracing it totally and without question, believing that to expose the weaknesses in the said culture would undermine its existence. However, although the appeal to tradition might be a strong motivator for individuals to concede their honesty, it isn’t the only sector of the martial arts culture to commit Pious Fraud. There is also a “Modernist Mess” and a “Postmodernist Mess”.

Modern martial artists will often refer to dubious modern day case studies in order to reinforce their training methods. This is becoming increasingly common when soft skills are discussed. Often the point being made carries weight, but the case study is faulty. As can be seen in my “Taking it on the Chin and Listening to Fools” article, I know of self-protection teachers who spread urban myths on the internet regarding supposed gang initiation rituals, where unknowing citizens will be lured into traps. These myths are not retracted when the teacher is shown that they are false, but defended with the line “I think people should be made aware”. That isn’t awareness. That’s spreading irrational fear. In this instance, a modernist teacher is telling a parable or fable in much the same manner as the traditionalist might to express a concept.

Postmodern martial artists often put themselves over as being holistic. Knowing that combat has many variables, they open their minds to the idea that everything is valid regardless of the context. In their world exceptions to rules are given credence beyond their rarity. I have often found they rarely believe in the smoke and mirrors they often use, but argue its purpose as a recruiting tall. “People don’t want to hear that all you need to do is whack a person hard, they want an art and they want justification for that art” is the conspiratorial whisper I hear from postmodern instructors as they defend their decision to create elaborate new routines and weld-on disparate and superfluous techniques from a range of disciplines. The Assyrian proverb, “If the thunder is not loud the peasants will forget to cross themselves” might be applicable to their philosophy. Many of these teachers justify teaching classes in martial arts they do not train in themselves in order to be able to sponsor the special lessons they can teach in pragmatic martial arts. I can see the logic to an extent, but the Pious Fraud is committed when these commercial classes are insincerely promoted.

TheEndsAlwaysJustifyTheMeansBack to Bruce Lee and we come to the cult of personality. Like religion and politics, the cult of personality sees many a hero worshipper trying to downplay, hide or outright lie to protect their idol. In his honest short essay on Bruce Lee for “Shoot a Fair One”, entitled “Bruce Lee Myth versus Fact”, Al Alvir writes, “When I watched videos of Bruce Lee punching a heavy bag, I wanted to bury the footage and never mention it again.”[ii] The Pious Fraud idea turns the follower into a co-conspirator in the propagation of falsehoods. As indicated in my opening paragraph, the pious fraudster cannot claim denial or a refusal to accept the facts being presented. They have over-stepped the line held by the delusional and the stubborn. It is a form of cognitive dissonance, but not one where an individual has to reconcile the incredible with the rational. Instead the individual has to reconcile continuing to commit an accepted wrong in order to facilitate a virtuous cause.

When anyone commits a Pious Fraud they are consciously making a decision to deceive and manipulate. That is something worth bearing in mind the next time you decide to buy into the Japanese tradition of preserving “tatemae” or “public perception” whilst guarding “honne” or “private true thoughts”. When it comes to teaching martial arts you have put yourself into a position of trust. The student looks to their teacher for honesty. It is a given. The teacher might be mistaken or wrong, but the least a student can expect is that the teacher is not knowingly lying about the information he is providing.

In life, we probably all commit a Pious Fraud in some shape or form, and I am not denying some form of justification. Context is everything and I wouldn’t want my readers to see this piece as overbearingly sanctimonious. We might sacrifice our principles and integrity because the survival of an individual is at stake. Many have lied to protect their loved one or to simply preserve the lives of fellow human beings. At the other end of the scale, we might decide to commit a Pious Fraud to our young children to preserve the “magic” and enjoyment of an occasion such as Christmas or the loss of a milk tooth. When you consider these two justifications, which aren’t logical arguments but nevertheless understandable moral or innocuous decisions, one might want to weigh up what you are saying about your martial arts Pious Fraud.

As an instructor who has decided to argue from Pious Fraud, you have decided to withhold information from an adult student because you feel you know best about how they will apply that information. I would assume that you would expect students who train with you to be honest about their knowledge, limitations and anything else that is relevant to their training under you. Such honesty might be reflected in an oath that they utter at your school or when they sign a membership form. They have trusted you to teach them, to the best of your knowledge, the truth about a subject that you claim a relatively high degree of knowledge and competence. For reason you feel are justifiable you have decided that honesty in teaching is not always a two-way thing. You might argue that it is your right withhold information and you would be correct. It is perfectly logical for a teacher to exercise his judgement over how much he should teach. However, it is worth considering that there is a difference between simply refusing to teach a student certain information and purposefully lying about information.

Responsibility is a key component in martial arts teaching. Violence isn’t a light matter. A teacher who believes he is to teach an individual something that could be applied against another human being in a manner that could result restraining, injuring or killing has an obligation to the learner and society at large. Given such beliefs and principles, saddled with being placed in a position of authority, it is easy for a martial arts teacher to fall into something I call “Jessup Thinking”.

One of my favourite movies is the US courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men”. The film was written by Aaron Sorkin and adapted from his play. Sorkin was inspired to write the story by a real-life incident in Guantanamo Bay, where a group of marines stood trial for almost killing one of their fellow soldiers during a hazing incident, which had been ordered by one of their superior officers. The movie and play tells the story of two marines who accidentally kill one of their colleagues, Private William Santiago, whilst carrying out such an ordeal, known as a “code red”, under similar circumstances. When the defendants admit to committing the act but insist that this was an official order from their platoon commander, which in turn had been issued by the top of the chain of command, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, the case goes to trial. Jessup is seen as the main bully of the story. He’s arrogant and overbearing to his subordinates, and just about anyone who faces him. His motivations for lying about issuing the order are to protect his own career. He is willing to let two subordinates to suffer the consequences of a decision he made and an order he gave. However, like the best villains in fiction, there appears to be certain “truths” underpinning his approach to life. He lives in a very dangerous place, the Cuban border, where he commands the US Marine Corps to defend his country against invasion.

At the climax of the film he is put on the stand by a subordinate officer, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffe, who has never seen combat. From the beginning of the investigation Jessup’s contempt for Kaffe is never hidden. Beyond having his authority being questioned, Jessup often seems angered that the bigger realistic picture is being compromised, the issue of national security. It’s a familiar argument we hear in the media: how much are we prepared to compromise to safeguard against harm? In one of Jessup’s most memorable outbursts – preceded by his most famous retort to Kaffe’s demand to know the truth, “You can’t handle the truth!” – we see an indignant argument for committing a crime in favour of a preventing a greater evil:

“I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like ‘honor’ [US Sp.}, ‘code’, ‘loyalty’. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said ‘thank you’, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!”

a-few-good-menJessup’s special pleading argument is somewhat remiscent of the case put forward by Robert Grave’s fictional depiciton of the ex-Empress of Rome, Livia. In Graves’s novel, “I, Claudius”, Livia is portrayed as a ruthless and murderously ambitious politician who destroys all her opponents and paves the way for her son, Tiberius, to claim the position as Emperor. All along the way she has lied to manipulate her husband, Augustus, to take action against his allies and family members or anyone who challenges Livia’s plans. Tiberius turns out to be a merciless, sadistic, brutal and paranoid despot who loathes the way his mother feels she can manioulate him. Once she knows she is dying Livia realizes that Tiberius will not deify her, so she calls upon her grandson, Claudius, to help her achieve this posthumous ambition. She fears that she will be condemned to the underworld and suffer eternal torment for the many crimes she has committed. Although, in one sense it seems that she is merely power-hungry and wants her favoured son to rule, Livia is a staunch anti-republican and strong organizer. It appears she believes every lie she has uttered was done for the good of Rome. It is her constant argument and it is so convincing that even Claudius, who is revealed to be a clever and learned individual hiding under the guise of acting like an imbecile, and who declares himself to be a republican, is won over.

The Jessup Thinking martial arts teacher commits Pious Fraud because he believes he knows better than his student to the extent that the student is not capable of handling the truth. A traditional pious fraudster you have decided that preserving a tradition –even if that tradition has been distorted by a turn of the 20th century novel – is a bigger tribute to the art or the art’s teachers than honouring those who really developed the system and the legitimate history. The Jessup Thinker does this with a strong sense of justification because if he doesn’t lie the fragility of what he is teaching or what his teachers have taught is somehow undermined. In his mind, the student will not learn effectively or apply it if he thinks that great and iconized martial artists are flawed.

Jessup Thinking is not easy to defeat. We can all become self-righteous in our willingness to tell lies to students, but all this can be seen as our weakness as a teacher. We have a choice on who we teach and how much we teach them. We don’t need to tell lies about anything and should not feel compelled to do so. We should be proud enough about investigating the true history of our martial arts and martial artists than to have support it by perpetuating a myth.


The above article covers a topic contained my new upcoming book on martial arts sceptcism. Please join our Facebook Group and follow our Twitter feed to receive updates on when this book will be released.

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