Received Wisdom: Rules

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Received Wisdom is generally defined as “common knowledge that is held to be true, but may not be.” There is a great deal of received wisdom in the defensive arts. I started this column a long time ago, then stopped, then started again when many of the same “bits of wisdom” kept coming up.

“There Are No Rules in the Street”

This is a classic. Yep, someone said it – again –  in a video, which I don’t doubt they wanted taken seriously. It is something they take also take serious, I’m sure, when saying it to their students.

They followed up with another oldy but goody: “the only important thing is that you go home to your family.”

First off, absolutely and unquestionably there ARE rules in the street. They are called laws. And being measured against those laws will determine your justification in using force at all, whether your use of force is reasonable, and whether it is proportional. This will change during a confrontation, and you must continue to be justified and reasonable as the situation changes.

The referees for those rules are called cops, and judges, and juries, and if you act unreasonably, or disproportionately, you will likely NOT be going home to your family but to a nice jail cell.

There are rules, and you had better know them. Well. You had better be comfortable in the use-of-force environment far beyond some easy definition of a Violent Attacker that makes every potential threat one that will seriously injury or kill you. Things are far more complicated than that in real life – “in the street” if you will – and if your instructor doesn’t know the difference – and doesn’t know that there are rules – he or she needs to stop talking about it.

The thing is, your instructor almost certainly doesn’t know the rules – in thirty years in martial arts and twenty in law enforcement most martial arts instructors I haver encountered may have black belt level fighting skills, but are worse than white belts when it comes to legal justification and articulation of force.

This is like handing a gun to a child.

Then, after any criminal liability one may face for use of force, there will potentially be civil liability. You may have civil liability even when not found criminally liable. Once again, it goes to proportionality and the reasonableness of your actions, not to mention  other factors that may attach to your specific case based on the factors involved – is there video of you or your instructor talking about how there “are no rules in the street,” or about how violent and brutal you must be when defending yourself?

You can start adding zeroes to a settlement. Garnished wages. Lien on your house. Or maybe you won’t be going home to your family because your family won’t have a home.

Yes, threats and situations of extreme violence do occur. And yes, we have to practice for them. But, much lower level incidents occur much more frequently and we have to practice for those, too, and learn to navigate between them effectively. That ability to navigate is true self defense, and yet isn’t offered in ANY martial arts school I’ve ever seen. (One of the major benefits of jiujitsu is that it has a built in ability to manage BOTH, if the instructor is knowledgable enough to know how it does.)

Stop allowing instructors to get away with statements presenting a child-like understanding of self defense and use of force. Ask them to define these things for you, like articulation and legal justification and proportionality. If you can’t ask, or won’t (there are many reasons why someone would not ask or challenge their instructor’s understanding); or if the instructor doesn’t know, realize then that you need to take their pronouncements with a grain of salt forever after.

If they can’t answer, and are honest about it, a whole new path toward understanding can result.

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