Okay, for those who don’t know who in blazes Sam Harris is I can only give my own account: a Harvard professor, with a PhD in neuroscience; a bestselling author of several books, most notably promoting atheism and decrying divine faith – take “The Moral Landscape,” a big advocate of using science to discover morals and values. And now, it seems he’s stepped into the martial realm with some thoughts. His “Truth about Violence” blog treats us to three principles of self-defense:
1. Avoid dangerous people and dangerous placesIn other words, don't do this, don't do that, and then do do what we would normally do anyway.
2. Do not defend your property
3. Respond immediately and escape
“Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places”
This is a very good principle. Here’s another very good principle in the same vein off the top of my balding head:
“Don’t rub Crazy Dave’s Inferno Sauce on your butthole. Not even one dab.” *Shaking Head* Just don’t – you will have bad memories.
The primary goal of self-defense is to avoid becoming the victim of violence. The best way to do this is to not be where violence is likely to occur.
Sage. Here’s more sage stuff:
Patient: “Doctor it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor: “Don’t do that.”
Does it really take a PhD in neuroscience to realize we should ‘avoid dangerous people and places?’ Is this Dr. Harris’ measured conclusion after a series of peer-reviewed studies appeared in the academic journal, “Oh-No-You-Di-n’t!” Who doesn't know this? It’s like when interviewers ask football coaches what their strategy for the day’s game will be: “Well, we figure if we score more points than the other team, we’ll win.” Wow, it's like he's Sun Tzu!
Harris is a decent writer and he’s written an opinionated piece, but “principles of self-defense?” Try observation through experience. Look up the word principle: “a comprehensive and fundamental law.” Even if we take this first maxim to mean, 'Don't behave in a way that invites violence,' does it really alter the way we were behaving before reading his blog? What "principle" is this of self-defense? It seems to me it’s simply good advice, in fact, one I like to think, many if not most decent people are probably raised on.
But let’s take it at face value. Okay. So, then, what if we live in, reside in, a dangerous place? What then? What’s the “principle” now? We should not go home? We should not go out? How does this help us now? We should just move? What if we can’t?
It would be great if by our location and behavior we could all simply avoid the people and places of violence, and if we could, we wouldn’t need self-defense as we know it today. But isn’t it the fact violence can occur anywhere at all – where we work, live, drive, shop, eat, sleep, travel, or piss? No matter how we're behaving? Isn’t that what worries people? We don’t know where or how violence will occur and if we did, I’m pretty sure we would avoid it.
“Don't defend your property”
Right. I get where he’s going with this – your wallet isn’t worth your life; a gun is shoved in your face for your new iPad – go buy a new iPad. Got it. But could there ever be a case in which we are justified in defending property? What if that property is life-protecting or life-sustaining? The real question is, is there any property worth dying for?
And we don’t need to make up hypotheticals. Folks trapped in their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana waited upwards of a week until they saw their first policeman and in the meantime had to contend with roving bands of armed looters, looking to steal food, water, and guns. It happened in Haiti too after the earthquake.
Take the riots in London or America – some shop owners turned out to defend their small businesses from fiery ruin. If your business is how you feed your family, and without it means going hungry and destitute, guess what? You show up with a cricket bat. Or a shotgun. And some did. (Sales of baseball bats in England on Amazon.com rose 5000% during the riots.) My point is there are cases that could be made for defending property. So, this is not some immutable principle of self-defense. It’s Harris’ advice.
“Respond immediately and escape”
“This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape — not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.”
“You have no alternative but to explode into action, whatever the risk. Recognizing when this line has been crossed, and committing to escape at any cost, is more important than mastering physical techniques.” (Emphasis original)
“Explode into action.” Brilliant. I can’t wait to teach my Mom to explode.
“(Martial arts sparring) doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively, without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.”
“Strike preemptively without telegraphing your moves.” I am a lifelong martial artist who’s trained for more than 30 years on my “moves.” I teach and train three times a week consistently – sometimes four when doing five-hour seminars once a month - and I have trouble doing all of this. Who does Harris think he’s writing to? Batman? Honestly, this is all just silly.
Look, the gut response of anyone whose life is threatened by another person is to escape. This is normal. Natural. Everyone tries to get away. Everyone. Escape is the first immediate response, not exploding into action. Thor explodes into action – he’s the God of Thunder and has a big hammer.
It’s when we can’t get away things get complicated. We’ve heard of ‘fight or flight?’ Well, when “flight” is not an option, “fight” is not necessarily first on everyone’s to-do list. Does this mean no one will fight back? Of course not, some will with or without training. My point is even if attacking your attacker is an option, the majority of people will not do it.
This is the mistake Harris and probably many of those who read his blog and thought it reasonable are all making – they are taking for granted they will fight back. Because fighting back seems reasonable and is easy to assume from behind a computer screen reading a self-defense blog from your favorite atheist; if Sam Harris says I can do it, then I must be able to, right? However, this spits in the face of horrifying reality when rough, violent people are commanding you do something you would never do.
When safety and life are threatened by other humans and escape is not possible, some people “posture,” or put up a good front, trying to talk their way out. But most people will “submit” and just give in and give up - if there’s a “truth about violence,” this is it. Survivors of school and mass shootings who “played dead” later recalled to interviewers they just gave up and “waited to die.”
They couldn’t flee, they didn’t counterattack, they didn’t posture, they submitted. This is the actual baseline response, the predictable human behavior of most people to life-threatening danger from another human - they don’t want to get hurt, they don’t want to die, they will give up. This is what the overwhelming majority of people will do. It is to be expected.
Jeff Cooper, a Marine in World War II and Korea, and responsible for what is known as the modern technique of defensive shooting, wrote this:
“Any man who is a man may not, in honor, submit to threats of violence. But many men who are not cowards are simply unprepared for the fact of human savagery. They have not thought about it … and they just don’t know what to do. When they look right into the face of depravity or violence they are astonished and confounded.”
This myth of ‘fighting back’ is not isolated to those under direct threat. Check out David Brooks’ piece, “Let’s All Feel Superior” in the New York Times where he mentions “Normalcy Bias,” “Motivated Blindness,” and “Bystander Effect” as explanations as to why a Penn State graduate student didn’t knock the shit out of Coach Jerry Sandusky and then call a SWAT team to join in the beating when he walked in on him raping a ten-year old in the shower. The fact is even folks witness to violence, in a crowd or individually, have an extraordinary apprehension to helping others at the receiving end – no calling 911, no aid provided, and certainly no laying hands on perpetrators.
If we'd like a preview of our own gut reaction, we should do ourselves a favor - jump on You Tube or simply google "fight" and watch a dozen videos of actual, brutal confrontations. These are just the kind of people we are concerned about defending ourselves from - still feel like "exploding into action?" Now, place ourselves in the opposite perspective - would we help any of these people? Call Police? Stop a victim's bleeding? Jump into the fray? If not, congratulations you are "normal." But if you are someone who usually goes to the aid of others, then chances are you will come to your own aid. In fact, I think aiding others is great training to help yourself.
Now, bear in mind I’m not saying this baseline behavior is right, moral, or ethical, I’m saying it is to be expected. And if we wish to change our expected behavior, our “normal” response, then we have to train. Period. When high schoolers tackled Kip Kinkle at Thurston High during a murderous shooting spree on May 21, 1998, they may or may not have had previous martial arts/self-defense training. But they played football – a heavy physical contact sport. In that, they were all “trained.”
Oh, and I love the bit about abandoning our child to the predator with a knife. Does Harris believe he or anyone else would actually do this? I can't believe his ‘moral landscape’ is that bleak.
Now, look, a friend asked me for my thoughts here and I’m not writing this simply to tear down Harris who ostensibly was just trying to help others. And it’s not to say Harris is completely wrong from an anecdotal perspective. If my sister, who has zero martial arts experience - except the shared memories of a mean older brother who tried out techniques on her - told me these three points, I’d be like, “Hey, great sis, glad you know them,” since it would give me some solace she didn’t take her own safety for granted. I think we can all agree that Dr. Harris – who receives death threats for his writings, no less - does not either.
But I want my self-defense advice to be active and actionable, meaning it compels and motivates me to do something new, preferably a something new I am confident I can do. Negative advice – don’t do such and such – is not active and rarely actionable, since it usually is only applicable under “in this case don’t do this” kind of thing.
This post from Harris seems to be what reasonable people might find reasonable about self-defense advice, but that doesn’t mean it is. It seems to me anyone reading it is likely to simply agree, place a check next to the box for each point – yep, I’d do that, yep, I’d do that too – but other than a gooey sense of self-satisfaction that they and Sam Harris are on the same page, I am not certain what they learn to alter and create new and better behavior.
I guess if one were planning that evening to go to a dangerous place, not avoid dangerous people, defend their wallet at all costs, not “explode into action” and escape, and instead fight back like a fat 10-year-old girl, but after reading Sam’s article, stayed in and watched reruns of “Doctor Who,” he’s done his job.
Now, I refuse to be critical without at least offering myself up for criticism. So, here are my three principles of self-defense. They are based on the principles of Taijutsu: position, leverage, initiative. In part two, I’ll detail them:
1. Activate higher levels of awareness by threat assessment of location, lifestyle, and activity
2. Create countermeasures to known/unknown vulnerabilities
3. Consistently train physically to protect others, for one's own resistance and escape
Read Part II: On Self-Defense