February 15, 2016

Defending Knife Defense

Last year, in the city of Caloocan, Philippines, north of Manila, a security guard battled a knife wielding former employee in a ninety-second murdermatch. There’s video of it online. Watch it if you want nightmares. To see the guard flail for his life, dying in the very office he was protecting, is like suffocating in fresh air.

A large predator stalking us in the wild is bad enough, but a coworker taking advantage of surprise and fear with a melee weapon until we are dead throws even the battle-hardened into despair. We can only wish swift justice for his killer, who as of this writing is still on the loose. The horror show is grim reminder of the finality to decisions and actions under the stupefying stresses of violence.

This kind of savagery contributes to the ongoing debate of the defense against knives. The camps in argument, combatists and artists. Think of their difference in terms of driving. Artists provide well known, traditional techniques to acclimate drivers to good habits. Combatists concentrate on dangerous potentials, like accidents and emergency maneuvers. They focus on inoculating participants to these possibilities and designing ways to aggressively overcome them in kind.

At least some combatists make a popular claim: there is no dependable way to deal effectively with a knife-wielding opponent and to even try is foolhardy. It’s better to escape than fight. In evidence they point to training scenarios dubbed “traditional” and “real.” They accuse artists of outlandish techniques in the safety of the dojo, when they are clearly overwhelmed by a “real” blitz-type attack. To make their point they screen CCTV of knife attacks, such as Caloocan. Combatists warn that artists are fooling themselves, living in a dream world, and by training unrealistically they’ll only wind up wounded or dead.

There’s several challenges to the combatists’ claim. If knife defense is irresolvable, then why is it part of the DNA of martial training? And for as long as there has been training? How do combatists reconcile a thousand years of martial refinement in which knives and techniques for their defense have held prominent roles is various schools? Why did warriors of old make it a staple in their defensive study? Are we to believe this is a hollow tradition? And why such focus upon the knife? Firearms are far more dangerous. They kill at distance and disproportionately deliver lethal results even when wielded by the untrained. And yet, combatists are not making the same arguments against gun disarming and defense.

Three obvious issues also complicate an escape-only policy in martial concerns: context, tactical options, and viability. Escaping is always a great idea, until it isn’t, like when we can’t escape, like when we must protect someone else. This issue of context is game changing. We may also lose the tactical option to escape if constrained by area or environment, again forcing us to fight. And viability is challenged when escaping actually provides a tactical advantage to an opponent to use the timing of our decisions and actions against us. There are going to be certain cases where we will have to fight no matter what, knife or no knife. Every combatist and artist shares responsibility to recognize this.

But combatists are onto something. Too many artists are afflicted by a common malady known variously as the inflammation of dojo-itus, the code of bullshido, or non-jutsu the ancient and secret art of the nincompoop. They’re all the same thing: the denial and stripping of honesty to idealize training for the purposes of performance.

These standards are not operative in the real world, they exist only in the dojo, where artists can shield themselves behind cultural and traditional affectation. Under these conditions, cooperative training between willing participants can metastasize into reckless enabling to foster confidence in counterfeit skills. In reality, the odds are pretty good these same folks will never use their ability for real-world defense, remaining ever ignorant their skills are lacking. That is, unless they discover, most likely under threat, they are a reenactor rather than a leader. It will be a terrifying moment of clarity.

Truth be told, there’s no controversy regarding knife defense, but there is confusion. Both camps have it wrong and for the same reason: techniques are treated as answers to an opponent’s questions. But questions of conflict should always be answered with even better questions no opponent can answer in time.

Perception is Reality

Every martial endeavor exists to some extent in a dream world. In fact, we must use a dream world of sorts in order to incorporate truths as we understand them into the fictions we design and utilize as training scenarios. Everyone does this, from the hardest hard-charging military special operator to your local taekwondo kids class. Drills, sparring, tactical exercises, even kata, are all accomplished through the use of fiction, as fiction is amenable to the human mind and can make sense to us.

But whereas fiction is a matter of “might be,” truth does not have to be believable, it simply “is.” Facing and enduring the “moment of truth” has more to do with adapting to its pace of change rather than apprehending the exceptionally bizarre or banal examples the human mind can concoct to wage conflict. These examples can literally dumbfound, rendering the moment unintelligible, and protract, even immobilize, any response. Confronted by a knife or gun-wielding opponent is a dumbfounding moment - most folks will simply not believe it’s happening to them. In 2014, Mutahir Rauf, an exchange student from Pakistan attending Loyola University, reached for what he thought was a toy gun when he was mugged here in Chicago mere blocks from campus. He was murdered for it.

This is one of the inherent issues with so-called “realistic” training - it’s paradoxical: scenarios have to make sense or else no one might actually accomplish them. But in making scenarios sensible they defy the validity of the actual, the authenticity of dumbfounding truth, by the very fact they make sense. Thus “realistic” training is as fictional as any made for TV movie because only real is real.

Better to construct training to push students to adapt practiced skills and tactics to the stresses of constant change so as to learn how to make new and better decisions. And it’s only with use of the dream world that we can gain this further comprehension and enrich ourselves deeper to the complexities of our given endeavors. Questions we formulate and ask in training not only enlighten to new answers, they do something even more valuable: provide us the analogical insight to forge better questions. This is parallelism at work and is the underlying strength of the parable, the analogy, of training by context.