With 'coward punches' being a hot topic in the very recent past, and the ever-growing emphasis on violence in the media, there is a growing need for people to learn how to defend themselves. Self-defence systems are sprouting like mushrooms after the rain, which is a topic I have discussed many times before, including the pros and cons. One thing to be said is that the emphasis on quick results highlights a growing problem in the differenes between how self-defence systems are taught, how they are presented in the media, and the way that the legal system approaches self defence. I believe the key issues are as follows:
1. The ever-increasing coverage of violent incidents in the media, as well as the way in which they are covered, are gradually creating a shift in society and specifically in the martial arts industry. The coverage highlights of the ‘coward punches’ and how they happen to innocent bystanders are indeed scary… but this is often followed by a debate about how dangerous martial arts are. The resultant portrayal is inevitably a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, and only exacerbates the problem. As a result, new students who come to train are often fear-driven, and are often not interested in spending many years perfecting an art. They often want a quick fix to an immediate problem – which is not necessarily a bad thing. But while learning the basics of self-defence can be done reasonably quickly, it must be coupled with an understanding of the potential consequences of violent encounters, both legally and otherwise, and industry practitioners, participants and the media must highlight this balance for the problem to dimish. Responsibility should be shared by all.
2. Some schools teach self-defence techniques but do not teach the theories associated with self-defence to any significant degree. This is particularly prevalent in the case of short-course self-defence programs, which are often taught by instructors from another state or another country. Excellent practitioners though they may be, as travelling instructors they may not have sufficient knowledge of the legal guidelines relating to use of force and self-defence in every country in which they teach. There are also instructors who are local who may not know these guidelines. That being said, I feel that it is very much a case of ‘one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel’. For every one bad instructor that teaches the wrong thing, there are many knowledgeable, hard-working instructors who are doing the right thing.
3. There is a distinct gap between what happens in the eyes of the judges and lawyers, and what happens in the eyes attack victims. What do I mean by that? That while it is fantastic to know about the legal application and requirements of use of force, of escalation, of assault and self-defence and of other theories relating to combat and self-defence, the question often remains – when reality hits, how will you react? A common saying I have heard in the past is that ‘it’s better to have a bad trial than a nice funeral’, and while I always advocate responsibility in the way self-defence systems are taught and applied, the courts may not recognise that most people will have a significantly higher chance of surviving a violent encounter if they defend themselves with putting their own safety as the most important outcome, rather than when trying to recall which legislation they may be violating and fighting off a knife-wielding assailant at the same time. Simply put, under the effects of stress under attack it may simply not be possible to do both… which is where this becomes an expensive, murky legal swamp for those who find themselves in those unfortunate hot waters.
What is the solution then? Good question. The laws regarding assault and self-defence were put in place for a good reason. But are they capable of offering a complete and balanced solution for a changing and evolving society that is more heavily influenced by media and violence? And is there another solution rather than just making the laws harsher in the face of these changes? I believe so. I strongly believe that learning self-defence should not put you at a disadvantage should you have to do what you are trained to do, which is to defend yourself - but that is providing you have no other choice but to do so. In the words of the immortal Stan Lee - ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. I do believe that people who are well trained in self-defence should have more of a responsibility to avoid a fight wherever possible. At the same time, I also believe that they should not be punished more severely than someone who is not trained if they are forced to use those skills.
I believe that there are three core things that one needs to prepare for, when minding the legal gap, as follows:
1. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in such a situation, be prepared, as the great Hock Hoccheim says, for an expensive mess.
2. Poor preparation prevents poor performance. There are things that can be done to ensure that your training minimise such risks in your training, and these should be incorporated into the curriculum of any good, responsible self-defence school.
3. Following on from this, a component of good training is scenario training and visualisation. Part of this is that you should think about various scenarios and how you would react under certain circumstances should you have to. If someone broke into you house and threatened your children, how would you react? If someone bumped into you in the street and then pushed you, how would you react? Decide now how far you will go for a range of given situations, so that you don’t have to think about it should you have to do it - which I hope you never do!
Stay tuned, stay safe.