Con Permiso: An Honest Look at Self-Defence

WrasslinThe truth is, the fancy police or military-based combatives training isn’t really going to do shit for you. I know, they seem so tough. All yell-y and camo’ed up, taught by guys who’ve killed with their bare hands. The techniques are simple, practical, and lethal. They can be used in high stress situations. All very useful when creepy uncle walt puts his hand on your thigh, or your popular co-worker starts feeling you up in the lunch room with all the other employees just outside the door. Go ahead. Break his nose. It’s a great idea, and everyone will applaud you. But you won’t do it.

Violence can happen a lot of ways. The popular idea of violence is the gorilla chest-thumping that leads to assault, and yes that does happen. Men and women both do it in their own ways. There are also the human goblins, evil little shits that plan out elaborate ways to trap and kill people. The gung-ho defence works for these, or can, anyway. Nothing is absolute. The more likely self-defence situation plays out a little different.

The reason the military or police tactics don’t work is because of permission. Wearing a uniform is a permission to act a certain way. It’s a license to act as an arm of the government, of public or political will. When you put a uniform on, you are invested with the permission to act. This is a very powerful thing.

Consider the first few things you feel after being assaulted. Shame. Guilt. Male or female, when an assault is happening, those run through your head. Your main concern is not survival, it’s lessening your shame. Fighting back, yelling, screaming for help…those will only increase shame. I don’t know why humans react this way. Something a bit screwed up in our genetics. I suppose it might be a way of sacrificing ourselves to the tiger so our family doesn’t get eaten as well. Who knows? All I know is it happens, and there is no self-defence without first dealing with that little bug in the system.

It seems trivial. It’s not. Granting permission to use force is one of the most sacred acts humans can do. Modern armed forces still commission officers. Think of Knights. Samurai. To be a warrior is to be a separate class, to be apart from society. The very act of allowing someone to use force sets them apart, and we require uniforms today to mark such people. Teaching you some techniques in a class, no matter the trappings, is not going to have the same effect.

There will always be a small percentage of people that can act anyways. This is a known thing…some people seem born with a capability the rest of us don’t have. About two percent, if I recall. Don’t mistake their tales for life lessons that can apply to yourself…and if you assume your self-defence students are that two percent, you are a fool. But at least you are in good company. It’s not logical that people would act this way. It’s not logical, but it is reality.

I love the early twentieth century self-defence works. The language used to describe an attacker is so different from today. Modern books speak of predators, putting the rest of us in the position of prey. They build up attackers, making them scary. The Victorian books talk about ruffians who need a scolding and a few licks from a heavy stick to put them in their place. It’s an implied permission to act, granted to a social class. Not so applicable these days, but the idea is good.

There is an important idea buried in there. When someone crosses a social boundary, we should understand that we are granted a permission to act. This is not taught. It’s implied, or more honestly assumed and glossed over. It shouldn’t be. It should be taught.

When I was teaching the St Paul’s hospital ERT program, we did hours of rehearsed scenarios with the team members. We made them as realistic as possible. The instructor team would stage an incident with one of us acting as the person that needed to be controlled. Sometimes we’d explode for no reason, but mostly we would escalate until the team had no choice but to act. We’d push every button they had to throw them off, and still expect them to act correctly every single time. They only had a few physical techniques to use, but we challenged them to use them under the most bizarre circumstances. The instructors would be physically drained by the end of the day, but the team members would be emotionally drained. We’d made them work their permission triggers over and over again.

The instructor team included a psychiatrist to do this. To teach someone when they should recognize a social boundary has been crossed, and that crossing gave them permission to act…license to act…absolutely required a very experienced mental health professional to teach. It’s a difficult thing to do. Even with a uniform and training it’s not easy. Ask any soldier, cop or even security guard what it was like when they first acted in their role to physically intervene with another persons actions. It’s a bit like falling off of a cliff. A really big step with a ton of momentum and no going back. It would be scary if you had time to be scared.

I don’t teach self-defence classes for this reason. I can teach a million techniques, I can show anyone how to kill or cripple someone bigger and stronger than them. I can even teach you how to manipulate and control someone with subtle pain and pressure that gives you complete control over them. I can do all of this, but teaching you how to understand when you have permission to act? That is non-trivial. I’ve spent enough time with assault victims to deeply understand just how difficult it is for people.

I will start teaching self-defence again. I’m wrestling with the permission thing…writing this is one of my steps to clarifying what it is I want to do. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I just need to find my own way to overcome the barrier I see. I suppose I need to give myself permission. And I know that’s not easy.

7 Comments

  1. Absolutely. Yes. I don’t think the average person is willing to axe hand an attacker in the moment the throat even with permission and with specific training. People in general just aren’t wired that way. This is why we use boxing to teach us to be as calm and rational as possible with limbs flying at us and wrestling to allow us to keep our feet and control the fight.

    What are you guys doing in the pic btw?

    • Free-sparring submissions from the knees. Zim, on the right, had gotten a good grip on me and I was countering with pressure on his left elbow to control his shoulders, while using my left forearm to prevent him from using his head to bull me around, which is always a risk when facing a bigger and stronger opponent.

      I don’t recall how that bout ended, but I can guarantee we were both completely exhausted at the end of it. Zim is a beast.

      • Thanks! The technique you are applying with two hands is interesting. I have a student who weighs all of 65 kilos and little tricks like this that I don’t need can make all the difference to him. It’s nice to see some of the Box Wrestle part of your training. 🙂

        • We box and wrestle at the beginning of class,right after the workout. It means that no one is taking a break to run the camera, so we rarely get pictures unless someone is injured. It’s too bad, because it is our favourite part of class.

  2. Randy, you always make sense but this is profound. As a former police officer and instructor of defensive tactics, former soldier and current practitioner of a ‘military’ system (a spin off of the Russian martial art, Systema) and life-long martial artist I couldn’t agree with you more. From time to time I do teach ‘self defence’ and when I do I offer very few techniques a whole lot of time spent thinking. That is step one because after step one comes the learning and application of force but until you have thought about it a bit, there is little point learning techniques in my opinion. This post has given me some fresh ideas on how I might train people in the future. Thank you.

    • Thanks Hugh. I’m considering how I can start to include some sort of physical or verbal token of permission in my regular classes. There should be some way that is safe and reasonable.

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