Affiliation and Independence

It’s a very curious thing, this martial arts industry.

For one thing, I would guesstimate a good 30% of people involved in the martial arts in all capacities (practitioners, students, instructors, observers, armchair/keyboard warriors) need therapy more than learning how to fight. There are overlaps straddling between effective fighters and unethical businessmen but a large portion are involved for nobler intentions but it seems that today’s social media and internet-driven world, the true nature of latter individuals are quickly being diminished by the former.

Know that there is little to no barrier to entry into the martial arts industry. There is no central governing or authorizing body like other major activities and sports. eg. sport shooting, there will be strict police checks and approvals, in some countries (e.g. Japan) where regular psychological examination and assessment is required to own a firearm license, then you join a sanctioned shooting organization to learn and compete within strict and enforced guidelines and rules. Should you want to operate a shooting school or shooting facility later there are just as many legal and financial hoops to jump through before you can be an official shooting facility. Even then your actions are consistently audited and monitored.

On the other hand, the typical neighbourhood martial arts club faces no such scrutiny. It may or may not be affiliated to a larger organization. If it is, then it will adhere to a large portion of what types of service is provided at a certain level of competence and usually at market rates relative to the location and will present a curriculum to its clients to satisfy a list of criteria to determine a person’s implied or explicitly demonstrated skill. If it’s not, it can be anything the person decides to teach that day. It can be anything the person wants, be it real, historical (traditional) or something they just made up 10 minutes ago. Others approach this problem by learning at Place A and teaching the same material at Place B and renaming it something else, with no credit or acknowledgement given to the original source of instruction. In any other industry, this would be grounds for plagiarism and copyright infringement but movement patterns cannot truly copyrighted even some have tried (see: Hot Yoga) but failed and the only result was high legal costs and public scrutiny. Many of these gyms pop up overnight as just as quickly, many disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving many disgruntled paying clients in the lurch with prepaid memberships and locked gym doors. Some are started by well-intentioned individuals who unwittingly invite skilled foreign nationals only to have their clients poached away by the same instructor with the master plan of making a fast buck. Fear not, I’m not talking about YOU in the personal, singular but YOU in the incognito, masses, global plural because this sort of thing is universal.

What this opens up is the question of ethics. Should trainers be subjected to audit, disclose their source of information and education and acknowledge that the information they possess is not original and was learned or influenced by certain individuals or organizations and provide credit to ascertain this truthfully?

This observation typically opens up a rabbit hole of heated, opinionated discussions on what’s a legitimate, effective martial art, why someone would be interested to be a proponent of a traditional martial art from the Far East, full of cultural traditions and philosophy or a modern Western approach focused on combative efficiency with little to no regard for cultural significance or philosophy on how to be a “better” person. Why would someone accord such acknowledgement or credit an organization for providing the education or business system that they modified for use? This could end up being a Coke vs Pepsi argument only to prove they are both right and wrong. So we arrive at a cross-roads that all serious martial artists face and is appropriately summed up by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who said,

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

You make your body strong through information but can you really claim that the methods and skills to build that strength came to you in a dream? Will you also have the mental strength and confidence to acknowledge that you were taught by others who have “walked the talk”?

In a world seeking instant gratification, promoting narcissistic values and self-serving agendas it’s hard to see how these goals can be achieved. I say this because I see people taking up the practice of martial arts is mostly to be another feather in their cap to peacock around, add to their Instagram “look at me” validation-hungry personality and another variation of the “communal narcissist” problem.

My limited experience in the martial arts, close to 40 years now, have clearly demonstrated that neither the Far East nor the Western approach have successfully instilled and permeated all levels of the positive, honorable and respectful etiquette that it aims to achieve through the disciplines of martial arts. In fact, some cases, however anecdotal, the martial arts have served only to be a platform where such unscrupulous individuals launch and relaunch their public persona in ever evolving forms, rebranding the “professional mask” from which they conveniently forget or omit to inform the public of their past teachers and influences. Why does this happen? I don’t have a clean-cut answer for you and I suspect it doesn’t exist for many reasons just as our personalities are varied and complex and as our needs change, so does our “story” over time.

Locally, there is a phenomenon of several high ranking former-government officials and other wannabe, self-appointed motivational gurus claiming high levels of university degrees to bolster their political image and publicity mileage only to have investigative journalists crack open their claims to unravel awards by online degree-mills or plain fraud by claiming to be awarded multiple doctorate degrees from well known universities abroad only to have them refuted as fake when no record of their attendance was confirmed. I’m not saying that there are many fake instructors, in fact many are legitimate and have gone through the hoops of training and getting their ranks but there are many out there who perpetuate an image of themselves in a positive light but have obtained their credentials from the likes of universities who award degrees based on “life experience and no testing required” and the “degree will be issued on full payment”-types. Some of these degree-awarding establishments are right at my doorstep or an easy mouse click and online payment away.  The danger here is to the industry and to the uninformed general public. Not only are these organizations legal business entities but they are misleading in that the public will assume the same rigour and educational calibre of learning and testing took place and recognized professionally and legitimately by professional employers. I daresay none of these degree holders will find a job outside their own dojo armed with these qualifications. The question for those who have gone their own way, ignored or omitted their first teachers, their roots will such paper qualifications be the balm to soothe away their yearning for validation and public respect? Will forming a masturbatory-entity to give each other feel-good awards and legitimate sounding university degrees make their lives easier or only serve to further mislead the ignorant and uninitiated?

Sadly it’s all too easy to get away with this kind of shady business. There is little opportunity to have the student’s combative skills tested or challenged as they can easily find shelter behind the community and the law.  Your influence on the next generation is strongly leveraged on your present actions. If your intentions are less than straight and narrow, what message are you sending the students?

It’s all too tempting to walk this path as an independent. There are no checks and balances to ensure that what you do, teach and influence others is proven or effective. You only need to look at the many challenge matches surfacing online showing up the delusional martial arts “masters” who have developed myopia over the years only to have some younger student from a effectiveness-based art to remove all doubt, usually in a humiliating and painful fashion. There is no one to answer to nor challenge your thoughts, actions or direction when you’re independent and you’re free to behave as you like. Form your own organization. Build your network of yes-men and disciples, fleece them financially to feed your car (or however dark) obsessions. Building and bolstering your reputation as a ‘bad-ass’ is a sure fire way to start a martial arts group. Another strategy is to use the kids approach as it gives the impression that you’re a nice, trustworthy person so leverage your way into a position of authority within your community.

What separates these ultimately are your actions.

In an industry where an instructor’s reputation determines his gym or organization’s success, the final word is to give credit where credit is due. To acknowledge your teachers and people who have put in blood, sweat and tears to bring their skills to the sharing table.

In the old world, a tribe’s survival would depend largely on their ability to hunt successfully and pass on the skills of how to hunt to future generations. When written language and communication were primitive or non-existent, actions did the speaking for them.

I can imagine a tribe returning to a cave after a successful hunt, a hunter pointing to a drawing on the wall, singling out an archer or spearman to a child busily eating the catch then pointing to a scarred, bearded old man in their tribe then back to himself and finally to the child. He showed me how to make the spear and hunt with it to bring back the food that you eat and soon you will learn these skills from me to feed your own family one day.

This circle is of poignant, primal and within us all. Passing the knowledge and skills for survival one of the salient factors for our existence for us to perpetuate as  homo erectus to homo sapiens. Why some of us fail to follow such a simple but profound gesture is a sad testament that honour and respect has since faded with time and has been overtaken by pride and narcissism.

Moving on in a new direction is fine. Nothing new about any of it, just not yet discovered yet. Feathers will be ruffled for a while and harsh words may be exchanged but finally we are all in the same piece of rock spinning in space so do what you feel best for you. If you sleep well at the end of the day then all is good. Continue your swim in the big ocean but as with many things in life, what goes around comes around.

In servitude and openness,
Vince Choo