Everyone wants to practice a martial art that works in the “real world.” A martial art’s integrity is reliant on its ability to work in an unforgiving environment. But is it worth changing what you practice so that it is more applicable to modern self-defense? In other words, is practical self-defense really the ultimate goal?
Martial artists will often claim that a given style, technique, or weapon is unfit for the modern world. Nobody carries swords anymore, so swordsmanship is pointless. This isn’t Tokugawa Japan, why fight from the seiza position? Is there value in a martial art that doesn’t improve your ability to control a modern confrontation?
Why practice martial arts?
Almost all modern martial artists are training for pleasure, whether we admit it or not. There’s nothing wrong with that, and some take it very seriously. But ultimately, we’re doing it because it makes us happy, not because we need protection.
If you do feel physically threatened, then why study long-term martial arts? As they say, nobody studies for 10 years on the off-chance that they get into a bar fight. If you really do feel threatened, find a solution immediately. Your first concern should not be your potential as a martial artist. Why not take more precautions in your everyday life? Why live in such a dangerous place? If you must, you can even carry a weapon. But martial arts should not be the first solution to this problem.
If you don’t feel physically threatened, then you have to ask yourself whether self-defense is your real concern. Is it the threat purely hypothetical? Are you looking for an excuse for a confrontation? Many people are driven by ego. There is a sense of power that comes with knowing that you can physically subjugate other people, and a sense of pride when other people recognize that power. Needless to say, these desires aren’t especially healthy.
Sometimes we just have to take a step back and realize that most sources of stress and insecurity aren’t physical threats. Physical confrontations can’t solve those problems.
I practice martial arts because I enjoy it. It’s important to me that they can work in the real world, but it’s not important to me that I have the opportunity to use them. It doesn’t bother me that swords aren’t used anymore. I still know that I practice a real form of swordsmanship, and it’s important to me that it works when life and death are on the line. But these situations don’t exist in my life, and I won’t pretend that they do for the sake of drama.
In popular culture, everyone tries to distill martial arts down into their most tangible benefits, like a sales pitch. Advertisements tell us that we can learn discipline, improve our health, and defend ourselves. The implicit message is that it isn’t good enough just to practice martial arts for pleasure.
Martial arts and liberal arts
In many ways, this debate resembles the age-old argument between the liberal arts schools and vocational schools. Liberal arts schools emphasize the academic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, independent of financial gain. Vocational schools emphasize down-to-earth job training and marketable skills. The liberal arts are, of course, why so many highly educated people can’t find jobs; their educations aren’t focused on marketability.
And yet, when I graduated from a liberal arts college, the faculty bombarded us with justifications of the liberal arts. They explained how liberal arts are great job training, as if they were vocational skills all along. And certainly it is fair to say that the liberal arts can train students in marketable skills, just as it’s fair to say that martial arts can help a person develop discipline and self-respect. But isn’t it suspicious that the faculty feel the need to justify the liberal arts according to an outsider’s criteria? The implicit assumption is that it’s not good enough to pursue academic knowledge for its own sake.
Self-awareness is key
If you train martial arts just because you enjoy it, be honest with yourself. There’s no need to exaggerate threats, nor do we need to be primarily concerned with using martial arts “on the street.” It only seems necessary if you don’t believe that your martial arts are justifiable in and of themselves. If you practice martial arts for enjoyment, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t serious. It just means that you practice by choice, not out of necessity. The same is true of any skill. A carpenter can be great at his craft without convincing the world that his craft is necessary. We should be glad that martial arts aren’t as necessary as they used to be. Otherwise, we’d all be a lot worse off.