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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Searching for Morality in Martial Art

A few weeks ago I introduced my small readership to a much better and much more famous online martial arts writer than myself, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens. In that entry, I examined my own martial arts in light of one of Redmond's biggest criticisms of modern Shotokan karate practice: a failure to embrace martial artists' individual creativity.

As I continue to read Redmond's work, a few more recurring points are starting to jump out at me, and one in particular cuts very deep for a practitioner of aikido and taekwondo.

In spite of many advertisements' and anecdotes' claims to the contrary, Redmond suggests karate is not a noble pursuit, and does not make its practitioners into more moral people. This widespread selling point of karate training, is, to Redmond, largely nonsense. Harsh sentiments, especially coming from someone who so obviously loves the art.

I must admit that one of my goals when I began martial arts training was to make myself into a better person. I have even suggested on this blog that the lofty moral goals of aikido and taekwondo justify my preference of them over more realistic and practical arts. So this crticism of Redmond's is a little more uncomfortable for me to turn on my own arts than the last.

Can aikido and taekwondo really make me into a better person? What if they can't--have I wasted the last year-and-a-half?

In light of history, a few concessions must be made right away. Being a master of aikido didn't keep Steven Seagal from cheating on three wives in a row, or Clint George from exploiting an underaged student. And being a great taekwondo champion didn't keep Angel Matos from kicking a referee in the face on international television. Obviously, then, training in aikido or taekwondo, even the kind of training that produces world-class skill, does not automatically produce exemplary moral fiber or exceptional restraint.

But I can't shake the feeling that aikido and taekwondo have changed me in some way. In "In the Presence of Mine Enemies", I suggested that I have found more perseverance and discipline in myself in the time I have been training. It's nothing revolutionary or life-changing, perhaps, but I think I'm a little more likely to hit the gym, empty the dishwasher, or take out the trash than I used to be.

Redmond, though, would caution that none of this makes me a more moral person (see the second 24FC article link above). The willingness to persevere through displeasure or discomfort in pursuit of a goal can be used to acheive good or evil, depending on the goal.

Another thing I think has improved a little in the time I have been training is my confidence. This is probably the biggest martial arts selling point; nearly every for-profit dojo or dojang in the country promises to improve your children's confidence. But confidence, like self-discipline, says Redmond, is amoral. Confidence can lead to bullying and snobbery just as surely as it can lead to championing any noble cause.

So far, I have determined that I have perhaps increased in perseverance and confidence some small bit through martial arts training. Anything else? What about the other popular claims martial arts instructors like to make? Have I become less violent? More respectful? More resistant to temptation? A better citizen? A better husband?

Honestly, I don't think so. For my part, I have noticed no such thing.

The best I can say of the martial arts, then, is that they give us tools. Perhaps I can use these tools to affect positive changes in myself and the world around me, but I can just as easily use them selfishly and perhaps become an even less moral person than I was before I began.

The only conclusion to be drawn here is that my martial arts are only as noble and moral as I am. Rather than expecting to find morality in the martial arts, I should be looking for it in myself and bringing it with me to the dojo.

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