- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Whether the matter in question be religion, music, or the martial arts, I've never felt the need to assert that my way is the best way or the only way. Protestant Christianity, acoustic singer-songwriter music, and aikido, respectively, are all paths that I have stumbled upon, more by chance than by choice. Were I to take too much pride in the perceived relative merits of a fate that chose me far more than I chose it, I fear I'd become like the above patriot, boasting as if he'd chosen to be born English.
There are those, though, who'd have me do exactly that.
I was urged, even in the tolerant United Methodist denomination in which I grew up, to "save" people of other creeds from sin and hell by sharing my truer and more correct beliefs with them. I have been told by fellow musicians and music fans that my kind of music is "real" music, and that metal, rap, and electronic pop are "just noise". And from my first day in the dojo, I've had instructors telling me that aikido is something deeper, more sophisticated, and more moral than all other martial arts.
To be sure, on the spectrum of ignorant conviction Lewis lays out for us above, these particular aikido instructors have been much closer to the "loveable old ass" end than the "villain" end. My respect and love for them are not in question. But I still think they're wrong.
Aikidoka, tell me if you've heard these before:
- Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it values technique over strength, so you don't have to be a big, strong guy to do it.
- Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it teaches a way of life and not just a set of physical skills.
- Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it doesn't dilute itself with sport competition.
- Aikido is superior to other martial arts because O Sensei incorporated the best of many different martial arts into one art.
All martial arts, not just aikido, aspire to be methods by which a smaller, weaker person can defeat a bigger, stronger one. And some, like Royce Gracie's jiu-jitsu, have proven themselves quite convincingly. The "way of life" claim has never impressed me, and at any rate aikido is hardly the only art making it (check Google if you don't believe me). Absence of competition is not exclusive to aikido, and I find the argument that competition is a valuable tool a compelling one (Rob Redmond, for instance, makes it here). Finally, many arts, including Shorinji kenpo and jeet kune do, can make equally valid claims to being a brilliant master's synthesis of multiple martial arts.
Does this mean that aikido isn't unique or special? Of course not. It probably does mean, though, that aikidoka have very little cause to be looking down their noses at anyone.
What's more, I suspect most aikidoka are like me: rather than exhaustively researching every martial art available to them and making educated decisions about their relative merits, they got lucky and happened upon something that was affordable and convenient and looked fun and interesting. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this method, but it's not a method that puts one in a position to make claims about the superiority of a particular discipline.
To return to the other examples I used earlier, my music and religion came to me much the same way. I didn't choose to be born and raised in the United Methodist Church, and the acoustic guitar landed in my lap during an elective class my senior year of high school. Does that mean these things aren't vital and meaningful parts of my life? Of course not. But it does mean that I don't really have a leg to stand on if I start to claim my religion or my music are the best in a world full of options. Maybe I might claim that they are the best for me, but even then I'm not saying anything that does me any good in an appeal to a universal or objective standard.
One more thing: who cares?
Who cares which martial art (or religion, or music style) is the best? Why can't we just find something that works for us and let it work? Why do we need to be better than anyone else? It's a question that returns to my mind whenever I am foolish enough to read YouTube comments.
To be sure, there are a select few who genuinely need the most effective combat skills they can find, and for them the comparative efficacy of different martial arts is a valid concern. But I'm certainly not one of those people, and neither are most aikidoka, or even most martial artists.
Most of us, then, have no authority to declare our way better than all the others, and, moreover, no reason to. Rather than trying to prove how much better we are than everyone else--something we are entirely unequipped to do anyway--why don't we all just get back to training?