Emotional stopping power

From Bolt Defense.

“There’s a deadly idea in there that many of us pick up early, and it’s replicated in lots of self defense training: that if someone gains a certain position (joint lock, choke hold), does a certain thing (lands a certain strike, shoots or cuts someone with a training weapon), or has a certain reaction (momentary freeze or panic), that someone has automatically won, that there’s simply nothing we can do except give up. This is wrong.”


Of bras and belts. 25.09.14

Once upon a time our local clothing shop received a consignment of mislabelled bras. The mistake was consistent across the board, with the labels showing band sizes two sizes too small and cup sizes two sizes too big. For instance, if your normal size was 36A, the magic bras turned you into a 32C. For the uninitiated, this means that the bras told you that you were considerably thinner and bustier than you really were.

A friend of mine spotted this oddity and told all her friends, me included. All her friends told all their friends, and so on. In no time flat gaggles of women were rushing to the store, whose changing rooms were ringing with unusual squeals of delight. Doubt turned to joy, and joy turned into a mad shopping spree: the bras were flying off the shelves. They were clearly magic, you see, because they made you a “better” size. People were stocking up, knowing that the magic was unlikely to last. My friend bought eight before we managed to stop her. I knew this behaviour to be patently absurd: wearing an incorrect label doesn’t change your body shape. Feeling better about yourself because of an obvious lie you’re participating in is preposterous. The whole episode made absolutely no sense! I knew this, so I only went to the store three times, to see myself unchanged yet somehow better.

I was reminded of this silly episode last year, when someone kindly offered me the opportunity to get a black belt in kickboxing in under a year. It seemed a bit farfetched to me; not only I have very little training in the discipline, but I have also demonstrated absolutely no aptitude for it. Increased and focused training would improve my skills, obviously, but even so my body isn’t really made for kickboxing – and at my age and with my mileage this sort of thing matters. Aside from the difficulties in performing certain moves at a high standard, I would also struggle to make them matter in the real world. I can punch and kick people to my heart’s content, but really it’s far more effective for me to bite and gouge them, with a little choking thrown in as required.

The way I saw it, with a lot of hard work at best I could become highly trained yet rather ineffectual. At worst I could cause myself some serious injuries. The most likely result, really, would have been for me to fail rather spectacularly and waste some money in the process. All in all, my prospects didn’t look good. The training provider was adamant, though: “provided I worked hard”, the black belt was “guaranteed”. That would have been great, if it didn’t also mean that the belt was clearly and utterly meaningless.

I knew that the whole idea was either misguided or a flat-out scam. Nonetheless, I toyed with the idea. It would be cool to have a black belt in kickboxing. I’d be like the hero in those movies I used to watch as a kid. It’d be pretty epic, really, knowing that if anyone bothered me I’ve got this black belt… the black belt I got faster than normal by paying a little bit extra… the black belt they gave me even though my punches carry very little weight and my kicks are more likely to injure my own leg than whatever I’m kicking… the black belt that would be mine forever, even if I stopped training and allowed my skills to deteriorate… the black belt that would be a reflection of my aspirations, rather than my abilities… the black belt that may make me overconfident and more likely to get myself into trouble I would otherwise avoid…

I think I’ll avoid magic belts and stick to magic bras. As pointless ego-boosting items go, they are both cheaper and safer.

My first mugging. (08.10.14)

All my training failed me. I completely messed up my first mugging. Worry not: I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t lose my property and I didn’t get carted off to jail for leaving a trail of mangled corpses. In fact, nothing happened. It was quite possibly the least eventful attempted mugging ever. My training failed me inasmuch as I totally failed to realise that I was in a mugging situation; failed so completely, in fact, that someone else had to explain it to me afterwards.

I was at a cash machine, alone, at night, in rancid weather, on a deserted shopping strip surrounded by pillars and shrubberies… On reflection, I can see a few teeny tiny issues with this picture… Anyway, there I am, minding my own business, as per usual in a hurry and in a temper, and this idiot kid decides it’s a good idea to stand so close to me I can actually feel him twitching behind me. I stand there fuming for a couple of seconds, then turn around and growl at him “Would you like to sit on my f@%*ing lap while I do this?”

(Yes, I’m sweet and mild-mannered like that. It’s a gift.)

The idiot kid jumps back about two feet, eyes the size of dinner plates, and goes “eh wut?” At which point another kid peers out from behind a pillar and in a shaky voice explains “the lady says you’re standing too close.” As that still doesn’t elicit any sort of reaction, I bellow my best “F&%^ING MOVE!” Two additional kids emerge out of nowhere, and they all run off into the dark and rain.

It may appear obvious to any rational person that gaggles of teenage boys don’t tend to congregate around cash machines at night in bad weather to provide people with a handy wind break. Clearly I’m not a rational person, because someone had to point it out to me. The little twerps were after my cash. What’s wrong with them? They thought they could mug me? Ok, they were all about a foot taller and twenty years younger than me, but still… Me? A muggee? That’s preposterous!

You see, in my own head I’m still a 19-year-old hitchhiking hellcat. I’m just too much trouble to steal from, because I’m obviously both penniless and rabid. My main problem is dealing with nasty men who want to get up close and personal, and fail to understand that “no” is a complete sentence. Unfortunately, that particular person now exists solely within the confines of my brain: in the real world, where real violence and crime happen, I’ve turned into my mum.

My victim profile changed dramatically and I didn’t even notice. Whilst I’m still at risk of getting raped and shall remain so till the day I die (and possibly even a little while after that, this being a world with some very warped people in it) with every passing year I’m less of an appealing target to the majority of the perpetrators. As a source of money, though, I’m looking more and more hopeful. My most likely risks have changed and will continue changing, so my outlook needs to follow suit.

My physical abilities and limitations have also changed and will continue to do so, presenting me with a whole host of new risks. For instance, I hurt more easily and heal more slowly than I did twenty years ago. The damage I’ve accumulated en route means that certain self-defence moves are now more likely to hurt me than my attacker. I recently had to explain to a Krav Maga instructor that his favourite finisher, the “knee bomb”, would most likely result in me falling to the floor, clutching my dislocated knee and screaming… and he still didn’t believe me until it happened. My job is bound to result in me developing arthritis in my hands, making gripping increasingly difficult. Osteoporosis runs in my family, so if my stupidity doesn’t kill me first I’ll have to get used to the idea that any sort of impact may cause me to break bones – my mum broke four ribs just from getting jolted on a bus. I’m getting old. It beats dying young, but it changes, well, most everything that involves my body.

Why is it, then, that so many people are still trying to sell me the same self-defence? So many snakeoil salesmen are still trying to convince me (and everyone else) that their one-size-fits-all tactical-urban-combat programme will be as useful to me today as it would have been to the person I was twenty years ago, to the person I will be twenty years for now, or to the guy a foot taller and two feet wider than me who just happened to walk through the same door at the same time as me. How does it make sense to anyone that people whose risks, needs and abilities are entirely different could be best served by a generic programme? Unless you’re selling a brand new laser gun or Jedi mind trick, I don’t buy it.


I’m a very small woman with a damaged back. In a society that bans weapons, I am at an obvious physical disadvantage compared to the average person. For some people, that makes me a fragile petal worth defending. For other people, that makes me an ideal victim.  My larger, stronger or less broken friend (i.e. most of them) don’t have to worry about that. I do.

I’m not unique in my predicament. Predators with half a brain choose their prey via a cost-benefit analysis. If you’re perceived as low risk or high stake, your chances of being targeted are greater.

As it turns out, my larger or maler friends have different problems. They are at much higher risk  than me for other kinds of crimes. Statistically, men constitute the overwhelming majority of violent crime victims… but we will ignore that for the now, because this isn’t about them: it’s about ME, having to be concerned by issues that do not affect other people. Which, as some people will loudly point out, is not fair.

We are a society that aims to be egalitarian, yet there is an obvious inequality in our chances of becoming victims. Some people have picked up on it and made a simple demand: they want the most desirable potential targets among us to be free to engage in absolutely any behaviour less desirable target would, without their weakness or circumstances being exploited by third parties. For instance, I should have the right to display my body and my wealth without anyone trying to take advantage of them, even though it looks relatively easy.

It’s not about my right to justice if I become a victim; it’s about my right not to be victimised in the first place. It’s not about the right to use equalisers, either; I have the right not to want to have them, because my large friends don’t need them. It’s the unfairness of me being more of a target than most that is the issue here; and this unfairness is a social issue. I have the right to demand that society make it as safe for me to do whatever I want whenever and however I want as it would be for a large, strong male.

What we seem to forget is that this problem isn’t novel. The reason so many historical texts bang on relentlessly about “protecting the weak” is that they were deemed needing extra protecting.

One society managed to overcome that problem. There was once an empire that achieved such internal peace and safety that its leader could boast that “a virgin with a bag of gold around her neck could walk naked from one end of my realm to another without being attacked.” That leader was Genghis Khan. And yes, the Mongol Empire was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, a haven of religious tolerance, as well as a meritocracy. However, those achievements were cast in the blood of up to 40 million people.

Now, I’m not saying that the only way to increase public safety is genocide, because I’m not a complete moron. I’m saying that in order to stop the disparities between me and that of a large man being a factor in my potential victimisation you’d need to put into place a host of external factors, including monitoring and punishment. I don’t know how far you’d have to go to completely eliminate my disadvantage: psychometric testing and culling or incarceration of potential threats? Widespread hypnotic suggestion? Oh, and you’d have to increase my safety without making it more risk effective to kill me and throw me in a river than to rob or assault me, too.

I’m not sure what shape that society would take, but I’m pretty damn sure that I wouldn’t want to live in it.

The Rule Circle – 3 – Taking Advantage.

Low-level predators such as cock-roaches are not the only people who straddle the Rule Circle, although perhaps they are the only ones to do so deliberately. There are plenty of people who do the same, consciously or unconsciously, by demanding certain social privileges while breaking social rules.

Now, I’m using “privilege” in the traditional sense of the word: – “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A privilege is NOT a right. It is not universal. It is granted to members of our society by our society. It can carry social obligations as well as benefits. In order to secure that privilege, there may be standards of behaviour one is expected to adhere to.

The classic example is the verbally or even physically abusive women who demand to be treated “like ladies”. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that “being treated like a lady” is a privilege. “Being a lady” requires one to subscribe to certain social standards.  If a woman not only fails to meet those specific standards, but does not even come close to the bare minimum required for standard social intercourse, people may refuse to treat her special.

Although we’ve probably all seen a specimen of the above sort, there are plenty of other types who engage in similar behaviour. Any label that awards anyone any kind of special treatment can be misinterpreted by some as giving them carte blanche to break social rules with no repercussion.

In my old job, I lost count of the times I got called out to deal with situations where elderly people had been verbally abusive or even violent towards teenagers, didn’t get the result they wanted, and then felt they had the right to call the cavalry because the kids “were being disrespectful”. Shock, horror, people may not feel inclined to respect their elders when those elders are behaving like louts. “It all started when they hit me back” is not a good way to start a complaint to the authorities.

My current favourites are the people hiding behind the “customer is always right” motto. They will scream, swear, have tantrums, and generally act like overgrown toddlers in an attempt to get some kind of special treatment. Unfortunately for us all, in a society where most people are employees, tasked with keeping customers happy as their first and foremost consideration, that kind of strategy works all too often. Alas, I’m self-employed. While I’m forbidden by law to discriminate, I can be discriminating: the customer might be always right, but nobody is my customer until I decide they are. Watching horrible people absorb that fact makes me feel all warm inside. Yes, it costs me money, but not having to deal with them twice is absolutely worth it.

I personally find this kind of behaviour either aggravating or entertaining, depending on where it’s aimed at. However, it is also dangerous. There are plenty of people out there to whom a slight is just cause for a punch in the face (or worse), after all.

The Rule Circle – 2 – Straddling.

Outlawry can be bad for your health. Yes, it gives you the opportunity to engage in no-holds-barred conflict, but it gives those around you the right to do the same. Now, for some people that’s ok, because they have the skills and resources to prevail in that sort of environment (and, incidentally, minding your manners can be one of those skills). Many other people, however, don’t. They want to be able to ignore the rules, but they want to do it risk-free. So what the sneaky wee bastards do is straddle the Rule Circle.

Straddlers do not embrace the rules: they only follow them when it suits them, or when the cost of breaking them is too high. They play along with them most of the time, though, and when they infringe them they tend to do it “only just”, in ways that are unlikely to have anyone screaming for the cops or smacking them on the head with a frying pan in self-defence. They push things just far enough to make a damn inconvenience of themselves – enough to make people feel threatened, imposed upon, or just uncomfortable. For instance, that’s how your basic cock-roach operates – your low-level sex-pest, who might never actually assault anyone, but makes plenty of people want to shower themselves in bleach after every interaction. It’s a cake-and-eat-it situation, with them enjoying the protection of the rules without being bound by them.

Providing that the Straddlers know how to play their game, this sort of situation can go on forever. As long as their targets and any onlookers remain torn and confused about what is going on, the Straddlers can continue their little games unchecked. Over time, people around them may even become accustomed to their “quirks”, which gives them increasing leeway to misbehave. “Oh, don’t mind them, they’re always saying/doing stuff like that…” “Oh, they’re ok, just make sure you don’t get caught alone in the elevator with them…” It is truly surprising what people can adapt to in order to have a quiet life.

Straddlers are relying on people being so invested in their social conditioning and social standing that they will continue to play by social scripts, even when the situation is in fact asocial. Alas, not all of us are wired that way, and therein lies the rub. When Straddlers meet with someone who’s happy to merrily hop right out of the circle and give them what for, things can get rather unpleasant for them. It turns out that the vast majority of them are so reliant on everyone else being nice and compliant that they have never bothered to develop the necessarily skills to cope in a rule-free environment, or considered the potential cost of their little games. In fact, many are not only unprepared for escalation, but can’t even deal with public exposure. As soon as you shine a light on them, they tend to scatter like ‘roaches.

(That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a cost for the person who does the exposing. Upsetting the apple cart is rarely cost-free, however necessary it might have been. But that’s another story.)

The Rule Circle – 1 – In or Out.

This is a concept I stole from Marc MacYoung.

Imagine a circle. This is the Rule Circle. Inside the circle are the social rules we agree to follow. Those rules restrict our behaviour, but they also grant us a level of safety by restricting everyone else’s. For instance, we can’t hit, but we also can’t get hit.

Outside the Rule Circle are the people who choose to ignore and/or break the rules, such as criminals and outlaws. The rules of the circle don’t apply outside the circle. Now you might think this gives them an advantage, but as you’ll soon see there are… some problems.

Then you get the people who straddle the line. They have one foot inside the circle and one foot outside. This is playground of the real problem children. They’re breaking rules while relying on everyone else to follow the rules, BUT they haven’t gone completely outlaw because they’re relying on the rules to keep them safe.

What difference does it make where we choose to stand?

Inside the circle, our society decides what rules are appropriate and how they are applied. If you enter a different society, completely different rules may apply. This can render life interesting – or painful, or short if you really mess it up. However, each society has some rules.

Outlawry frees you from all societal conventions, which can sound kind of epic until you realise what it entails. Courtesy of Wikipedia: “In historical legal systems, an outlaw is declared as outside the protection of the law. In pre-modern societies, the criminal is withdrawn all legal protection, so that anyone is legally empowered to persecute or kill them. Outlawry was thus one of the harshest penalties in the legal system.”

In our society, criminals and outlaws still have recourse to the law, but obtaining it tends to carry a cost. Aside from the obvious (“Officer, they stole my stolen car with all my drugs in it!”), a criminal who calls the police on another criminal may be starting something serious.

Furthermore, law-abiding citizens are authorised by law to defend themselves from criminals even if that entails committing otherwise unlawful acts. The fact that a criminal stepped outside of the Rule Circle entitles the affected party to do the same, up to a limit – although self-defence legislation is so complex, varied, and counterintuitive that it’s easy to get it wrong.

Even everyday dealings outside of the Rule Circle are fraught with a much greater degree of danger. A lot of routine interpersonal conflict is kept within “acceptable” limits because we all agree that certain things are unacceptable, and toe the line unless pushed. We might be utterly furious at an interfering neighbour, a sabotaging co-worker, a bossy boss; that might result in us being willing to take action, but that action is unlikely to include bloodshed and mayhem. Yes, some people may snap, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. That is absolutely not the case outside of our Rule Circle, where the penalties for wrongdoings can be extreme.

Basically, you either play by the rules and are (generally) protected by them, or you ignore them and have to do without that protection.

O safe new world – the flipside.

In response to a post from me about the Yale Halloween kerfuffle, a friend of mine who is currently a college student wrote this:

“Our lives are controlled extremely, why wouldn’t we think they have authority over us, when they’ve implemented dozens of measures to control us in every other aspect of life?”

Which is almost precisely the flipside of my last blog… I don’t think it contradicts it, but it looks at the other side of it, which is a side I’d missed.

I grew up at a time when if you did something and messed up, it was your fault. You climb the tree, you fall off, too bad, what were you thinking? You’ll have a broken arm and a thick ear from your parents.

Then there came a time when if you did something you were supposed to and it went wrong, you got comfort and support. The swings in the play area are not supposed to break, so you’re not responsible for checking them first. If you did something you weren’t supposed to do and it went wrong, on the other hand, it was all on you. The swings are intended to be use with your ass firmly in the seat. If you misuse this piece of equipment and get hurt, tough doo-doo.

Then there came a time when we somehow collectively decided that everyone was a moron who needed to be protected from his/her own stupidity. We not only needed to warn people of impending dangers (I’m eagerly waiting for a “beware of gravity” sign), but we needed to actively prevent them getting hurt no matter what they did. It didn’t matter whether they were using equipment as it was intended or not, or whether they were being idiots vs. taking calculated risks. All that mattered was them not getting hurt doing so. So we started regulating the living daylights out of everyone and everything.

Alas, if you take over someone’s life, if you start excessively controlling their behaviour, if you deprive them of their right to make their own choices and mistakes, you also become responsible for them. You can’t infantilise someone without taking up parental duties. That would be straightforward oppression, and we’re way too good to do that, aren’t we?

So we end up with, in essence, a total mess, and a self-contradictory mess too, because instead of being rational we’re rationalising. We can’t say “excuse me, I’m taking over your life because I can run it better than you” because that would make us sound like totalitarian dickwads. So we introduce this rule and that rule for your own safety and comfort, and slowly but surely reduce you to the level of a child.

For instance, learning institutions may strictly regulate not only your daily obligations, but a large chunk of your private life: who you can visit with, what you can wear, how and when you can speak, what you eat, when and where you eat it, etc. Oh, and they charge you a pretty penny for the privilege, with the knowledge that what you learn may never get you out of the financial hole they’re helping you dig. Is it then so unreasonable for students to turn around and demand of an institution to take steps to fix their lives when they feel broken?

O safe new world.

Our society increasingly demands and enforces safety. Safety from accidents, conflict, diseases, but also safety from our own ignorance and stupidity as much as those of our neighbours. Safety has become a modern virtue, as dogmatic and unassailable to my generation as “godliness” was to my grandmother’s. We embraced it to the point that we do not see it as a subjective value, something that one culture may embrace and another reject, both with good reasons. The Vikings didn’t preach or seek safety… But clearly that is a sign of our own superiority.

We haven’t just made safety a personal virtue, though. We have also accepted the “fact” that personal safety choices, choices that affect nobody but the person who makes then, can and should be made a public issue.

The progression is both logical and frightening. For instance, climbing cliffs is dangerous – we know this because of the number of accidents it causes and their impact on the people involved. In order to inform people of these dangers, we put up warning signs. You never know: someone may not be aware that even seemingly solid rock can let you down, or of the existence of gravity. Some people “ignore” the signs, though, inasmuch as they still choose to climb. The fact that one may make a conscious decision to engage in a risky or difficult activity specifically because it is risky and difficult apparently escapes a certain personality: those people must be ignorant or stupid for being willing to take that risk! We have to protect them from themselves! So we make cliff climbing illegal. If pushed, we may justify it by highlighting its social costs, in terms of human capital (as if that capital belonged by society at large, rather than by each individual), the risk to third parties (e.g. emergency services), or actual resources, particularly in nations with social health care. Most of these rationalisations are little more than excuses: you could achieve the same by informing climbers that they will not be rescued, or that they will be billed for any resulting costs, and leaving them to their own devices.

But no: we cannot possibly abandon these people to their own choices, because we have a social responsibility… And there is when, as far as I’m concerned, we cross the line into totalitarianism.

Ask me not to do anything that puts unwilling third parties in unreasonable danger, and I will comply. That is a matter of public safety. Inform me of dangers I might not be aware of, and I will thank you. That is a matter of education. But demanding that I refrain from an activity that affects nobody but myself or willing third parties because it is not safe enough by your standards? That is totalitarianism: public prodnosing into private matters.

And we do it to ourselves. It isn’t the result of an evil cabal, or some dictator. We do it to ourselves by farming out the responsibility for our safety and welfare as if we were children or imbeciles. We do it every time we sue because someone did not step in to protect us from our own lack of awareness, ignorance, or plain stupidity. We can’t have it both ways: if someone else can be made responsible for the costs of our shortcomings, then they are also responsible for controlling our behaviour.


We lack the map and markers to reach a socially-agreed-upon concept of adulthood. Of course, that might not matter to all those of us who are rejecting adulthood off hand. Adulthood is restrictive, unauthentic, oppressive and repressive in its continuous demands that we put other considerations ahead of our immediate happiness, or that we gain that happiness in the long-term by doing stuff that makes us unhappy in the short-term. Variations of the “don’t grow up! it’s a trap!” meme are forever popping up on my newsfeeds… and I’m in my 40s.

I was ahead of the curve on this one, for a change. I am not generally at the forefront of modern tendencies, or even aware of them, what with living under a rock. However, I determined that adulting sucked before I hit kindergarten. I also decided and stated that when I married my childminder’s grandson we were never going to sleep together (and I meant sleep – I was hazy on the mechanics at that point), so we could avoid having children, because children took all the fun out of life. [Please note that was my 3-year-old self talking; my current point of view on the subject is rather different.}

Since I was spouting this in the 70s, I was clearly a trailblazer for the modern adultnots. Many of my friends chose the traditional grown-up options: they studied in fields that gave them a chance of a good job, they selected partners in order to have functional long-term relationships, and they made babies. They made good choices, but all those choices carried costs as well as benefits. A few years back, when my life completely imploded and I ended up living in a very comfortably converted van with no need to work and no dependants bar a dog, the vast majority of my associates were not concerned for me: they were envious. I had a level of freedom and independence they could not aspire to. I was careless. They were (and are) care-givers.

That’s one of the things about the traditional rites of passage: one of the changes that they mark is the transformation from care-taker to care-giver. Think of musk oxens adults forming a defensive circle around the calves, the sick, and the elderly. Although we’re hardly related, we’re not all that dissimilar when it comes to the crunch. “Women and children first” was not just a sign of ageism and sexism; it was about survival of the group.

For adulthood to be the time in life when we put ourselves at the perimeter of the circle, standing as shields to protect our loved ones, two things are required. Firstly, we need to be effective at doing that protecting. If our defensive skills are no better than those of our dependants, there’s very little point in us stepping forward. We’re either all equally able to protect ourselves hence not really at risk, or all equally doomed. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we have to be willing to put someone else first. That willingness is also the hallmark of Joseph Campbell’s hero: “…someone that has given his life to something that is bigger them himself, or other then himself.”