The more I think about it, the more it seems that someone, somewhere, needs to ask a question:
“Why is so much self-defence so goddamn toxic?”
I don’t think I have what it takes to answer it. It would probably require a whole book written by someone both more qualified and braver than me. All I’m going to do here is riff on a tiny aspect of the issue on a better-out-than-in basis.
There are certain common aspects of self-defence training, or at least self-defence marketing, that drive me demented. One of them – the one I was thinking about when I wrote this blog– is that so much SD states a requirement for badassery that is
- intensely not me, nor a whole bunch of other people; and
I have zero problems looking at that requirement and tossing it into the nearest bin. I’m happy being me. I have precisely zero interest in being any more badass than I am at present (i.e., not very). And I know I can self-defend, because I already have. Numerous times. I’ve been self-defending all my goddamn life, pink frilly sundresses notwithstanding. I could absolutely learn how to be better at SD; how to increase my efficiency and lower my risks. That’s what I’m looking for in my training. But anyone telling me that I need to radically change my personality, my preferences, my clothes, my hobbies – that I need to become a different person in order to self-defend – can go chew on a brick. I see that kind of claim as indication that the trainer in question is not the trainer for me, and leave it at that. And, as a result, I’m walking away from a lot of learning opportunities.
Telling people that badassery is the entry cost of SD training is straight-up gatekeeping. Telling people that badassery is the inevitable result of SD training is also gatekeeping, because it will put a lot of people off. That was my original bugbear. The problem was that those two issues didn’t explain away the amount of rage that bugbear generated in my Hell0-Kitty-clad bosom. It took me a while to realise what was really winding me up. The problem isn’t with when the gatekeeping keeps people out; it’s with when they buy into it.
There’s another setting in which people are told that the reason bad things happen to them is that they’re just-not-good-enough people. That if only they could be better, for whatever definition of better one picks, then all the bad things would stop happening and their lives would finally be ok. That their best hope, maybe their only hope, lies in changing themselves. And that the person who’s telling them this is doing so for their own benefit.
That’s what abusive parents tell their children. That’s what abusive partners tell their victims. Well, not all of them, I’m sure; there’s probably a bunch of self-idealised psychos out there perfectly happy to say that they’re hurting their victims for shits and giggles, but that’s not the norm. It’s a hard game to keep going without access to a sound-proof basement.
If you want to hurt people today and be allowed to hurt them again tomorrow, there are ways to convince them to go along with that. You can tell them that you’re hurting them because you love them, and you’re trying to make them better. You can tell them that they’re bringing it down upon themselves, by being so goddamn <insert-negative-trait-of-your-choice-here>; that their hurt is the inevitable result of their failings. And you pretty much have to tell them that if only they could change themselves, if only they could just stop being so wrong, then it would all be ok. That they have the power to change the behaviour of those around them, and their luck.
That hope will keep them struggling and failing indefinitely. Each failure will be seen as a confirmation of the inferiority you highlighted. It’s a self-feeding loop. Hell, if you do it right, you can get them to be thankful to you for correcting their behaviours, however much those corrections hurt.
Thinking about that sort of situation turns my stomach, but that’s nothing compared to thinking about how that mentality is replicated and fostered in self-defence training; the training that many survivors latch on to in the hope that it will help them protect themselves. In the hope that it will turn them into better people. People to whom this sort of thing doesn’t happen. People to whom this sort of thing would not have happened.
In latching onto so much of self-defence to pull ourselves out of the abusive mentality, we’re latch onto the core mechanisms of abuse; and hey, it doesn’t even feel bad. If anything, it feels familiar and comfortable. It fits right in the grooves carved into our brains. We can do this, because we’ve done it before; but this time it will be different, because this time the person who’s sitting in judgement of us is on our side, for realsies. This time our benevolent overlord will genuinely and no shit lead us to a place where we can be strong and healthy and happy and free. Where we can be better people. We won’t be ourselves, of course, but who’d want to be us, anyway? I mean, if we weren’t shit, they wouldn’t be telling us how shit we are on such a regular basis.