I feel the nearness of violence.
In my work, I specialise in practical, real-life self defence. I teach a military martial art. I study another fighting art. I have studied and continue to study many other combat arts. In this way, I am very like other professional martial artists. It's what we do.
Yet I, like many other professional martial artists, feel frustrated by the response most often given by someone who has just found out what I do: "I'd better watch what I say to you, then!" As if, because I am a martial artist, I'll wrap a spinning kick round the head of anyone who says something to offend. Depending on how tired I feel, I might make the time to explain that, on the contrary, people should feel less worried about what they say to me, because I would be more likely to exercise restraint even when provoked, given all that training I've had in remaining calm, disciplined, and clear thinking; so on balance, you don't need to worry what you say as much as you would with someone else. Or I might just let it go.
I guess this comment is a particularly hurtful joke (if it is a joke) to martial artists, because it feeds on a preconception of martial artists as violent people, teaching violence to others, and perhaps spreading a doctrine of violence. When it's your living, it's very hard to see and hear that preconception running unchecked – not only because it hurts to be seen in such an unfair way, but also because many people will accept it, and as a result won't come to learn from you, and won't send their kids to learn from you. On the basis of the preconception, they won't see your teaching as bringing discipline, focus, calm, or even the ability to self protect in a world full of very real threats, but they will see your teaching epitomised by a philosophy that the way to resolve any problem, however minor, is by violence. Not what any civilised person wants their child to learn.
Even where people do accept that, in fact, you teach discipline and focus, self development and personal growth, confidence and service of others, they might well think: "in the end, it's still about violence, however you dress it up, and that's just not for me."
As more people have become professional martial artists, and the market ever more crowded, many of those martial artists have looked at ways of selling their services to people for whom the nearness of violence proves difficult, by looking at things that might be, or might be conceived to be, less... well.... violent. I was reading this week an interesting article on the Chinese Martial Studies Website "Kung Fu Tea" about how this has been a phenomenon in China just as much as in the west.
On the same day, I listened to a podcast from a well respected western Karate master (well respected by me, too), who was at pains to point out that martial arts were about art, and not about fighting or about self defence, and his practice of martial arts was about personal experience and self development, more than anything else. I wondered why he felt it so necessary to make this point.
Like so many other martial artists around the world seeking new markets amongst those not interested in learning to fight, and perhaps even averse to anything connected to violence, I too teach non-combat version classes. In my case, I teach Taiji (Tai Chi), to some people who would also like to use it to fight, and to many more who don't want to fight, and my Taiji classes are non-combat. People can move in to combat arts if they want to, but that's entirely up to them.
I teach martial arts. The clue is in the name. However far away it is, what I teach is about, related to, or derived from learning to fight. I don't hold with arguments that traditional martial arts have lost their connection with real world self defence. Not the way I teach them, they haven't, and both I and my students have sadly had cause to prove that in the real world, defending ourselves and others. No. The truth is, when I teach someone a TaeKwonDo pattern, they may be learning to move better, to breath more effectively. They may be getting fitter. They may be moving their Qi. They may be getting in touch with something even spiritual. But in the end, they are learning fighting movements, and ultimately those movements are derived from teaching to fight, and there is a good chance that learning them will help my student should they ever need to fight.
While I baulk at the comment: "I'd better watch what I say, then," and while I want to emphasise that I don't teach people to be violent, I have no wish to deny the fact of what I teach. When I teach or help in children's classes in TaeKwonDo, the children learn sparring and self defence from their first day, even the tiny ones. It's a martial art. That's what we do. We teach our students not to be violent, and we teach them to understand and not be afraid of violence.
Even the many Taiji students who don't want to learn to fight, learn the Taiji as a martial art. That is, they learn about its martial history, and they learn the movements as fighting movements, their martial purpose explained and discussed.
A little over a year ago, after some discussion about why we felt so uncomfortable about martial arts derivatives like children's exercise parties, boxercise or non-combat MMA (no, really, I know of a class nearby), the instructor forum which guides the work at LCTKD, the martial arts school where I teach regular public classes, decided that we would not teach any of these things. We would only teach martial arts, and we would be clear about it. Our fighting arts would have fighting in them, and our "internal" arts would not be shy about their martial background. It just seemed a matter of integrity.
So I am not a violent person, and I do not teach violence. In my private study, much of my time is spent on things which might not have a modern martial application, and which are about health, healing and spirit. Even so, I am aware of the nearness of violence. I am, after all, a martial artist.