Wednesday, October 1, 2014

shades of grey

Shades of Grey
Johnny d'Thesis Meets Mary Jane McAntithesis

I’m going to borrow a couple terms from Hegel, and give them a twist to have a particular meaning in the context of studying hoplology, though you may find this applicable to other subjects as well: thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Thesis is simply a stated proposition. For our purposes the thesis is a particular martial art or martial art style, being a proposition about how one should fight. Shotokan karate, Uechi-ryu karate, Spanish rapier, German longsword and the Italian School of fencing are examples. 
There’s an old saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail. That’s stylism in a nutshell.
A “stylist” is a person who practices a given “tradition,” (a charitable word for “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”) and learns to view the combat world through the eyes of that “tradition.”  Extremely dogmatic, stylism is characterized by high degree of authoritarianism, with a religious reverence for the “master” who founded it, in proportion to how long that master has been deceased. If the master committed anything to print, that work is considered a holy book. Stylists will adopt the terminology of the master, no matter how obscure, and no matter what language he spoke, or what language they, themselves, speak.  If he is alive, a stylist may mimic the master’s speech or accent. They may adopt the master’s style of dress, or, at least, attempt to mimic that of his time and place. The style is seen as something that unchangeable, something to be kept “pure.” Techniques are neither added nor removed from the repertoire.  Typically, because the stylist is convinced that his own particular style is superior to all others, there is antipathy and disdain for other styles, leading to rivalry between them, a characteristic stylism shares with nationalism, and one that forms the plot of countless low-budget kung-fu movies. Other “styles” are considered emotionally instead of rationally, and followers of other styles are subjected to all manner of vilification, ridicule, derision and scorn, both stylistically and personally, consistent with the maxim: “any stigma to beat a dogma.”
Stylism is very common to the youngest, to the least experienced, and to the least morally mature students studying their very first “style.”  In Maslovian terms, while undertaking to study any particular style may originate with survival and/or safety needs, the dedication to a style is rooted firmly in social and esteem needs. Stylists strongly identify as a member of they style in-group and strive for success and recognition within that group. Lawrence Kohlberg would probably rank stylists at the third and fourth stages of moral reasoning, typical of adolescence.

Black/white. Soft/hard. Heavy/light. Right/wrong. Ugly/beautiful.  All of these are pairs of words in which one is the antithesis, or the opposite, of each other. This is a very either/or, all-or-nothing way of looking at things, but it does seem reasonable, doesn’t it?  A thing is or it is not.
Antithesis, for Hegel, is the negation of a thesis, or a reaction to a given proposition.  I use “antithesis” to refer to certain stage of, or approach to learning  that focuses on the differences between things, how they are unlike.
Perhaps you’ve been acquainted with an adolescent who fell in and out of “love” about every twenty minutes. And the new love was always the most perfect, the most beautiful, while the previous perfect love was now “just an infatuation, and the previous “most beautiful,” was now observed to have an unsightly mole, instead of a “beauty mark,” and knobby knees, and an irritating laugh…
Antithetical thinking says that two different things cannot be the same thing, and if not the same thing, then they must be opposites.
When a stylist is forced to learn a new style, it’s a common response for the stylist simply to shift his fanaticism from his previous style to his new one. His previous “great master” may now be seen as false prophet while the new master is the messiah of the true faith. Alternatively, the stylist may conceive of the new style as something so completely “different” from his original faith (no matter how alike they may actually be) that it is another thesis rather than an antithesis. This helps to dispel  -- or, at least suppress -- any cognitive dissonance arising from contradictions between two true faiths.  Too that end it’s helpful if the new religion has it’s own unique language, costume and rituals.
While still motivated by social and esteem needs, belonging and success, the student may, at this point, be grudgingly dragged toward Kohlberg’s stage five.
The antithesian is a person who proudly proclaims he is master wheelman, having studied many different driving arts including: red cars, blue cars, white, cars grey cars, and black cars.  In the anthesis arena you will find the person who claims black belts in a half-dozen different styles of karate, or someone professes to be a master of both the Italian and the French Schools of Fencing, both German and Italian longsword, both Italian and Hungarian sabre, or perhaps, both English and western, as well as bareback riding.

“A fencing master is someone you can put in a room with a weapon he’s never seen before, and by the end of the day he can teach you how to use it effectively.” (Rev. Steve Cook, Maitre d’Armes)
Synthesis, Hegel says, reconciles thesis and antithesis by recognizing their common truths.  I’d like to take that a bit further --- quite a bit. I propose that synthesis is an approach that recognizes foundational principles common to superficially different things, focuses on the similarities between things instead of on their differences, and integrates seemingly disparate things into a coherent whole.  Synthesis sees individual things neither as unique an independent, nor as part of mutually exclusive antithetical pairs, but rather as complimentary pieces of a larger puzzle.
Borrowing from the Yin and Yang user guide in the appendices of Chinese Philosophy for Dummies. I propose that every combat situation, no matter how similar to another, is unique. And every combat situation, no matter how unique, is similar to others. For the synthesist, paradox is the highest for of truth. Things aren’t black OR white, things are black AND white.
To the true “master” of combat, all styles are valid, and all are limited. Every technique taken from whatever “tradition” discipline or style is assessed by simple criteria: it either works or it doesn’t – in a given tactical situation.  Every technique is just another tool in the fighter’s toolbox, and the question isn’t what’s the right one or wrong one, but rather simply what tool is best suited for this particular task? From follows function.
One element of synthesis is the realization that “styles” don’t make great fighters; great fighters make styles.  The developed example of an inferior principle can exceed the undeveloped example of a superior principle. In this case, an excellent practitioner of an inferior style can beat a poor practitioner of a theoretically superior style.
Synthesis corresponds to Maslov’s self-actualization needs and to Kohlberg’s sixth and highest stage of moral reasoning. Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others, and interested fulfilling their potential. Morally mature people practice moral reasoning using universal ethical principles.

It is worth noting that, in past times, it was not uncommon for a fencing master to also teach dancing or horsemanship. Chevalier St. George is but one example of an excellent swordsman who was also an accomplished musician. Is it possible that even such diverse activities as these might share certain principles?
The answer is “yes.”
And “no.”

- aac


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