Saturday, June 6, 2015

Sword Truth vs Sword Fiction: Why I don't teach "stage combat"

I've done a little acting, some on stage, some on camera, and I know enough about the actors' craft to have great respect for those who practice it well.  I may occasionally help out an actor or a director, just to enhance the safety of the performance.   But I don’t teach "stage combat," and certainly not to children.

One of our core values is truthfulness. “The truth shall set you free,” quoth the sage. With that in mind, let’s look at the difference between “stage combat” and real fighting, or martial art-type training.
The first difference is that “stage combat” isn’t really combat at all. It’s not a fight, it’s a dance that only looks like a fight, especially to those who don’t know much about fighting.  The actors aren’t really trying to hurt each other. They’re performing a carefully choreographed set of moves to ensure that they won’t hurt each other. The key to a good stunt is that it only looks dangerous. A professional stuntman takes every possible precaution to ensure the safety of the stunt. They rig the gear, do huge amounts of rehearsal, and so on.
The purpose of “stage combat” is to tell a story: to reveal character, to move the story forward, and to satisfy the dramatic purpose, be that comedy or tragedy, or something in between.  Above all, “stage combat” must entertain.  To be entertaining, the heroes and villains must be larger than life, and so too must be the “fight” between them. To accomplish the dramatic purpose, stage combat employs various kinds of exaggeration. It may be exaggeration of the amplitude of various movements, making them bigger than their real-life counterpart, the better to be visible from the cheap seats. It may be exaggeration in the length, duration or complexity of the “fight,” or the speed of movement in order to give the combatants super-human stature.
Quite often -- too often --the hero (star) prevails against overwhelming odds with nary a scratch, or dances away after the fight despite grievous wounds, which he shakes off as if they were nothing more than a scratch. And, of course, in the end, the hero gets the girl.
These kinds of portrayals not only present unrealistic expectations about what the experience of fighting is like,  but they also glorify it as a masculine sine qua non.
In short, they lie.
Very few plays or films depict fighting realistically, and for good reason. Real fights are not entertaining. They are, to borrow a phrase, “nasty brutish and short.” Real fights are not highly stylized ballets punctuated with witty dialogue. Real fights are confused and confusing, ugly in every dimension imaginable, and no sane person would anticipate a real fight with anything but dread.
But they don’t tell you that in the movies.
The movies tell you something quite different, and none of it is true.
Stage combat (with very rare exceptions) perpetuates the lies about fighting, and the believing of those lies has been the ruin of more poor boys than the House of the Rising Sun. Oh, Lord, I know, I was almost one. 

Well, you might well ask, if I don’t like fighting, why do I teach people any kind of combat at all?
 That’s a fair question.
The Roman historian Vegetius once wrote, “They are most enthusiastic about war who are the least familiar with it.”  The first reason I teach real fighting is that I believe the more you know about it, the less inclined you will be to do any. More importantly, the less likely you will be to want anyone else to do any, at least not anyone you care about.  With luck, I’ll whittle down that cheerleading squad clamoring for more war.  If I do my job well, my students will see fighting as an ugly last resort, and never as a dashing first choice.
However, it is a regrettable fact of life that there may come a time when a fight is unavoidable, because the consequences of NOT fighting are even more horrible than the consequences of fighting.  I would like to help you to be ready, willing and able to fight intelligently and effectively when the circumstances demand it.
I suppose I should amend my purpose. What I really want to teach you is to avoid a fight whenever possible, but to survive the fight when a fight is unavoidable.

Violence vs Force
If the Eskimo can have dozens or even hundreds of words (depending on whom you believe) to describe subtly differing kinds of snow, then I think we can manage more than one word – “violence” -- to describe every possible kind of forceful action. All forceful actions are not created equal.
In his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Eric Fromm distinguishes two kinds of aggression: malignant aggression and benign aggression. Malignant aggression is violence. Benign aggression is only force.
“Violence” violates.
That is, there is about “violence” a sense of wrongness, injustice, unfairness, impropriety, the breaking of a covenant, dishonesty and general malevolence.  
In the law, there’s a thing called coercion. When you use force or the threat of force to make someone do something that they have a legal/moral right not to do, or to prevent someone from doing something that they have a legal/moral right to do, that’s coercion. And that’s what violence does. Violence is the illegitimate use of force to coerce or to harm an innocent person or persons.
Not all forceful actions constitute “violence.”  The intent of the person using force determines whether an act is violent or merely forceful.
For example: suppose a man breaks into a stranger’s home at 3am and takes their dog away. Breaking and entering? Burglary? Dog-napping?
But suppose that man is a firefighter who is first on scene, and the reason he breaks into the stranger’s home and takes their dog is to save it from dying in the fire.
Same exact set of actions, but intent makes all the difference. One guy’s a felon, the other guy’s a hero.

Another example:
A man attempts to forcibly rape a woman. The woman uses a firearm to defend herself and kills the rapist. Did these two people commit morally equivalent acts? The rapist was using force to coerce the woman into sexual submission, which she had a legal and moral right to refuse.  Therefore the rapist was using violence (malignant aggression). The woman employing a gun to protect herself from that violent assault was using force, but not violence. She was neither initiating a confrontation nor depriving the assailant of any of his natural, moral or legal rights. She was exhibiting benign aggression.

Another example:
Bogalusa, Louisiana, 1965. Ku Klux Klan members arrive to terrorize civil rights  organizers. They are met by the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who are veterans of WWII or the Korean War, and who are armed with rifles and shotguns. The Klan withdraws without a shot fired.
In this case, the violence (malignant aggression) of the Klan was prevented by the mere threat of force (benign aggression) by the Deacons.

The Non-Aggression Principle and The Fighter’s Mind-Set
I strongly believe in the non-aggression principle which states that no one has a right to initiate the use of force against another person. One may only use force in self-defense, to protect oneself from violence, or to likewise protect an innocent third person.  When I refer to the “aggressor” I mean “the initiator of illegitimate force against an innocent person.”
With that understanding, I believe that the value of learning and practicing real fighting is to cultivate the capacity to sustain a focused commitment to taking adequate and appropriate action, even under the most adverse conditions, that is, to do what must be done, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences.
You are there, you are alone, and you are all that stands between violence and the innocent intended victim. If the predator gets by you, innocents will suffer.
The fighter’s mindset is: “You’re not getting by me. I’m going to stop you, whatever that takes, even if I have to kill you, and even if killing you costs me my own life.”
I sometimes refer to this mindset as “lethal intent.” It doesn’t mean that you want to kill the aggressor, but it does mean that you’re ready, willing and able to do so if the aggressor insists. The aggressor is free to withdraw.
Harkening back to the Deacons’ confrontation with the Klan, it’s significant that no shots actually had to be fired. Faced with the opposition of righteous, courageous and committed men, the resolve of the cowardly Klansmen wilted like a flower in the desert heat.
I think we need people with the sense to know what justice is and the wherewithal to see that justice is done, people whose very presence dissuades malefactors from their depredations, quells violence, and sets things right.
Imagine becoming the kind of person who makes things better, just by being there.
That seems like a worthy ambition, to me.
My belief is that the sword is an effective vehicle for helping people cultivate the habits and traits that will enable them to thwart violence and establish justice.
When there is justice, there is peace.

-- aac

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