Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Random thoughts about abuse

Not too long ago, I was watching a black belt test at a local cult, err, I mean highly regarded martial arts school here in Seattle. The only reason I was there was to support a friend’s wife, who was taking her test for black belt at the place. While I was there, I put in some eye-drops for my contact lenses. I then turned to another friend who was there and offered him the bottle, asking him if he wanted some bleach for his eyes to try and remove what we had just watched.

And I’m not joking about needing bleach to remove what I had just watched. When you have a woman who just had an acute subdural hematoma drained 1-ONE- week before the test, on the mat getting hit in the face and being taken down for grappling, you are not talking "Eating bitter". You are talking outright abuse. And that subdural hematoma was a result of getting hit in the head in class.

For those of you who are not aware of what a subdural hematoma is, a fast overly simple explanation is this is a large traumatic injury (bruising) where blood and fluids gather between the outer layer of the brain membrane and the inner membranes. This creates pressure on the brain. Enough pressure, guess what happens?To be on the mat taking a test that involves falling, getting hit, and grappling one week after this operation to drain the hematoma is not just foolish on part of the student, it is criminal neglect on the part of the instructor in my opinion.

The test was more a test of endurance for those testing, running through the entire curriculum of the school for each rank level. I only watched 3 hours of the test, but I saw more swaggering aggressive egos, passive-aggressive and abusive behavior concentrated in one location than I have seen in years.My friend’s wife only got a broken nose in no facial contact sparring. Gee, how did that happen? Yet, over the years of abuse she and others took at this place - I can’t bring myself to call it a dojo - it was claimed that these things were OK "Because we love each other."

Upon that I have to call "Bullshit!" Just because someone hugs you and says "I love you" after purposely injuring you doesn’t make it all right. I don’t care who you are, that right there isn’t funny. This situation is a description of an abuse cycle. From numerous students and former students, there is a steady consistent stream of stories of abuse and injuries to students. As well as fights between the instructor and the on again - off again girlfriend (who is a senior black belt in the school) serious enough to warrant hospital visits for broken bones, concussions, and other varying injuries.

My friend’s wife has finally left the school, by the way, so at least she has managed to break the chain of abuse for herself.

Oh, did I forget to mention the above mentioned instructor consistently tries to get most of the female students to have sex?

I’m relieved for the students who have left and broken free of this cycle. But for your consideration, here area a couple similar situations with greater or lessor degrees of abuse.In a school up north of Seattle, the instructor has a good lineage, was the head of his region for the organization he belonged to in another country. A friend still trains there.

Broken bones and other injuries, some pretty serious, are common in the dojo. I usually see blood on keiko gi when I’ve visited. I can live with hard training and injuries are part of that. But when you have people training with broken ribs, and are expected to stand still and then take additional kicks and punches to those broken ribs just to show spirit, that crosses the line into physical abuse. This training is said to be "traditional" in Japan by the instructor, who trained in Japan for all of a month. More like a bunch of sadistic bastards beat him up, so he does it to his own students.

I can also think of another group with a head sensei who does lots of the right thing organizationally. He doesn’t charge excessive fees, but does run it as a business for a living. I don’t disagree with the business side. But his personal conduct is a bit out of line. Asking students in women’s dressing room if they want to "massage sensei" goes past the line of acceptable behavior. His fondness for alcohol is well known; he is known to drink his lunch at some seminars, and his students try and cover that up from others for him.

A good story involves this sensei’s wife slamming her elbow into his ribs as she was walking by, enabling a young female student to duck away from "sensei" and his drunken attentions.

And this repeated behavior is pretty common knowledge, but is dismissed by seniors in his group as "no big deal." I normally wouldn’t care except for the hypocrisy of this mans behavior as opposed to what he teaches. He goes on about character and budo, but doesn’t apply it to himself.

At one of the seminars I attended years ago, this sensei was already in the bag at a potluck dinner. He was calling out "Boy" repeatedly and it finally dawns on me, he was calling out to me. This was apparent since I noticed everyone else in the room staring at me. When I realized it was me that was "Boy", I asked, "Yes sensei?" and he told me, "Boy, get me beer." I of course politely replied "You can get your own f-----g beer."

Now, in recognition of his rank and senior status, should I have gotten him a beer? Yeah, maybe so. Now if he had been a total ass all the time and said the same thing, I probably would have gotten him a beer and ignored his comment since his jackass behavior would at least have been consistent. Still rude, but it would have honestly reflected his character.

But to have spent time hearing him preach about the dignity and spirit of budo beginning and ending with courtesy earlier that day and an hour before at the potluck, I realized the man was only talking about one way courtesy to him. So, no beer for him from "boy".

But I’m not part of these groups and have no real place to say anything except to observe from afar and state "That’s a bit screwed up."But what’s the common theme to all this? A fine old-fashioned recipe for abuse. One shake of abuse, followed with a pinch of affection, praise, reward, a bit more abuse, followed by more affection, praise, rewards to make up, and pretty soon, students are catering to the instructor’s ego and emotional wants in a roiling pot of dysfunction.

When this dysfunctional recipe is done, you have a steaming pile of crap with the instructor at the top of the pile as chief turd. This is really no different than someone covering up for, enabling, and staying in a bad relationship with a drug abuser or alcoholic in some respects.

It usually makes no sense at all to one observing the situation from outside the group. And these are not stupid people I am discussing here; the people I have met from these groups are often people who have done well in their chosen careers with good families. Yet they were blind to the ways they had been used and abused for many years. They say it’s not abuse, using variously, love and discipline, as the most common excuses for the continued relationships.

Recently, there it seems like there have been more incidents of abuse and what I consider predatory behavior in both localized incidents and in several national organizations in various martial arts groups. At least, they are more publicized but it doesn’t seem to stop the conduct and people in their organizations still try to protect these abusers.These are individuals, not an organization, which commit these acts. The acts are sometimes criminal, sometimes moral or ethical violations not in violation of the law in their country. This topic goes across the board in not just martial arts groups, but in all levels of society really. The usual pattern I see is these people use their power in an organization to perpetuate their actions.

Me, I think we can approach this several ways.

1) Tolerate the behavior and act surprised publicly when someone gets abused. This is the most common thing I’ve seen.

2) Accept it can happen, try to watch for it, and try not to be part of the problem. Work to influence those in your group and don’t tolerate the behavior in your group.

3) Don’t belong to organizations that tolerate the behavior.

4) Quit preaching moral and ethical values that are not held by the people in the group and for those in the group, make your leaders live up to their words. Which is really just another way of saying both 2 &3.

But then it’s hard to get money and energy out of people looking to martial arts with dreams of being a master or discovering themselves, or the ideal of being a better person via the secrets found in martial training.

Try telling potential students "This is just physical training based upon martial training methods of civilian or military origins from (insert country origin here). Any betterment of you as a person comes from the simple hard work that goes into your training and the values of personal responsibility you learn from that work, as well as the responsibilities you have to the group."

See how many want to hang around for more than a short time with that marketing pitch.

This is exactly why I don’t like teaching publicly. False expectations of students who make paying the rent easy and suddenly it’s easy to cater to the wants of students without even realizing it since they pay the rent, gas, food, etc. I'm not saying it can't be done, I'm saying most sensei don't want to work that hard or set an example for their students with hard work themselves.

So the final point is:Regardless of the set up in a dojo, kwoon, dojang, etc.…the social structures and teaching methodologies which allows a teacher of martial arts to commit these acts needs to be better scrutinized by the group itself. Checks need to be in place to prevent an individual or individuals from developing the mentality that they are above responsibility to students and respect goes both ways.

My questions to you, the reader of my blog, is first, Haven’t you got anything better to do than read this? Second, is do you find yourself or others in your group regularly making excuses for your teacher(s) for their behavior and abuse - emotional, psychological, physical injuries, sexual misconduct, of others in the group?

If you are one of those making excuses, I would encourage you and other students in your group to think about what kind of people you choose to associate with as teachers and peers in your martial arts training.

And no, I don’t have any easy answers, far smarter people than me have been trying to explain and prevent this crap for decades. But this is why I filter hard on whom I let in the dojo and what I will tolerate in the dojo, so I don’t have these problems.