Let’s get one think out of the way. Martial arts, just like everything else in this world, need a business angle in order to survive. There are three that I can think of – the most obvious one is war. If everybody is fighting and trying to kill each other then people who know how to do that can sell their knowledge and make some money because there are a lot of ready customers. Sometimes, however, we are obstinately at peace and martial artists need to find another way to market their skills. These peace time approaches tend to fall into two major groups; Sport and Self-Defence.
This wasn’t always the case, prior to the introduction of the “Marquess of Queensberry Rules” in boxing (a transition which was more complicated than we tend to think) the sport and self defence aspects were very similar. The only difference tending to be that the sport was (slightly) regulated. Otherwise, tactics, types of move and strategies for winning could apply equally well to one arena as the other. The same can be said for Judo & Jujutsu; the more civilised sporting form was a training refinement on the learning of the art as a whole. I don’t intend to knock sport as a training method, or even as way of preserving the body of knowledge of a martial art. The only thing I shall say on this is that, as the sporting element comes to the fore, the martial element tends to take a backseat to competition and some of the fundamental style is at risk.
But at least sport creates a market; there will always be people willing to be entertained and people who want to excel physically. A sporting form caters for them. For everyone else? We have what we now think of as “self defence”.
Self Defence is, as far as I can tell, more of a marketing term than a martial arts one. For starters, the vast majority of what we think of as self defence are combative techniques, but when you talk to anybody who actually teaches self defence they will tell you that fighting is the last place you want to be. If you are really interested in defending yourself you will be thinking pre-emptively, working things like a use of force continuum, and you will generally be keen to avoid, escape, and de-escalate a situation long before you would ever engage. Actually fighting should always be a last resort.
Yet promotional videos for self defence show women choking people out in bars, and they ask provocative questions, “What would you do?” or even “Do you feel safe as a woman?”. This approach is designed to play on fear. Common themes in these videos are women being attacked by strangers, little people being surrounded by larger opponents, or average men being faced with multiple thugs who have weapons. These things do happen, and when they happen they are horrific, but the element of fear is more closely related to the horror of the situation than it’s likelihood.
These nightmare scenarios never contextualise an attack (easy example; women are more likely to be attacked by someone who is known to them than a stranger), and that is because they are trying to make a sale. Or rather, they are trying to create a demand; if you are scared then you will want to learn how to protect yourself. Congratulations! there is a need for this product. And the strategy must work because we’ve been doing it for well over a century now.
See, way back in 1946, Mary Parker made a Jiu-Jitsu demonstration video that showed her being attacked by a wrestler and gymnast, who luckily allowed her to show off her prowess not only at unarmed defences, but against an attacker with a knife or even a revolver. Thirteen years earlier, May Whitely produced a similar video about how “the weaker sex” may defend themselves.
Going further back, we see that this approach to marketing martial arts as “self defence” (as opposed to sport, I suppose) is evident in a series of articles in Pearson’s Magazine (written by none other than E.W. Barton Wright). The four articles, entitled the New Art of Self Defence (Parts I & II) and Self Defence with a Walking Stick (Parts I & II) appeared between 1899 & 1901. I don’t know whether this is the earliest example of the term (I would be surprised, to be honest – if the term did not have some traction by that point I should hardly have expected it to be featured so prominently in the title) but it is certainly an early example of the way we presently use the term.
As far as I can tell (and this is still early days) the language of “self defence” etc. came around somewhere between the 1860’s and the 1890’s, and was not initially reserved for martial arts, but was in fact applied to all sorts of weird and wonderful weapons that were in vogue from about the 1860’s onwards. It was only beginning to be applied routinely to unarmed combatives from the 1890’s onwards; which would mean that the use of the term as we are familiar with it has roots in approximately the same time period when boxing was enjoying something of a (gloved) revival after the steady decline of pugilism from the 1860’s and Jiu-Jitsu was beginning to show an influence of sorts on the civilian combative scene.
The English gentleman of the late Victorian period eschewed the sort of weapon carrying that had been in vogue after the garroting panic of the 1860’s and instead preferred to rely on his own wits and fists. (In fact, this transition can be found mirrored in the Sherlock Holmes Canon. In the early stories Holmes and Watson routinely carry weapons, while later stories suggest that Holmes skills in boxing and Baritsu are sufficient). The multiplication of different fighting systems available to the gentleman of the day bears witness to both the desire to learn how to fight and the fact that people were clearly doing so. This ties in with fears about physical decline (particularly post Boer-War) and the need for a very physically active masculine culture (in reaction to the industrial revolution) as well as the growing fear of crime (somewhat ironically) in the wake of an ever improving police and justice system which provided regular griste for the press’ mill.
Barton-Wright was nothing if not a skilled publicist, and it will be interesting from a historical perspective to see how influential his articles were in changing the way combative systems marketed themselves (was he just moving with the times, or did his language around self defence influence others into copycatting?) to the general public.
There is another point to be made, however – since this tactic is still going on. Perhaps we should be looking to change how we market martial arts? Creating a climate of fear and mistrust, or at the very least feeding into an extant one, has to be morally dubious at best. There have to be better ways to preserve the knowledge and the arts that we study; perhaps something that relies on hope and motivation rather than fear?