The Myth of Self Defence

I wanted to write this for some time, but it was Marcus’s recent post that prompted me to finally do so. It will probably be a bit rambly, I am not Shakespeare after all.

As is not unexpected for someone who was really badly bullied in my childhood and even in high school, I have dabbled in martial arts a bit in an attempt to learn how to defend myself from bullies. It started with a bit of karate, then a bit of aikido, and then I gave it a pass because I have come to the conclusion that it is mostly useless and way too much effort for way too little gain. I still have some interest in them, purely theoretical, so I do occasionally watch youtube videos about martial arts and self-defense. And they have more or less confirmed this belief.

You see, in order for any martial art to be any practical use whatsoever against a dedicated – even untrained – attacker, one has to spend an inordinate amount training them and keep oneself in good physical shape. And even then, in an actual confrontation, there still would always be a huge luck factor that can completely do you in and that is a fuckt. Especially when weapons get involved. Any weapons.

I am glad to live in a civilized country that regulates weapons sensibly, not too little like the US, but also not to a ridiculous degree like UK or Japan, or AUS, so I have never encountered the level of threat that Marcus is describing. I have also successfully avoided the military draft, thus I have never had the dubious pleasure of encountering a loaded weapon of war by having to handle one, let alone to be in the presence of a maniac handling one. The closest I got to a firearm was when I was a kid and could shoot a varmint rifle for one day and that was it. I never needed a gun, never was threatened with one either. The only violence that I was threatened with was a physical altercation that would, at its worst, probably result in a black eye and perhaps a concussion. Not that those are pleasant, but this level of risk does actually allow one to employ the best self-defense there is – running away.

Occasionally when I mention this in comments on YouTube, someone answers that that is a great way to get shot or stabbed in the back, which always makes me LOL. Being shot is not a great risk around here. It is not zero, but it is not on anyone’s radar. Even a mugging is most likely to involve at worst knives. And getting stabbed in the back while one runs away is just ridiculous, try to sprint and stab a target that moves at the same speed away from you if you do not believe me.

One of the self-defense and martial arts YouTube channels that I occasionally have watched in the past, hard2hurt, has made a whole video criticizing the strategy “run away whenever you can” which I have considered completely ridiculous. AFAIR, his main argument was that it is not easy for an untrained person to outrun an assailant. Well, duh? However, the untrained person still has better chances to outrun him than to subdue him in a fight, since there are fewer variables involved. And if you train martial arts, you are most likely fit enough for running faster than Joe Schmo too.

If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, do your best to de-escalate and/or comply (hand over the valuables). If that fails, do your best to get away. If, and only if, that fails, is the time to fight – and at that point, you have probably lost anyway because you were caught unawares and were harmed before you could actually do any of the previous steps anyway.

That’s not to say martial arts are completely useless. They can be a great exercise if you have a body that benefits from one (I don’t). Visiting a martial arts club can also be a great opportunity to meet with people and make friends. Some people do enjoy competitions and that is fine too. Some people like all of those things and some more and that is just dandy. But any student of martial arts should not kid themselves that what they are doing is learning how to be invincible in a confrontation. And any responsible sensei should and would drill into their students that avoidance of confrontation is far superior to martial arts mastery.

All that said, I have used my minuscule martial arts skill a few times in my life, from that twice to get out of an assailants’ grasp and get away from the confrontation. If I were trying to “stand my ground and teach them a lesson” I might have won, but I also might lose. I would definitively suffer some damage. By running away I may not have “won” in the macho sense of the word, but I also suffered no damage, which is a win for me. But a bit of knowledge of martial arts did allow me to run away in the first place.

Last I would like to say that MMA is in this context just a useless as all the other “traditional” martial arts. In my opinion, in most cases, the useful parts of all martial arts are not the subjugation levers, armbars, chokeholds, kicks, and punches.  Outside of the controlled and rules-governed ring, those are useful to the assailant, not to the defendant. To the defendant are useful other things – the dodges, pressure points, evasions, safe falls, and, above all, being in good enough shape to run for it. And getting those is possible even in martial arts that are not well suited for competitive fighting.


  1. lochaber says

    I just want to say that practicing an art like Aikido, Judo, Jujitsu, and probably any other that makes frequent use of “throws”, has the added benefit of teaching you how to fall.

    Even if you never end up in a fight, everyone falls down sooner or later, and knowing how to fall can literally save your life.

    I’ve briefly taken some Aikido and Jujitsu in the past, and in both of those, the very first thing we were taught (after dojo etiquette) was how to fall, and it’s something we practiced at the beginning of every session. And it’s the sort of thing that sticks with you for a long time after you’ve stopped practicing.

    Anyways, yeah, I think a lot of “self defense” isn’t. A lot of conflicts can be avoided by being willing to swallow your pride, back down, apologize, and/or leave the area.

  2. lumipuna says

    Even if you never end up in a fight, everyone falls down sooner or later, and knowing how to fall can literally save your life.

    Ah, accidental falling, my personal nemesis that’s already gotten me hospitalized once (with several close calls) before middle age. I wish I could just run away from that.

    Meanwhile, the threat of violence isn’t really even on the radar in my life. The one time someone tried to pick up a fight with me, I ran away as soon as I realized what was happening. It was really just brisk walking, and the other guy didn’t try to follow me, probably because he didn’t want to appear too openly like the aggressor in front of witnesses. I think most of the time when you retreat away from a threatening situation, you don’t have to be able to run fast, especially if you retreat early on, and especially if you have the foresight to not get trapped* in some dead end alley.

    *In the abovementioned case, I did walk straight to the nearby metro station, where I could’ve been trapped if the guy had followed me. I only later learned on social media that women in American cities (actually probably almost everywhere) have to routinely consider these kind of things when they’re dodging creeps at night.

  3. avalus says

    I see it pretty much the same way as you do. But I am very glad to have taken some Judo classes in my youth as it thought me how to fall, which might have literally saved my life twice already.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    the best self-defense there is – running away

    There’s better -- there’s never being in the threatened position in the first place. There’s a reason most victims of violent crime are young men -- it’s because they’re hanging round in places where there are a lot of violent criminals… mostly other young men.

    I’d disagree that the UK regulates weapons to “a ridiculous degree”. I’ve never been inconvenienced by it and don’t know anyone who has. There are certain attractive shiny things I’m not allowed to buy because they have pointy bits, but that’s about it.

    I’d disagree also that MMA is useless in a real fight. One thing it does teach that most other martial arts do not is simple: how to react to actually being hit, hard. Mike Tyson famously observed that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Hardly any traditional martial arts will tell you to put on some gloves and try to knock someone out, and LET someone do that to you, repeatedly. So when you DO get hit, the sheer shock makes a lot of your training evaporate. Not if you’ve done MMA, though -- the training focuses on dealing with getting hit, and that’s invaluable even if your plan after getting hit is to run away.

  5. says

    @sonofrojblake -- that you personally have not been inconvenienced by a law does not mean that the law is not ridiculous. I personally think that banning to even own nunchucks -- which are crappy weapons, but great exercise tools -- is just stupid.

    There are other martial arts that teach one how to deal with getting punched. Kickboxing, muay thai, boxing, and even some schools of karate and taekwondo (it depends on the school and sometimes even the sensei/dojo). I do agree that being able to withstand a no-knockout punch is a good skill to have, but I do not think it is something one can learn without significant dedication to the martial art. However when punches are thrown and connect, the de-escalation and avoidance have already failed, obviously.

  6. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To OP, agree with everything (with the possible exception to “pressure points”). Well said.

    I’d disagree that the UK regulates weapons to “a ridiculous degree”.

    I used to think some of the gun nuts in America were ridiculous when they said that it’s a slippery slope that will end with regulations and bans on kitchen knives, but look at where it is in England. I think that if you’re regulating the sale of kitchen knives, a tool (and weapon) that is in literally every house in the country -- a situation that is not going to change ever -- then I think it’s reached a ridiculous degree. To most people in the world, seeing pictures of stores of England of silverware sets in locked display cases saying “only 18+ can guy” -- that’s pretty ridiculous.

    I also think that it’s ridiculous that they can’t even get a permit or something for their Olympic shooting athletes to shoot at a range. I am not talking about personal ownership, or keeping it at home, or even removing it ever from the range. Some of England’s Olympic shooting athletes have to practice outside the country because it’s illegal to practice inside the country. I think that’s ridiculous.

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    And for anyone else reading this, let me add on to the OP with one important safety tip: No matter how good your training is, and how in shape you are, and how incompetent your opponent is, even if you see them coming a mile away, it is extremely unlikely that you can defeat a guy with a knife while you are unarmed without suffering several significant cuts and stabs, and likely much worse. You could take the best martial artist in the world, unarmed, against a complete rank amateur with a knife, and the amateur is going to stab them more than 50% of the time before being disarmed and subdued. Every single course that purports to train effective or useful unarmed self defense against a knife is a lie.

  8. atomjz says

    As the old saying goes, we are the descendants of people who ran away rather than standing and fighting against the angry animal sounds coming from the nearby bush. Runners are survivors. Not only is it the best defense, it’s nothing to ever be ashamed of, either. The fighters can’t laugh at you when you survive and they get eaten by the metaphorical panther.

  9. says

    No martial art teaches the student “being hit on the head from behind” which is probably 1/3 of the strategic landscape. It goes downhill from there.

    Someone with a gun who understands combat distance is basically unbeatable unless you have a few friends with 9 lives to spare.

    My conclusion is: start talking and complying as fast as you can and hope you can personalize yourself enough that they don’t damage you permanently. If you survive you can decide how important revenge is to you (hire a goon squad or a small army and go looking for the attacker) revenge is best enjoyed from a distance with chilled champagne. But really it’s hardly worth it.

  10. says

    Re: MMA -- some of it seems pretty practical, especially the grappling. But a boxer appears to me to be a far more effective fighter in most cases because they know how to take punishment as a matter of course.

    Floyd Mayweather was toying with Conor McGregor; my guess is he and his syndicate had a lot of money bet that he’d turn McGregor off like a flashlight in a certain round and he was just gettin’ paid.

  11. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Sigh. MMA fighters on average are better than boxers because MMA fights allow the most techniques to be used. Your one anecdote to the contrary notwithstanding.

    Having said that, I partially agree -- a boxer would be a pretty good fighters in a no-rules no-weapons fight. I’d take a boxer in a no-rules no-weapons fight over almost any traditional martial artist any day. A lot of MMA fans don’t give boxers the respect that they deserve as real fighters.

  12. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Also, wasn’t that a boxing match? Of course the boxer would have an advantage in a boxing match. The boxer has more training for that particular ruleset. If you reversed the situation and allowed the more open ruleset of MMA, and took away the big weapons (gloves) for the smaller weapons of MMA (smaller gloves), then something different could easily happen.

  13. Trickster Goddess says

    My aikido sensei’s advice on what to do if you are mugged: Take out your wallet and throw it as far as you can, then take off running in the opposite direction. Now the mugger has to make a choice: run after you or run after your wallet.

  14. Badland says

    Gerrard, Britain does not ban kitchen knives. Educate yourself.

    Re. OP, your “ridiculous degree” is my “safe society.” If the same laws that keep me safe from guns keeps me safe from nunchucks, I’m fine with that. If they regulate knives so that the above list of nasty little bastards aren’t allowed in public I’m even more fine with that. I see nothing on that list that would ban any of your knives, by the way.

    I’ve recently started watching MMA and it’s fascinating. Me, I tend to take anyone trying to hit me very personally, but for them it’s just a job. Different strokes etc.

  15. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I didn’t say that England banned kitchen knives.

    Nunchucks are a useless weapon. Flashy, and good for movies, but practically useless as a weapon. Nunchuck bans only exist because politicians and activists saw Bruce Lee movies and without knowing literally anything else decided that they needed to write a law to ban something that is less dangerous than a stick.

  16. says

    Nunchuck bans only exist because politicians and activists saw Bruce Lee movies and without knowing literally anything else decided that they needed to write a law to ban something that is less dangerous than a stick.

    No. They were popular with black gangs/martial arts clubs and a few other groups like the Guardian Angels, who were seen as a problem for NYPD. So the NYT carried a bunch of scare stories about how deadly they were and NYPD got their ban. See also “cop killer bullets”

  17. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Martial arts clubs, sure. Black gangs? really? Color me surprised. Why would any woefully inadequate weapon be popular with any gang? And why would the NYPD care? Unless you’re saying it was racially motivated, e.g. they didn’t care that nunchucks are completely ineffective, but they banned them anyway because of the disparate racial impact?

    I’d like some sources on this. The sources that I’ve seen suggest that the Bruce Lee movies are more plausible explanation.

    PS: “Guardian Angels”. Did you mean “Hell’s Angels”?

  18. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    It looks to me that it was mostly Bruce Lee and large doses of anti-Asian racism and fearmongering.

    Don’t underestimate the stupidity and willful ignorance of those in the US who regulate weapons. They all have no idea what they’re doing, whether it is about guns or handheld muscle-powered weapons like nunchucks. It seems to be a point of pride among them to not know anything about what they’re trying to regulate.

  19. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Sorry, one last post:

    In her ruling, Chen said the court couldn’t simply take that part out, and ruled that the state’s law as it pertained to possessing nunchuks as well as to manufacturing, transporting or disposing of them was in violation of the Second Amendment.

    The ruling went over the history of the ban, and said it “arose out of a concern that, as a result of the rising popularity ‘of ‘Kung Fu’ movies and shows,′ ‘various circles of the state’s youth’ — including ‘muggers and street gangs’ — were ‘widely’ using nunchaku to cause ‘many serious injuries.’”

    I’d like to read that court decision. I’m still heavily doubtful that muggers could physically use nunchucks to cause real injury -- without extensive training, they’re almost as likely to hurt themselves as they are their target (and they’re likely to hurt themselves during that extensive training as well). It sounds like the judge in this modern case blindly accepted the 50 years earlier racial hysteria which I still believe had no basis in fact. There was no epidemic of muggers and criminals using nunchucks. Barring a clear source and evidence to the contrary, I refuse to believe it. It’s too ridiculous and ungrounded in reality. This is the sort of thing that can only be believed by people who don’t know anything about fighting and don’t know anything about how horrible a weapon nunchucks are.

  20. says

    Jesus, no, are you fucking stupid? If you don’t know about the 70s NYC martial arts scene, Wu Tang, the Guardian Angels, etc., just shut the fuck up and go the fuck away and stop being an argumentative asshole.

  21. lochaber says

    Nunchaku/nun-chucks and butterfly knives/balisongs, are both capable of being deployed with a fancy flourish that likely has some intimidation value. Switchblades/automatic knives, to a lesser degree. And they are all outlawed in numerous U.S. jurisdictions for ridiculous reasons, but most explanations I’ve heard have been linked back to portrayals (whether real or fictional…) of them being used by “gangs”

    As to legality, I think it’s absurd that any melee or thrown weapon (“ninja stars”/shuriken) can be considered illegal when firearms aren’t also considered illegal. And, banning something like a knife or nunchaku isn’t as effective as banning a firearm, because a firearm is a much more complex instrument, and takes a certain amount of skill and precision, and maybe even speciallized equipment to build. A nunchaku, on the other hand, can be built by any old idiot with some rigid materials and a flexible material. Hell, in my little studio apartment, with just what is in it, I could whip up about as many nunchaku as you can imagine, literally overnight. Granted, once I get over a half dozen or so, I might be down to breaking off chair legs and ducttaping them together, but a duct-taped chair-leg nunchaku is going to make a much better nunchaku than a pipe zip gun will be compared to an actual firearm.

    And knives? that’s like human’s oldest technology. it’s one thing to install safety checkpoints at some areas (like airplanes and courthouses(and I have my issues with that as well…)), but to try and ban or even regulate a sharp edge, is just a exercise in absurdity. At best, it’s going to be used selectively to further oppress disadvantaged people. Also, knives, unlike firearms, have a purpose aside from killing people -- they are really useful tools.

  22. says


    OP, your “ridiculous degree” is my “safe society.”

    Except, it isn’t? The last time I went on an internet crawl in search of an answer, it was actually the UK who had an increase in knife violence in the last decade, so much so that the conservative government discussed such ridiculous things as banning for example internet sales of knives altogether. Because discussing the real cause of this problem -- lack properly funded and staffed social safety net and services which creates desperate and destitute youths -- is off-limits to them. CZ is no paradise in this regard, but despite our laws not regulating knife ownership and carrying at all, there is no marked increase in our country in violence or crime compared to our neighbors. The problem with knife bans is that they simply cannot work.
    I have written about this before:

    Tldr: Banning knives cannot work to deter someone who is dedicated to committing a crime with one because knives are present everywhere, are easy to make, and are easy to conceal right up to the point of use. Banning knives only achieves one thing -- it criminalizes their carry for ordinary purposes.

  23. says

    And, just as in the US, in the UK the strict knife laws are used to harass people of color whilst not being useful at their alleged purpose of making the society safer. And making police making more arrests is just a way of pretending to solve the problem, whilst not solving the problem:
    I do not ever remember reading a headline about rising knife violence in Prague.

  24. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Sorry. I don’t know much about that time period. You have me there. I still refuse to believe that there was a significant increase in physical injury done by nunchucks because of how incredibly bad nunchucks are as a weapon.

  25. sonofrojblake says

    ” “Guardian Angels”. Did you mean “Hell’s Angels”?”

    Against stiff competition, the most spectacularly ignorant and obtuse question I think I’ve ever seen on FtB.

    ” I don’t know much about that time period.”

    I’d only you had access to some sort of resource that would allow you to do the minimal research necessary to not all questions like the above. Sadly, there’s not yet a globally accessible, easily searched database of that sort of information… Oh, hang on…

  26. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    The hell is your problem? Did I really behave so badly in this thread? Being ignorant is now a crime? Or being mistaken? Jesus.

  27. lumipuna says

    Trickster Goddess wrote:

    My aikido sensei’s advice on what to do if you are mugged: Take out your wallet and throw it as far as you can, then take off running in the opposite direction. Now the mugger has to make a choice: run after you or run after your wallet.

    Now, that sounds odd to my common sensei.

    For one thing, the wallet isn’t running anywhere so a rational mugger should have ample time to murder me, if they were inclined to do so. Though in that case they’d likely murder me first and check my pockets, rather than just ask for my wallet.

    Second, the act of throwing the wallet, or just the movement in preparing to do so, could be easily interpreted as sudden resistance, triggering kneejerk violence on the mugger’s part. Especially so, if I took the necessary arch to throw it more than a few meters away.

    Third, aside from dangerous kneejerk reactions, the wallet-tossing could be easily interpreted as an offensive gesture, inspiring violence if the mugger was already inclined to that.

    Fourth, the mugger might also not immediately understand or believe that the thrown item was my actual wallet, as opposed to a decoy wallet or some random item I perhaps tried to use as a weapon.

  28. sonofrojblake says

    a boxer appears to me to be a far more effective fighter in most cases

    This does smack of the sort of “who would win out of…” conversation armchair blackbelts love, but here goes: an experienced boxer will definitely be far more effective, assuming he can land a good hit with his first punch… because if that punch doesn’t connect, and he doesn’t withdraw it fast enough and maintain his distance, the man who did 10% boxing and 90% BJJ is going to take him to the ground and choke him out. You have no idea how helpless you are until you roll with a blackbelt in BJJ, even one a bit smaller and lighter than yourself if you don’t train hard all the time.

    Why would any woefully inadequate weapon be popular with any gang?

    You want a list?
    1. Intimidation.
    2. They look cool (or they did in 1973) and make you feel cool and badass. Do not underestimate how important this factor is -- we’re by definition not talking about people who make detailed threat assessments of their potential targets, we’re mostly talking about morons.
    3. While yes, it’s hard to do what Bruce Lee did with them without giving yourself a painful head or crotch, they’re nevertheless damn effective when you hit first and from behind. Even in a confrontation I’d take a nunchuk over a single stick the same length, and I haven’t trained with them for over two decades. They ARE effective. The “they’re as dangerous to the user as to the target” crowd have seen too many people hurt themselves trying to practice katas, but you might just as well complain that press-ups aren’t an effective fighting technique despite the fact that any MMA lesson will feature a bunch of them.

  29. says

    The word “sonofrojblake” is in moderation because his nym, unfortunately, was also in the user name of a TERF who liked to post here. Just be aware of that.

  30. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Even in a confrontation I’d take a nunchuk over a single stick the same length, and I haven’t trained with them for over two decades. They ARE effective.

    Thanks for the reply, but I still disagree on this. I admit that they can be effective weapons with lots of training, for a definition of effective that means “better than nothing”, but I do not believe that they’re better than a simple stick of equal length.

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