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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Don't Just Assume Stupidity

I was explaining--what was I explaining? Kinda hard to put it into words, I guess--my general approach to life, the universe, and everything to a co-worker a week or so ago.

"My general thinking is that individual people and what they do may be stupid," I said, "but in general, the people as a group are wise, and you can usually count on this: if things have been done a certain way for a long, long time, there's a reason. I may not know what that reason is, but that doesn't mean there isn't a reason. And it's true that sometimes it turns out there isn't a reason, or the reason has been lost to the passage of time, or the reason may have been relevant a thousand years ago, but isn't anymore. But for the most part, people as a body are not stupid, and you're well-advised to at least consider the old ways thoroughly before discarding them. There may be more to them than you think."

I wouldn't have remembered that conversation, probably, but a blogpost concerning a particular martial arts technique that one noted individual had dramatically changed for his system reminded me of it. Y'see, I'd given, as an example of my thinking, my personal experience with taekwon-do and RyuTe.

I made it almost all the way to shodan--first-degree black belt--in taekwon-do. That was a fairly long time ago, and there were still plenty of taekwon-do teachers around whose teaching was not exclusively geared to sporting competitions. Not that I didn't learn tournament sparring--I did--but I also learned the old ITF hyung that were based on the Okinawan kata, and, overall, I'd say I learned how to hit pretty hard, not just how to score points.

Those old hyung always puzzled me. Why, I wondered, were we being told to "chamber" both hands like so before executing a double punch (or whatever)? Why were there "salutes" in the hyung? I never really got answers to those questions, and many like them, but I never doubted for an instant that there were perfectly good reasons we did those things. I just didn't know what the reasons were.

To me, it came down to a relatively simple question: were the people who made those hyung, those kata, stupid? If I wasn't prepared to assume from the get-go that they were stupid or ignorant--and of course, I had been told that the forms originated with masters long ago--then I had to assume that those not-stupid, not-ignorant people had reasons for what they did.

When I wound up with the opportunity to study RyuTe (then traveling under the name "Ryukyu Kempo"), I found the reasons. The movements did indeed have meanings. Stacked hands, like in a "chamber," meant something. There were effective techniques connected with such motions and positions. The old masters weren't dolts. Every "block," every strike, every motion and position of the legs, forward and reverse, has meaning and applications.

The fact that I didn't know they were there when I was studying taekwon-do didn't mean they weren't there. The fact that it takes more than a handful of repetitions to get good at them doesn't mean they aren't quick and effective.

Every so often, I'm glad I didn't decide, before I began to understand techniques a little better (I will readily admit that I still have much to learn), to just discard or modify the old ways and go on to something different in the name of modernity. Without wishing to seem critical, it seems to me that rather a lot of people have done that, not just in martial arts, but as regards life in general. The "noted individual" to whom I obliquely referred a moment ago may well have been a case in point, in that the dramatic change he made had a certain surface-level logic to it, but when he made it, he discarded countless applications that can only be correctly performed when the technique is performed--you guessed it!--the old way. Whether he understood this and chose to make the change in the name of simplifying things for his American students, or whether he didn't understand it and just thought the old masters must not have quite "gotten it," I don't know.

I just know I do my best not to make that mistake, again, not just in martial arts, but as regards life in general. The old ways have survived for a reason. It might be worth your time to determine what that reason is before discarding them.
Just my two cents. No disrespect intended. Not naming names is deliberate, as the idea here is to illustrate a point, not to make anyone feel bad or anything.

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