“Fist Fighting” A Cultural Perspective: Part 2

A Little while back I wrote my “Fist Fighting, a cultural perspective” post, If you have not read that one I suggest you go back and take a look at it. This one is going to be mostly some interesting historical evidence that I came across and that supports the contentions of the original post. In that Original post, and others, I wanted to point out that one of the reasons it is so difficult to move the self-defense “pseudo-profession” in the direction of a more scientific and “evidence based” approach to personal defense is because of the very wide spread “false paradigms” that so much of the self-defense industry was built on and still stubbornly clings to.

Perhaps the very grand-daddy of them all, when it comes to self-defense false paradigms, at least as far as our culture is concerned, is the premise that standing up and striking with your fists is the very most effective way to defend yourself. Now, there are a lot of reasons why many pseudo-self-defense-experts might want to desperately resist the new paradigm of non-sport-Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Mixed Martial arts despite the growing mountains of evidence. (One of the main reasons for lazy fat-asses masquerading as “masters” is that BJJ/MMA is too much like work) but a big part of it was and is “cultural”.

In other words, people in the “English speaking world” were culturally indoctrinated, over many generations, to believe that standing fist-a-cuffs was the right way to settle quarrels, fight and defend themselves. I thought this was fairly obvious to most people but I also noticed that unless you pointed it out to them, many people, “experts” and laypeople alike, missed the point that “the right way” to do something was by no means the most effective way.

The point being, that the standing striking-with-the-fists paradigm took hold because it was both culturally acceptable and beneficial,  it was even encouraged-not because it worked so well. The real kicker is that it became so culturally acceptable precisely because it was the least dangerous and injurious method of combat, the very opposite of what much of the pseudo profession would have you believe. Most importantly, this is not my “opinion” but historical fact well supported by mountains of evidence. Therefore, only something that caused little physical and corresponding social harm could become so wide spread that it was more or less acceptable for even children to do.

Thus, do you want a self-defense method that evolved to cause the least amount of injury to an opponent?! It’s a pretty dumb idea isn’t it, but over time, some people, too indoctrinated to understand their own cultural heritage, started to assume that the culturally acceptable and therefore the most popular way of doing things must also be the most effective way (from a purely “high threat” self-defense perspective). This kind of thinking is a classic martial arts untested assumption that led to a pervasive false paradigm.

Hence, you are likely to hear a lot of pseudo self-defense experts squeal when presented with this kind of logical and fact based argument so I wanted to give you more evidence so you could just tell the meat head to “shut the #&@! up, these are the facts”. I wanted you to know that this was not just some wild personal theory of mine but a well understood and documented cultural phenomena that started in England and has origins that are easy to trace and explore.

What could be more insightful then hearing from the people who were actually there? I came across a book by a man named Donald Walker. This book was published in 1840, in London England, and the short title was “Defensive Exercises”. It is a fascinating read if you enjoy learning what people from another time, now long deceased and nearly forgotten, had to say about topics like self-defense; for me, it is the closest thing we have to time travel. The book is basically a compilation of self-defense methods and the author covers various forms of wrestling, boxing and fencing. I wanted to quote for you here some of his thoughts on boxing and its role in this period of English cultural development.

If English is your second language or you didn’t grow up reading Emily Bronte don’t forget this book was written before 1840 so this early Victorian style of English can seem a little wordy and sometimes be a little hard to decipher for the modern reader. Hence I will add some commentary as we go along and supply other historical facts that should help to put walker’s statements into their historical context. What follows are Walker’s own observations on the transformative role that boxing/pugilism was having on English society in his own time:

“Let a contrast be drawn between the fair contest with the fist, and the modes of fight prevalent even in some parts of this country; or let us contemplate the offensive and defensive forms of attack in foreign countries; and then it will be seen whether a knowledge of pugilism (Boxing) is not a public benefit, as well as an individual security. (Good for the individual and society as a whole.)

In our northern counties, where boxing is but imperfectly understood, and its laws are unknown, they fight up and down; that is, when one gets the other down, he who is uppermost (the man on top or still standing) throttles, kicks, or jumps on him who is down, till he has disabled or killed him. This, too, is pretty much the case in Ireland; and, indeed, all over the world, except in those parts of England where regulated boxing is in use.

In Ireland, men usually fight with sticks. In this mode of combat, a man may, at the onset, receive a mortal blow; whereas, in boxing, exhaustion frequently causes the weaker party to yield, and “give in;” and thus disputes are settled by a less dangerous, though more protracted, mode of fighting.”

(We see here some classic English bigotry I think but it is interesting to note that most western European nations went through the transitional phase where the walking stick replaced the sword that “gentlemen” had formerly carried as a ubiquitous part of civilian fashion. By the Napoleonic period, (circa 1810) the sword had entirely disappeared as part of civilian dress and in some places, like France especially, had been replaced with a stout walking stick. Therefore, when “gentlemen” of this period “fell to quarreling” they would often fight or duel with their walking sticks instead of swords. yes, there were formalized systems that still survive today but the point is that while a lot less lethal than dueling with swords, stick fighting was still too dangerous to be of much social value and largely died out in England with the rise of fist fighting.)

In the same country, owing to ignorance of the generous rules of boxing, and in the spirit it inspires, a man, who conceives himself aggrieved by another, does not scruple to waylay him, and murder him with a bludgeon or a pitchfork, or to set fire to his cabin, and burn his family in their sleep.

(Leave it to the English to use the Irish as the example of all things barbarous (LOL), but it is also interesting to note that within a generation it is the Irish, especially in North America, who are seen as having a very strong cultural affinity for boxing.)

Not less repugnant to humanity are the barbarous contests in some parts of the United States of America. Kicking, biting, and even gouging, disgrace their inhuman fights. The latter is perpetrated by grappling the head of an opponent, and with the thumbs forcing his eyes out of the sockets. Nor is this all. The following is a short narrative of an American combat.

-“A. (person A) one morning met B.(person B) coming from a fight. ‘Heyday ! man,’ he exclaimed; ‘your eye is hanging on your cheek.’ ‘yes,’ replied B.; ‘but I guess I’ve been a match for the rascal.’ And holding forth his hand, he exhibited an indubitable proof that, with a gripe(grip) and a wrench, he had unmanned his adversary.” (Pulled off his manly parts!)

(Ah yes, the Americans are only second in barbarousness to the Irish (LOL). But in all seriousness this could be a reference to “rough and tumble” fighting which various writers of that period have eluded to having occurred in parts of the old USA, particularly in the south. However, we should also understand that just like dueling with weapons transitioned into less lethal versions (like our example from sword to stick) unarmed dueling or “pugilism” also had distinct phases that had to become less vicious before they could be excepted as socially beneficial. Boxing or its early incarnation “pugilism” had at least four distinct phases of development. These various approaches to pugilism generally correspond to the rules that governed formal matches of the time. The first formalized set of rules was laid down by Jack Broughton in 1743. These rules began to eliminate some of the more egregious practices like eye gouging, head butting and striking a downed opponent which were apparently common place in the pre-Broughton era and therefore does not sound much different from the American “rough and tumble”. Each subsequent overhaul of the rules took out more and more of the most dangerous techniques such as throws and “pivot punches” (spinning blows). What remained were the very least dangerous punches with your hands and therefore not a very good endorsement for a self-defense system for dangerous situations.)

(Conversely, the ancient classical world went through the reverse kind of evolution as the bare fisted boxing of the Greeks became far too tame for the bloody minded Romans. First leather thongs were introduced, then metal studs were attached to these in order to increase the weight and severity of the blows. Eventually a savage kind of metal gauntlet called the “cestus” was used. This horrible practice evolved in Roman boxing for the simple and obvious reason that the unprotected human fist is an inadequate weapon generally unable to produce serious injuries on its own. Hence, Roman boxing with a metal plated “glove” had the opposite effect on Roman society and contributed to its blood-lust, lack of fair play and respect for human life. For these reasons it was viewed as too barbarous as Rome entered into its Christian phase and was completely banned around 400 A.D.)

In order further to form a correct judgment on this subject, it is also necessary to reflect on the different modes of assuaging the revengeful passions adopted by the lower orders (lower class people to ‘gentelmen’ simply meant working people.) on the continent. (Continental Europe in contrast to merry o’l England.) There, it is not unusual to behold the long knife, or the stiletto, carrying the mortal castigation of an offence. (Meaning that these blades are the deadly method of conflict resolution.)
What a contrast exists between all these barbarous modes of fighting, and the order which prevails whenever a fight occurs in this country! Here a ring (of people)is immediately formed,-seconds to each of the combatants step forward,-the surrounding throng maintain “fair play,”-and the business is settled with as much order and propriety as the circumstances of the case will admit off.

Thus boxing is really useful to society as a refinement in natural combat.-In England, it is curious and interesting to see the beneficent (humanitarian) rules of boxing affecting all the contests (fights) even of children…” (He then relates a story of coming across a group of kids who without any supervision and in great seriousness were resolving a dispute in the identical way adults would, using the articles of boxing and the principles of fair play.)

There you have it, straight “from the horse’s mouth” so to speak, a very insightful analysis of the positive role that boxing played in English Society from a man who lived through it. Furthermore, we must not forget that by 1840 organized policing was only a few years old in London. This meant that for all that time before, violent personal conflict resolution was a deadly serious social problem especially in the over crowed cities of Europe. However, in London, the feud and the vendetta, the sword and the dagger had uniquely been replaced by the jab and the cross. Walker gives credit to the working classes for embracing and popularizing this least injurious method of “dueling” while the degenerate upper classes insisted on stabbing or shooting each other in “affairs of honour”. Walker even goes as far as to say that the entire idea of “English fair play”, which we could extend to mean the “rule of law”, owes its development to this cultural embrace of Boxing!

Ergo, we can see that boxing had a profound influence on the development of the positive social values that we are supposed to take for granted in the modern “civilized” world. Do these values really still exist? Sure they do, to some extent but I think our modern society may also have a lot more in common with the Romans than with the Londoners of the 1820s. In self defense situations, we can no longer afford to assume that our antagonist is really a “decent fellow” who just needs a mild “thrashing” to put him back on the straight and narrow. It was in this social context that boxing thrived but those days are long gone and we need modern methods to keep pace with modern problems.

Now, I am not saying that boxing does not and cannot have an important role in modern MMA type self defense training. It can, but that role must clearly be a secondary role, which is something we can explore later. The point, of this post was to give you some solid evidence and finely unearth the origins of the false paradigm that striking with your fists should be your primary method of self-defense.

Clearly, considering the final form that boxing took and the reasons all the other fighting techniques were eliminated, this is a silly and historically indefensible proposition. The public needs to know this so that they do not keep getting pulled back into the myths and false paradigms of a pseudo-profession only interested in perpetuating myths and false paradigms. As we have seen boxing has served an important and honorable place in our culture for hundreds of years, but for the woman who is facing a sexual assault, the urban driver being car-jacked, the road rage victim being attack with an improvised weapon or the child being kidnapped off the sidewalk, the idea that we just advise them to stand there and throw punches or strikes, like some Victorian manly ritual between equal and consenting participants- verges on delusional.