“Fist Fighting” A cultural Perspective:Part 3

As fate would have it, not long after finishing my post: “Fist Fighting, A Cultural Perspective-part 2”, I came across some interesting opinions on this very topic from a significant “martial arts”/self-defense historical figure.  This historical figure is none other than E.W. Barton-Wright.  As some of you may know, Barton-Wright was perhaps the first “Mixed Martial Artist” of the modern era in Europe and the western world. He was an English self-defense instructor whose professional self-defense school and system flourished in London around the turn of the 20th century. While being one of the first, if not the first person to formally introduce Japanese jiu-jitsu into Great Britain he nonetheless recognized that no one self-defense style was complete enough to deal with all the verities and complexities of modern urban self-defense.

Therefore, Barton-Wright became probably the first westerner to systematically cross-train in Asian and western fighting systems in order to develop the most complete and effective self-defense system possible.  The result was an extremely comprehensive real world self-defense system he dubbed “Bartitsu”.  Bartitsu became popular enough that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentions it in one of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries (although with a slight spelling variation). Yes, Sherlock Holmes was a martial arts enthusiast and his preferred method was Bartitsu. In fact, it may be these Sherlock Holmes references that prevented Bartitsu and E.W Barton-Wright from being entirely forgotten, which seems to be a trend in self-defense “history” as unscrupulous self-promoters take advantage of the work done by true innovators and pioneers trying to take credit for others work; this is certainly something I am familiar with.

As early as the March, 1899 edition of Pearson’s Magazine, Barton-Wright introduces his term “Bartitsu” and calls it his “new art of self defense”. He claims it has over 300 “methods of attack and defense”. He goes on to say that these methods are the best techniques taken from boxing, fencing, wrestling, savate and jiu-jitsu (which he calls “Japanese wrestling” probably because the term “jiu-jitsu” is still unknown to the vast majority of his readers.) Sound familiar? However, just remember this is in 1899 London, not Bruce Lee in the1970s or contemporary MMA in the 2000s.

Barton-Wright was another professional self-defense instructor who was looking for an objective truth and realistic solutions to real world violence and appears so far ahead of his time that he was largely forgotten. In the meantime, it took the pseudo-professionals more than 100 years to catch up!  The problem is that much of the pseudo-profession has not caught up and to the detriment of the self-defense industry, does not want to.

Bartitsu is an interesting topic in itself and something we can explore more in depth later. However, for today I wanted to share with you Barton-wright’s thoughts on boxing (or- the standing in front of an attacker and striking him-paradigm) for self-defense. Here are the thoughts of an Englishman apparently very well acquainted with the cultural influence that boxing had on English society but was also able to look at it objectively because of his experience with several other martial arts. Hence, here is an excerpt, along with my commentaries, from Barton-wright’s article on his “New art of self-defence” from an 1899 edition of “Pearson’s Magazine”:

“Before proceeding to give my readers any particulars and explanations of the art of self-defence, perhaps it will not be out of place to make a few introductory remarks as to the conception of self-defence as generally understood by other nations.

In foreign countries people never fight for amusement or diversion, as is often the case in England and the United states.  Bearing this fact in mind, it will be more easy to understand that when foreigners fall out and fight, they recognize one goal only, and that is to overcome and defeat their adversaries, and any means is considered justifiable and is resorted to, to attain this end…

(while not entirely accurate, since styles of folk wrestling and other professional semi-combat sports like Greco-Roman wrestling were played and watched all over the world at that time, nothing appears to have had the wide spread cultural effect on a people for as long and in the same way as boxing did on the English.

For example, just across the channel from England the French had their Savate or more properly, La Boxe Françoise, and while popular at times it never exerted the kind of cultural influence over the French as boxing did on the English. I assume this is just shorthand for the point that Barton-wright is trying to make, that this cultural influence can hold Englishmen back from recognizing their real self-defence needs when faced by the kind of violence used by those dastardly non-English races.)

Of course, what constitutes honour in this sense is entirely a matter of early training and education…

(This is a very salient point that he makes here, basically making the same but shorter argument that I have; that believing that fist fighting is “honorable”, or highly effective for that matter, is a product of cultural indoctrination or programming. Or put more simply, how we are brought up or raised to think and behave.

This should be obvious to the modern reader, at least those clear-headed enough not to be caught up in some pseudo-expert’s completely unsupported opinions and nonsense, but we must not forget that Barton-Wright is writing here at a time when many people really did believe there was something inherently different and superior about being “English” or “French” or whatever.  In other words, people so closely identified with their cultural training as to believe it was genetic or some other absurdity.

The point being is that this would have been a fairly controversial position to take back in 1899, to try and get people to think outside their cultural box and to except that your ‘superior’ culture might have a lot to gain from the study of  other cultures, especially in this  important area of self-defense. Therefore, you better blame it on the “foreigners” and their lack of English manners. LOL)

In this country we are brought up with the idea that there is no more honourable way of settling a dispute than resorting to nature’s weapons, the fist, and to scorn taking advantage of another man when he is down.

A foreigner, however, will not hesitate to use a chair, or a beer bottle, or a knife, or anything that comes handy, and if no weapon is available the chances are he would employ what we should consider are underhanded means.

It is to meet eventualities of this kind, where a person is confronted suddenly in an unexpected way, that I have introduced a new style of self-defence, which can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent.”

Hence, we heard it from an Englishman himself and one trained in boxing that you are going to need more powerful methods of self defense if you are going to be able to deal with the realities of modern “street” self-defense. This appears pretty obvious to those who are looking for an objective truth even 100 years or more ago. Of course we are not just talking about orthodox boxing here, but an entire paradigm of wanting to stand in front of an attacker and throw hand blows, boxing is just the most traditional and proven of these methodologies.

Furthermore, we must also not forget that this cultural influence of boxing continued into our modern (post World Wat Two) era but it changed somewhat as the culture changed. As we went into the modern television era boxing as a spectator sport became more popular than it ever had been. However, at the same time boxing became something that was more and more something you just watched and less and less something average people actually did.  Many people who fought or had to defend themselves, still generally wanted to fight with their hands in a crude kind of imitation of boxing and the idea that only “foreigners” would resort to “dirty”(generally non-boxing tactics) fighting was replaced by the ideas of the unscrupulous “streetfighter” or criminal type using “underhanded” methods.

Thus, by modern times we had a very well ingrained cultural bias towards “boxing” type self defense that had been developing for a few hundred years and for a few reasons. However, we should not forget that this original cultural acceptance of boxing had been because it would usually not cause anything but superficial, and therefore socially acceptable, injuries (see part 1 of “Fist fighting” A Cultural Perspective). The very opposite of what a real world self-defense system would require.

While at the same time fewer and fewer people actually had any practical experience with actual boxing and fighting. It is one of the more laughable paradoxes of our modern society that people with the least practical knowledge of something often have the strongest and loudest opinions. Completely sedentary and obese “couch potatoes” will argue the merits or finer points of various sports that they have never played and never will and of course boxing became a big part of this.

Is there something really wrong with a “sports” obsessed culture made up of mostly fat, lazy people who don’t want to do sports, or much else for that matter? I think that is a very interesting question for another time but the final point I wanted to make here is that this odd but very wide spread-non-participatory-interest in a combat-sport like boxing is bound to produce a lot of silly and…you guessed it…unfounded opinions in the area of self-defense.

 Just remember, as a  discerning self-defense consumer be aware that when no one seems interested in exploring the origins of these largely baseless opinions, because they are so culturally ingrained and excepted, this silliness begins to extend into the thinking of people who hold themselves out to be “experts” on self-defense and really should know better.  When this happens on a large enough scale we end up with a “pseudo-profession” that holds the same opinions as the slovenly, corpulent, couch potatoes and for the same reasons…they have simply been indoctrinated to think that way and don’t want to change. Thinking  after all,is too much like exercise for the brain. Man, imagine a world where the dieticians get their advice from people addicted to McDonald’s burgers or where book publishers cater to the needs of illiterates!

Can you imagine such a world? I can, professionally I live in one, and it’s called the “self-defense industry”. Therefore, let’s start taking the advice of professionals like Barton-Wright, people who have been looking at these problems objectively and have only been giving this advice for…well…over a hundred years, maybe it’s time we started listening to it, or more impartially take an “evidence-based” approach and understand what these opinions are actually based on. After only a hundred years or so, there should be plenty of evidence by now to support or refute o’l Barton-wright. Yes, after all this time maybe we should dispense with more baseless assertions and unsupported opinions and be looking for actual facts and evidence as to whether o’l Barton…was… right.