i will not stand my ground

in the wake of the court case regarding the murder death of trayvon martin at the hands of george zimmerman, there has been some discussion regarding the ‘stand your ground’ law that operates in florida (among other places). this, essentially, states that you do not have a duty to retreat if that option is available to you, but you may stand your ground and fight and still be within the definition of self-defence. in the extreme case, where you can demonstrate that your feared your life was in danger, it is legal to use deadly force. there are subtleties to this, naturally, and some discussion about whether ‘stand your ground’ is relevant to the trayvon martin case at all, but that is best left to those more acquainted with legal definitions and procedures (i am not a lawyer, and if you take anything i say as being qualified legal advice, you are mistaken).


i have personally struggled with the decision to acquit zimmerman, although from reading what i consider to be reasonable discussions of the topic by lawyers i do understand that it appears to be correct under the law and in relation to how the case was tried. but i am far from content; a young man died for no reason and i do not accept that as being part and parcel of a functioning democratic legal system. i hope that, unable to change the fact of it now, mr martin’s death can become at least collateral damage in a fight for a better system, a catalyst for a system that is not as it should be, constructed by people who can be better. for those with time or interest, i would recommend these articles:

the irony of american justice

be careful what you wish for

my personal viewpoint on the matter can only come from the point of view where i feel i wield at least a little knowledge, if not experience: as a martial arts instructor, whether i like it or not, there is a responsibility to consider the use of karate in self-defence, and what that even means. even if i never explicitly teach “self-defence”, or don’t think that’s what my karate classes are for, there’s a good chance that a lot of the people who came to the class in the first place were motivated by a want to feel safe and capable if accosted. am i (at best) taking money from people under false pretences, or (at worst) being negligent in placing people at unnecessary risk by instilling in them a false confidence in their ability to defend themselves?

this latter is, in fact, the accusation i lay squarely at the door of certain karate schools and all of taekwondo, who emphatically do not teach either self-defence or skill in martial ability, but which continue to allow people to have that perception of it. but that is a larger digression than i should make here.

i firmly believe that while any martial art club is free to make their own decisions as to the range, quality and effectiveness of what they teach, there is an inescapable responsibility to paint the wider picture such that the students (read: customers) are informed as to what they are learning. if your kickboxing class is for recreation and fitness, that is both a laudable aim and a very suitable way of achieving it. it is not a self-defence class, and not only do you need to avoid making those claims either explicitly or implicitly, you further must take proactive steps to remove this perception in anyone who holds it through no fault of yours.

if your taekwondo class is about earning money while allowing people to erroneously think they are acquiring skill and the ability to defend themselves, you need to stop. close your doors, put away your toys, and go home.

from my own dojo: my karate class is not a fighting class. we do not learn to fight in the sense that you may end up fighting on the street (if you are unlucky or for whatever reason go looking for trouble). i do not teach this, and i have turned away people who were looking for that. i do teach competition sparring, as i am happy that while we strive to develop our parring in a sport karate context, my students will get the benefit of increased targeting, confidence, power, balance, awareness, and so forth. but when i teach ‘realistic’ applications of the karate techniques we learn, those same skills – confidence, power, balance, awareness – are directed at disengagement and escape. and still i do not call these exercises “self-defence”, because that is not what they are. it is a pervasive problem with martial arts training that i intend to write up for my 5th dan thesis (they have such things), and you may already know it within the phrase ‘when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’. if you regularly and determinedly practice physical confrontation, you will be drawn to it because it is a familiar situation for you to operate in. but it is the wrong one.

practicing blocks, counterattacks, disengagements and escapes are all very well, and certainly require practice in order to be internalised and available under pressure and adrenaline, but we practice them because they are the exciting bit. they are the last few seconds of a situation that may have been brewing for minutes, or hours. it makes no sense to wait for this situation to arise and then try to get out of it. get out early, before the physical confrontation is on the cards. this is 99% of self-defence, it is what will absolutely guarantee your safety, but it can’t be monetised.

i am reminded of a story in a book by the magicians penn & teller, relating a story of getting out of trouble in a diner (or somesuch, the details have faded). when confronted by a biker wanting a fight, nothing you can say is likely to avert the situation. instead, the act of tipping one’s own milkshake over one’s head is so utterly alien that it changes the stakes; suddenly the biker loses face if he attacks a poor retarded person. does this work? anecdotally, yes, and derren brown wrote something similar here. penn and teller call this the rule of ‘no permanent damage’; a ruined jacket is better than a beating. hurt feelings, embarrassment or shame, humiliation, all result in no permanent harm and can be endured, recovered from. its not what your poor insulted ego wants, but it works. and how does this relate to the law?

in the UK, stand your ground does not exist. you are required, by law, to retreat. only when you cannot retreat, are you allowed to engage in violence for self-defence. if, during the fight, an escape opens up and you do not take it, you are no longer defending yourself (you are at this point committing assault). you are expected to do everything in your power to escape the conflict, and this is the only way to evade responsibility for any violence that ensues. further, even if you are genuinely unable to exit, you may still be convicted unless you are able to convince a jury that that truly was the case, and that you used only sufficient force to allow you to escape. the fight is to allow you to escape, not to win. a jury must be convinced that not only did you have no choice, but that nothing less would have been sufficient to protect yourself.

under UK law, self-defence relates to physical things; your own body, those of others, and to a certain degree property also. it absolutely does not cover being offended, insulted, slandered, or having your pride damaged. someone calls you a very bad name, you walk away. if you stand your ground, and they throw the first punch, this is not self-defence. you could have walked away, but chose not to. the fight, legally, is your fault. defending your honour, your feelings, is not defending yourself.

i run a karate club, and have achieved a medium/high rank for my efforts and training over the years. it is understandable that i get asked, from time to time, whether i have ever had to use the techniques i practice. i am proud to say no, because people are specifically asking about kicks and punches, but really the fact i haven’t got into any fights is a result of skills i picked up and practiced in the dojo: awareness of my surroundings, assessment of opponent’s intentions, positioning, control, and most of all humility. i’ve lost so many fights it’s untrue, and my ego never gets far before it’s beaten down again. humility, then, and just preferring not to fight. i often tell the story of how i talked down a belligerent drunk guy in a college bar who imagined some affront; i was sitting at a picnic bench and had no way of quickly escaping. using thoughtful expressions, disarming gestures, logical reasoning, and humour, we shook hands and went our ways. a perfect victory.

no one went to court, no one got hurt, no one got killed. because there was no confrontation. it’s a simple sum: no confrontation = no injury. (it’s actually the logical and more useful extension of no guns = no gunshot wounds, which would also be useful in this discussion except, you know, america.)

you don’t need to know the law, or have studied karate philosophy, to get the point of that. no confrontation: avoid it before it happens. step the violence down, not up. back down; your feelings will get over it. this is the essence of true self-defence, and i practice what i preach: i will not be there in the first place  and, if that cannot be avoided, i will not stand my ground.


rory miller’s books facing violence and meditations on violence
mark dawes’ book understanding reasonable force
penn and teller’s book how to play with your food.


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