According to the famous illusionist duo Penn and Teller, martial arts are “bullshit.” In each episode of their television show Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, they discuss their skeptical stance regarding a particular myth in pop culture, and expose the silliness (and often outright fraud) of the claims made by charlatans. For example, in the first season, they discuss alien abductions, creationism, and talking to the dead.
I’ve actually been a fan of Penn and Teller for quite some time. I enjoy their sarcastic (and often offensive) treatment of the egregious pseudoscience that seems to surround us. Accordingly, I was very interested to hear their take on martial arts (you can view the episode here).
In this episode, they make several points regarding martial arts:
- Martial arts are not effective for self defense.
- Instructors often convince their students that they are capable of defending themselves, when in fact, they are not
- Students are often not educated about self-defense laws in their area (and are sometimes taught techniques that would result in severe legal action if they were used)
- The injuries martial artists suffer through training are, on average, more severe (and costly) than the injuries the average untrained person would receive in a self-defense situation
You might think I am going to take each of these points in order, and discuss why, as a martial artists myself, I disagree with them. Quite the opposite. In fact, I actually agree with most of what Penn and Teller have to say, and I thoroughly enjoyed their hilarious exposé of wanna-be tough guy karate instructors and woo-woo tai chi masters.
It’s true – most martial arts offer students ineffective techniques for self-defense situations. Breaking boards and channeling your inner chi (whatever that is) will not help you defend yourself from an assailant. Many martial arts (and martial artists for that matter) are bullshit.
I also agree that students should be educated about self defense and excessive-force laws in their area. Showing students how to properly curb-stomp a downed opponent is not educating them about proper use of force. If your instructor is getting his/her material from American History X, it’s probably time to consider switching academies.
On the other hand, not all martial arts are equal. Some martial arts are extremely effective in real-life self defense situations. Take a look at an early video of Gracie street fights in Brazilian (or even the early UFC events for that matter), and it becomes immediately clear that some martial arts can be used effectively for self defense. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu developed by the Gracies can be used to humanely subdue a fully resisting opponent, without needing to resort to techniques that would cause permanent injury or disfigurement. This is why both the military and law enforcement routinely incorporates these techniques into their curriculum.
Finally, Penn and Teller overlook a major part of why people train martial arts. In addition to the self defense aspect (which varies in effectiveness depending on the martial art), practitioners can often expect increased physical conditioning and flexibility. Further, martial arts offer a social atmosphere. You’ll make friends with your training partners, and feel a sense of camaraderie as you progress together. Finally (and perhaps most importantly for me), martial arts are fun! I wouldn’t train if I didn’t enjoy myself.
Is there a lot of bullshit in many martial arts? Definitely.
Can certain martial arts be used effectively in most self defense situations? Yes.
Have my instructors convinced me to attempt a flying arm bar on a gun-toting mugger? Hell no.