Hi. Welcome to the site. Please check out the About Us, and if you have a question about crime and/or punishment, perhaps look at some previous questions along those lines first.
Welcome to Anarchy101 Q&A, where you can ask questions and receive answers about anarchism, from anarchists.

Martial Arts (Hierarchy and Authority...)

+3 votes
Martial arts sometimes implement hierarchy when it comes to belt progression and advancing in rank. Also, there are times in the gym/dojo where the instructor/'master' will take somewhat of an authoritarian stance in order to convey a message.

My question is, are these hierarchical/authoritarian relationships justifiable? Martial arts are obviously completely voluntary but some stuff does seem to kind of contradict certain aspects of Anarchism.

Maybe I'm just over-thinking though.

edited to fix tags
asked Mar 24, 2012 by AnarchicSaint (240 points)
edited Jul 13, 2014 by dot
"Maybe I'm just over-thinking though." Yes.
Haha, I know I am but still, how could you argue with someone who brought up a topic like this. I'm new to Anarchism but I also love martial arts. Sooo many contradictions.

5 Answers

0 votes
as i have said elsewhere, authority and even hierarchy are not necessarily problems. coercion is the problem. or reified power, if you want to get all up on that tip. it is ok, if someone has more experience and/or knowledge in a particular field, to follow instructions, or do what they tell you as pertains to that field.
the problem comes when a) someone expects to carry that power/authority into other fields, and/or b) when you are coerced to do what that person says.

there are not any contradictions in anarchists doing martial arts, unless the understanding of where the problem is, is extremely simplistic.
answered Mar 25, 2012 by dot (50,520 points)
i can't tell how what you're saying is not just taking the conversation back to the beginning of the conversation.

the belt system is only hierarchical within the entirely voluntary system of the school, where it is a measure of how far along a student is in training in a measurable skill. so if a brown belt (more experienced say than a green belt), tells you how to do an exercise, presumably it's better advice than if a green belt tells you how to do that same exercise. obviously people will misuse hierarchy in our current system, but i don't think that there is reason to assume that that hierarchy (for example) is one that leads inevitably to misuse.
i don't really understand what your problem is with what I'm saying either...im just trying to explain what im saying and accomodate the fact that you thought what i was saying "smelled of equality" and how im trying to turn authority and hierarchy into "bad words"

the belt system: i don't possibly see how a free-form, anarchistic martial arts class could possibly use gradations of knowledge and specialization

i don't possibly see how a free-form, anarchistic martial arts class could possibly use gradations of knowledge and specialization


What makes you think that an "anarchistic martial arts class" would be "free-form"? In most scenarios of teaching/learning, there's a particular set of goals that are supposed to be reached, and, in my experience, when there's a progression from baby steps to bigger steps, it's a better way to go. Teachers create a foundation and build from there, based on the capacities of the students. Does this create hierarchy? Yes and no. The people who've already learned certain skills are more experienced using them than those who haven't learned them yet, and can be looked to for advice -- and training -- without the newbies being bossed around or (as an example I've seen plenty of times over the years I've trained) punished for making a mistake.

In schools where there's a belt or ranking system, the more advanced students often share the responsibility for teaching, which makes them and their advice more valuable (as long as they're not dicks when teaching) than that of beginners. And again, it's voluntary. If you don't like the way something is being taught, nobody's forcing you to submit to a situation where you feel uncomfortable.

In my training, the more advanced students take care of the beginners, to make sure they don't get hurt. Part of the obligations and duties of attaining a higher rank entails taking responsibility for the teaching and safety of those students who are less skilled. When I teach, I tell the advanced students that beginners are incapable of making mistakes, that it's only the advanced students who can blow it. The process is not separate from nurturing, and the most satisfaction I get when teaching is seeing a less advanced student begin to incorporate new skills into their repertoire.

lawrence wrote: "Does this create hierarchy? Yes and no"

here i tend to think context is important, yes, but also one's own interpretation. may such a 'hierarchy' resemble something more spherical, the proverbial layers of an onion, than a pyramid? senior students are closer to a teacher in demonstrating the actuality of 'gung-fu' in its deepest sense: "achievement through effort." these seniors simply have evinced a deepening understanding-as-practice of the art in question and hence are closer to the center of the onion, the 'inner circle.'i see no reason why learning from others more experienced, more practiced than oneself must resemble a pyramid-scheme.

also, i see something at work here which i think needs some acknowledgement and that is 'identity.' why? in order for a pyramid-scheme to resemble what rs666 proposes as 'hierarchy' it seems one must identify largely, if not totally, as 'martial artist' or 'so-and-so's student' rather than the art being one of many aspects of one's own life. (perhaps this is a place apio ludd's essay _Nameless_ comes in handy). identifying a teacher as solely The Teacher contributes to this type of structure as well.


"also, i see something at work here which i think needs some acknowledgement and that is 'identity.' why? in order for a pyramid-scheme to resemble what rs666 proposes as 'hierarchy' it seems one must identify largely, if not totally, as 'martial artist' or 'so-and-so's student' rather than the art being one of many aspects of one's own life. (perhaps this is a place apio ludd's essay _Nameless_ comes in handy). identifying a teacher as solely The Teacher contributes to this type of structure as well."

One of the crutches of focusing on totalities....they are very complicated!

0 votes
Having practiced martial arts mostly informally for about a decade, I can say that I do not like the aspects I see in more "traditional" arts of formal ranking, bowing to a master, taking orders, etc. I had good experiences with my scant formal training, but at the same time, I prefer learning in small groups of friends from books and videos and then practicing as peers of different disciplines. My friends and I take a more "Fight Club" approach I guess, but we've all had enough formal training to not have any weird gaps in the basics. In a small group or pair of non-professionals we can develop at our own pace and focus on whatever particular techniques or principles feel useful at the time, using a gift economy approach in that whichever one of us figures out something faster helps the other catch up. The trajectory always moves away from stratification and toward mutual competency. This works really well for martial arts such as Systema and Krav Maga that orient less around specific techniques and rigid forms and more around principles and creative self-exploration. This would not work well for styles such as karate or kung fu on the other hand, as they seem to require rigid instruction, though I do practice some wing chun too informally. We focus a lot on evaluating each other through observation and sparring (so much sparring!) and testing our results (e.g. did I stop this dummy knife from stabbing me or not, how does my body naturally want to respond and was it effective). I've used this approach successfully throughout my life for both my own self-defense, defending others, and teaching others to defend themselves, without money, professionalism, authority, hierarchy, or coercion.

P.S. This intersects with my response to another question on here:
"How can I, as an anarchist, be an effective "leader" (in a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian sense)?"
answered Mar 26, 2012 by AutumnLeavesCascade (9,010 points)
i think the question of how people learn is interesting, and while your example is classically "good" according to anarchist theory (and sounds awesome, also), i do think that there is something to the idea that we can give ourselves up to someone (for a limited time, and in a particular context) if we have decided that they're trustworthy for that context (and always maintaining the ability to revoke it)...
the idea that we should all be equals at all times (i'm not saying you're saying this, ALC) riffs too much on the most boring "feminist relationship" stereotypes...

 i want more ways to be in relationship with people, not fewer.
Yeah I think what I wrote on the other question creates some room for what you're saying hopefully while also allowing for those of us such as myself and perhaps AnarchicSaint's preference as well. Anarchy is not merely one type of relationship...hopefully. Your statement "the idea that we can give ourselves up to someone (for a limited time, and in a particular context) if we have decided that they're trustworthy for that context (and always maintaining the ability to revoke it)..." makes me think of how a surgeon and patient could interact in a less clinically authoritarian way but still with the surgeon basically in some sort of control for a bit, as a surgeon only.
I see the point you're making and yes, training with others and learning through that way can be very effective. But all these well-disciplined, respected, loyal martial artists, they learned because they accepted their teacher as an authoritarian. Way I see it is, it's completely voluntary. You could take your way and if it doesn't work, try going to a dojo/gym. Some people need to be told exactly how to do things. I mean I got extremely good at Muay Thai because my trainer was hard on me but at the same time, he wasn't a 'ruler'. He didn't boss me around or make me feel like less of a person, but he did it to a point where I could understand and accept it. Sometimes you have to put certain political beliefs aside in order to pursue a hobby.

Martial Arts really comes down to respect. I would never join a class where they treated their students like less than human beings. Now if an instructor is respectable and gives the student time, understanding, dedication, etc., then that authoritarian relationship is justifiable.

I think the whole leadership/authority/law aspects of Anarchism are still blurry and more up to the individual. There are times (very few) where authority is justified and if it is consensual and not a commander/soldier type relationship, then I feel as though it's okay... I guess you could also mark that as leadership. There are those who are more experienced and will take initiative and everyone can acknowledge that. I think it really comes down to WHAT they do with the leadership and as long as it is horizontal and is used fairly and all are still equal, then that's alright (imo).

Thing I'm having trouble grasping is hierarchy within a martial arts system. I think it's good to have goals to set. I don't think that because a student has a higher rank that he should be given authority over others, but I'm assuming 'belt/rank based' progression is considered hierarchy.
0 votes
First, it may help to change your vocabulary. Instead of authority, think of discipline, which is something most anarchists and everyone else could definitely use more of if we want to improve ourselves, our fight and our society. And instead of hierarchy, consider it respect for those who have abilities and knowledge you want to emulate.

Second, it's a fundamental fact of life and anarchism that different things are acceptable to different people. While we have to be careful about social programming in situations like this, I see no reason not to take your statement that you love martial arts at face value.

So if you're comfortable with the authoritian and hierarchical parts of the martial arts training you described, then there's no contradiction for you. Some people will not like that kind of power structure and will seek out masters who have a more informal style. Some will not want any type of master all and will prefer self-training or working in groups as an alternative. Other people will not even like that kind of discipline and will prefer to fight from their own intuitive and inchoate forms.

These attitudes and every point between are all compatible with anarchy *FOR THE PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE THEM*. When practiced properly, they may even lead to comparable levels of fighting skill for the individuals they're suited to.
answered Mar 27, 2012 by Sweater Fish (540 points)
Big help. Thank you!
+3 votes

If you like Bakunin:

"Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought. In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the boot-maker."


answered Apr 27, 2015 by Militant (400 points)
+1 vote
As regards to the philosophy of anarchism, yes, there are some problems with the way martial arts is taught. Martial arts instructors generally display rigid authority over their students to the point of rote instruction.

However, if you actually want to learn martial arts, it would not be a bad idea to agree to the submission of a martial arts class, depending on what the teacher is asking of you to do. If you really want to dedicate yourself to something, your going to have to do things you don't want to do, and that could mean showing up for a belt testing hung over.

The plus side to submitting to martial arts authorities is as militants answer implies, martial arts instructors know what they are doing, and martial arts requires a lot of self-discipline and dedication. A few years ago, my friends started trying to do martial arts independently as a group, and it didn't really go anywhere, it felt foolish, because my friends were relatively very inept compared to a martial arts master.
answered Apr 28, 2015 by anonymous
Your response is based on stereotypes of Asian styles that are taught in an American context. Most of the schools are run by authoritarians, so the instruction is authoritarian. There are other styles and other methods.

There's also the fact that going to learn anything from someone else entails a recognition that someone else (or many someones) has more experience than you. You are therefore entering into a voluntary arrangement, and as long as you retain the ability to leave whenever you wish, it's hardly comparable to being in prison.
but "being in prison" is only one of many ways to be in a coercive situation.

i don't think any of us disagree that there are degrees of authoritative behavior, or that authoritative behavior can become authoritarian. it also seems to me that schools are some of the places where that happens most easily and perhaps can be hardest to gauge.

your more recent post was helpful to flesh this out though.
i agree that the recent comment you made was really helpful, as someone who hasn't practiced in a martial arts class in a while, your class seems to be a really good one. The martial arts class i took in the past was gentle but I felt it didn't really help you apply what you learned, and on a certain level you didn't participate because so much of it was just rote form. I remember I expressed that I wasn't actually confident in being able to fight someone (which i thought was the point of a martial arts class) and they just told me to "go to the streets if you want to fight"....

and this question about martial arts and hierarchy is overall a really good one