Monday 16 January 2012

Martial Arts, Group Identity and the Self

Oh how I love to start with a rant! So buckle up and let’s go!

It appears to me that we are living in an ever fragmenting social world, a world where people dip into fads and friendships with a speed that baffles me. A world where one is judged by the number of digital 'friends' one has, not the quality of friends you've invested in. Where many believe it is their right to their fifteen minutes of fame, no matter how excruciatingly bad, mediocre or mundane they are. A place where cyber-warriors prowl the ether, mocking, taunting and hiding behind the shield of their monitors, the only mat they come close to doing combat on is under their mouse. So is it just me or has superficiality become the new sexy? It is the dawning of the Superficial Self! All nod approvingly, get bored and then wander off to find something shiny. Two points here: where is their group identity and who gave it to them? Positive group identity is the single most important topic to be aware of in our role of older martial artists. Why? Well read on…

Firstly, and have a think about this, we can see that it’s true that we have multiple group identities and we switch between them in such a non-reflective manner as to believe that this seamlessness is our ‘operating’ self. We are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, workmates, Shotokan, Kyokushin Budokai, or Kung Fu practitioners. You can fill in whatever group identity you want from your own experiences. Think about it, groups are so important we stigmatise by them. We treat people we don’t like as ‘Others’ and we linguistically branded as socially less able. If you want to dominate someone verbally you draw a link between them and any particular social group that is seen as unappealing. So with just the right tonal quality, perhaps a sneer, you can cut someone down: ‘What do you know? You’re just a [fill in appropriate group].’ Everyone reading this will have heard this and in all probability done it themselves, even secretly in their head.

It’s human nature to elevate our own group and; via social group osmosis, we absorb and then project the positives of our chosen group. By contrast we project onto the rival group(s) all the crap negative characteristics of that group. On ourselves we claim higher social worth and by de facto they are of lower social worth. This is one of the ways we feel good about ourselves. Sometimes, if a group is dominant and they continually put another group down for long enough, then perhaps that negativity will stick, they then have the double bonus of feeling superior to the individual/group and getting them to internalise (and believe) all the negative crap they’ve heaped on them. Unfortunately, it’s always happened and always will – be aware of that and things get easier to understand.

Above is the basis for stereotypical behaviour and the cause of many our problems. This is because group identity (We-image) becomes self identity (I-image). Watch any football match to see this, not the players, but watch the fans. Watch them groan when their team plays bad, or rise and cheer when their team plays good. In particular watch them afterwards, watch the winners leave the stadium singing and hands held triumphant. Now gaze at the losers, walking dejected with heads down. Think about it for a second, none of the fans – winner and losers - played on the pitch! They were not active participants and yet they act like they were. This is the power of group identity. Your team wins and you feel like a winner, if it loses then you feel like crap! For an in-depth look as to what physiologically happens when you win or lose, then check out Kemper’s (1990) ‘Dominance and Eminence’ theory, details below.

Positive Group Image in the Martial Arts
If we look at the group identity and image of martial arts groups, they are basically divided into two modes of perception. Firstly, how the non-martial artists perceive the group and secondly, how other martial artists perceive the group. Let’s be childish and juxtapose two groups together. In the blue corner we have Tai Chi and in the red corner we have Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). What are your immediate reactions to these two systems? Obviously that will depend on whether you practice a martial art or not. If you don’t, then how are each of the two martial arts portrayed in the media? Is Tai Chi for old people and MMA for young bucks? Both of these martial arts are ‘famous’ enough to be in our Collective Unconscious. If you practice a martial art it may depend on what you want from martial arts. So some martial artists may state that the word martial means ‘warlike’ and therefore all martial arts should have a basis in pragmatism. I know that many ‘traditional’ martial artists loathe MMA and feel that it is a step backward and has no budo. Likewise, many MMA students feel at ‘traditional’ martial arts simply do not work, or take far too long to learn to be effective. And there is without a doubt an element of truth in this – but only if you look at it as a tool to defend yourself or beat people up.

But when we add the word ‘Dō’ (Way) then the image of martial arts changes; its symbolism now takes you off in a different direction. Now we have a martial art that goes beyond merely teaching people to fight, it now offers a path, a modus operandi to run one’s life. However, how many people are aware of this? How many instructors push this? More than that, how many people in today’s low attention span days are prepared to invest in a martial art to this extent? Honest answer, not many. But the martial arts, when taught right, can offer so much more than a simple sport. As I like to say to my students, if you’re serious then it becomes a lifestyle choice and not a leisure pursuit. As older martial artists we have the life experience to see how important a Dō is as a guiding superego. (Oi! I hear you cry. Make your mind up! Is it Jungian or Freudian psychology we’re following here! Well it’s my Blog so it’s a smorgasbord of flavours I like!) I personally have seen how young people who have no attachments continue that into their adult life. Many people today are continually browsing to find a religion, culture or, in reality, a group that values them and more importantly gives them a Dō. They want a positive group that will filter down to a positive self and will surround themselves with significant others that will reinforce the group charisma. They’re looking to fill their perceived gaps, like two pieces of a jigsaw fitting together. Don’t believe me? Check out the ‘self help’ section in your local bookshop, in most cases it covers a lot more space than the science or medical section.

As herd animals (Nietzsche, but see also Kierkegaard or Simmel), we instinctively want to surround ourselves with those that will reinforce our chosen self-image. Goffman (1963); though speaking about disabled people, came up with two cracking terms, the ‘own’ and the ‘wise’. Simply put the ‘own’ are those people who are directly associated with our group and do what we do. So subjectively it can be looked at like a reverse pyramid: in my case Kyokushin Budokai before generic karate before martial arts before sports/philosophy. Each section getting larger as it moves away from us. The other term, the ‘wise’, are those that are connected to our group, but not actual practitioners. For example the long suffering wives, husbands or parents that support, but do not do martial arts. This is one example how our group identity ‘spills’ out further that the core ‘own’ group itself and can have a direct and indirect impact on how the larger society perceives us. So be nice to your ‘wise’! And yes you can apply this to pretty much anything that involves human activity!

There are enough martial arts out there to cater for everyone’s needs. After all we don’t all drive the same car. One of the advantages of being somewhat older than the younger members of our chosen martial art is that we have a greater choice of life experiences with which to aid any decision making processes that are required for solutions to problems, or as an aid in general. With a greater understanding of group ‘we’ image and the link between self ‘I’ image and the broader link with everyone else out there, we can patiently drive forward our positive imagery and symbolism. Because we now know the larger influences the smaller and the smaller influences the larger. There’s such symmetry in the Universe if we slow down enough to see it!

Oh great… finish on a New Age Christmas cracker euphemism! And it was going so well up till then!

Kemper, Theodore D. (1990) Social Structure and Testosterone: explorations in the socio-bio-social chain. Rutgers University Press: New Jersey.

Goffman, Erving. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

No comments:

Post a Comment