Self defense training means many things:
It is the moral imperative we use to draw a line between predatory and “civilized” use of force: “I will only fire in self defense.”
It is the legal rule we use to judge whether or not that use of force is a crime: “The defendant claims to have acted in self defense.”
It’s a catchall term used to describe physical training for such activities: “I’m taking a self defense class.”
It can also refer to the unarmed techniques learned there: “If someone comes after me I’ll use self defense training on him.”
It means many things—and this vague imprecision is exactly why it is useless for our needs in self defense training to do violence by hand.
The moral imperative and the legal rule are fine for what they do—one informs the decision process before the fact and the other helps society figure out how it feels about it after the fact. It is the carrying over of the term to describe physical training and technique that is harmful.
Words mean things. A single word can connote entire constellations of meaning, in varying shades and intensities.
When it comes to self defense training for physical action, we must choose the words we use to describe that action very carefully; the more direct and concrete, the better. We need the words to conjure up a clear vision of that action that has you acting decisively.
“Self defense” as a descriptor for hand-to-hand combat is unfortunately vague. It fails because it says nothing about the other guy, or you doing anything to him. It mentions you, and protecting you. And that’s it. “Self defense” does not describe any direct action.
The popular narrative looks no further than the attacker/defender dichotomy.
If you’re participating in self defense training and doing self defense, you’re automatically accepting the role of the defender.
In criminal violence, attackers are usually the “bad guys” and defenders the “good guys.” No sane, social person wants to be a bad guy—we all want to be the good guy. We want to have a good reason for doing what we must and be in the right after the fact. So we’ve picked sides. We venerate the doughty defender and vilify the animal attacker.
And in doing so we put our blinders on.
Most videos of criminal violence involve an attacker savaging a victim. Since we can’t identify with the attacker, we see ourselves as the guy on the ground getting stomped, stabbed, shot, whatever’s happening to him at the moment. We then desperately try to come up with a plan to prevent those things from happening, all the while ignoring what the bad guy’s doing.
This is training for second place.
And all because we picked a role with the language we chose to describe our actions.
It is far more useful to replace the attacker/defender dichotomy with the idea of winners and losers. In every successful use of violence, there will be at least one winner and one loser. Instead of identifying with the loser and looking to them for answers, we need to figure out what the winner is doing. Why did he win? How can I do what he did? What mistakes did he make? How can I improve on his process?
Of course, we have to step outside what is socially acceptable to see it from this perspective. No one wants to venerate the bad guys or take on the mantle of the evil-doer. But when you stop painting black hats and white hats on the people in the situation and look purely at the mechanics of success in violence it becomes clear that it is easier to win than to fulfill the various needs of self defense.
Words dictate how we think, and how we think directly dictates how we move.
Don’t “defend yourself.” Hurt him.
Don’t participate in “self defense training.” Practice using violence as a survival tool.
Leave self defense where it’s best suited, in the realm of ideas, where it bookends the act of violence as the moral imperative to not use force needlessly and for legal consideration after the fact.
That’s why I don’t do, practice or teach “self defense.” I’ve spent my career figuring out why the winners win in violence and how to teach anyone who’ll listen how to do what they do.
In hand-to-hand violence, defense gets you killed. Hurting people gets you home.
The difference starts with mere words.