Martial Arts and Politics: The Big Picture
The latest (dire) global warming report produced by US government scientists is inspiring conversations everywhere. I overheard a particularly interesting discussion between two colleagues earlier this week which focused not so much on the technological or policy measures that would be necessary to deal with rapid climate change, but the sorts of social attitudes would be necessary to support those steps. They were discussing well-funded public relations campaigns, but I must confess that I have (empirically well grounded) doubts as to how effective these sorts of efforts can be. “Confirmation bias” suggests that people are most likely to accept messages that reinforce what they already believe, or what they have already experienced. Long lasting changes in attitude usually emerge from the ground up, and not as a slick advertising campaign. After all, not every advertisement for a product, candidate or social cause is quite as successful as its backers may have hoped.
This is one of the reasons why I am interested in popular culture. It allows one to begin to decipher some of the logic behind larger patterns of political change or stability. Rather than being an escape from the world of politics, I often think of it as the repository of shared attitudes and values which are the raw materials of tomorrow’s innovations. It literally defines the realm of what is imaginable. Whether that is a comforting thought is a different question.
The martial arts may, at first, seemed removed from large scale social or political concerns. Much of our research focuses on identity, embodied experience, history, or the impact of these practices on relatively small communities. All of this is important, but it does not exhaust the significance of the martial arts within modern society. I suspect that many of us study the micro-effects of the martial arts as we are martial arts practitioners ourselves. We are anecdotally aware of their transformative power, so it is only natural that we would want to explore and systematize these insights.
Nevertheless, there is a bigger picture. The social effects of the martial arts stretch far beyond the relatively small and ever shifting group of individuals who are actually training in them at a given point in time. Their representation in the media has a profound effect on how we imagine our world. I also suspect that the interaction between these arts and the political realm are likely to become increasingly significant.
That last proposition may seem far-fetched as we spar, roll or practice on any given night. To understand how we must first come to terms with the economic concept of the “externality.” Simply put, this notion helps to explain “market failures” when (from society’s point of view) too little or too much of a good is provided. While discussions that treat the martial arts as something that can be bought or sold tend to be socially frowned upon, the simple truth is that almost all of us encounter them as a commercial product within an economic marketplace. An externality exists when the individuals who buy and sell a good (that would be us) are not capable of capturing the full benefits (or negative implications) of their market transaction.
A quick illustration may be helpful. Psychologists have noted that moods tend to be “contagious” within a social network. If you are surrounded by individuals who are stressed and unhappy, you are more likely to feel the same way, all else being equal. But if one of your friends is in a particularly good mood, that is likely to have an impact on your mood as well. I suspect that many of my readers can already guess where I am going with this. Individuals who practice the martial arts (or who engage in any form of regular exercise) report increased levels of wellness (measured across a wide variety of dimensions) and lower stress levels. That is precisely why many of these students pay for school membership in the first place.
Yet the “contagious” aspects of mood and lifestyle choices suggest that friends and family members are also reaping some of the benefits of this consumption choice even if they have never taken a single martial arts class. Because their increase in well-being is invisible in a supply/demand, chart it is not taken into account when a teacher decides how many nights of instruction to offer, or a consumer decides how many hours a week to devote to training. The end result is the existence of an externality where, because the full benefits of some people’s martial arts practices are hard to measure, the “good” in question is under-provided.
This is a single, somewhat trivial, example. But the world of the martial arts and combat sports generates dozens of similar externalities’ touching on all sorts of cultural, social and political questions. These externalities are likely to be shaped by the social, market and political forces that regulate the expression of the martial arts in a given place, and as such they vary by country and time period. In some cases we may also find that martial arts practice (like the consumption of any good) has unexpected negative consequences and that they are being over-provided. For instance, one suspects the current culture of traveling long distances for short seminars which is so vital to the financial success of many martial arts schools is doing the planet no favors. That seems like something that is likely to change in the future.
Nor is any of this a particularly new idea, though, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet to formalize these intuitions through the lens of micro-economics. China and Japan both subsidized, promoted and even mandated certain types of martial arts practice in the early 20thcentury, but not because there was a burning need to train middle school students in practical self-defense skills. Rather they realized that an entire complex of other values and “benefits” (fitness, discipline, patriotism, increased militarism) accompanied martial arts training. It was the secondary effects of Guoshu or Budo that drove their consumption. Whether any of this would really “work in the octagon” was not the primary consideration in the promotion of these programs.
Fortunately for us, the violent and unstable years of the 1930s are now in the past. But what about the future? How might the unintended, unpriced, consequences of martial arts practice help us to deal with some of the massive challenges facing modern society? When might some of these externalities take on negative consequences? And what sort of balance are we likely to see between grass roots efforts emerging out of popular culture on the one hand, and coordinated (possibly government backed) information campaigns on the other?
Obviously, such a topic is too big for a single blog post. It could well be the subject of an entire series of books. My goal in this essay is to lay out some unexpected macro-level ways in which the martial arts might help (or inhibit) our attempts to address largescale issues. The following post touches on global warming as a “hot” topic that has been in the news. Yet this basic method of analysis, one that focuses on the externalities of martial arts practice, could easily be applied to any number of social or political issues (some of which I may return to in the future.)
Wabi-Sabi and a Warming Planet
While popular discussions tend to focus on the practical “reality” of the martial arts, or perhaps their history, I suspect that much of their true transformative value lies in the unique aesthetic vision that each art conveys. A certain amount of caution is necessary here as the exact contents of this vision varies from art to art. The cunning of Brazilian Capoeira practitioners can be seen and felt in their practice. It is one part of a set of social survival strategies that is discussed, debated and judged in physical movement. Yet the uniqueness of Brazilian society suggests that this cannot ultimately be reduced to the sorts of “cunning” that one might find in Irish stick fighting, or the “yin power” that is expressed in Chinese martial or ritual performance. Both “yin power” and “cunning” can be understood as aesthetic expressions of cultural meditations on the challenges of survival in often harsh environments. Yet each conveys a distinct set of nuances and insights.
Given the importance of the Japanese martial arts in kicking off the modern exploration of these fighting systems, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that the concept of Wabi-Sabi (usually understood as values related simplicity, impermanence, asymmetry and austerity) has permeated further into the global consciousness that any of these other martial arts related visions. It is not hard to find evidence of the philosophical notions (focusing on the Buddhist insights that all things are impermanent, empty and vessels for suffering) that underpinned this aesthetic style within the Japanese martial arts. One can see it in the simplicity of the traditional judo gi, the austere etiquette of the dojo, and even the way that scrolls or artwork are presented in the school’s tokonoma.
Still, my first encounter with Wabi-Sabi was not mediated by the martial arts. As I teenager I was lucky enough to study with (and work for) Bill Valavanis, who runs the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester NY. It was primarily through the mediums of bonsai, traditional Japanese gardening and stone appreciation that I encountered a set of concepts which amounted to a profound meditation on the nature of existence at a formative time in my own life. Neither martial artists or Bonsai masters can deny the essential truth of existence. All things are impermanent, and all things are incomplete. Within such a philosophical framework it is easy to elevate frugality, simplicity and austerity as the key guiding values of human existence.
One suspects that a profound appreciation for Wab-Sabi arose just as much out of the observation of daily life in early-modern Japan as erudite Buddhist argument. In truth, Japanese life was often harsh, food was scarce, and the material conditions that most people lived under were spartan at best. Japanese houses were (and to a certain extent remain) unheated during the winter, and the hottest days of summer brought their own challenges. Yet students of Japanese history and culture are often amazed by the beautiful material culture that was woven out of these challenging conditions.
The modern West sits at a crossroads. Our social, economic and political systems have rested on the core principle that people should be able to consume as many material goods as they want. And if they cannot achieve this level of consumption now, they have a right to work towards it in the future. It seems unlikely that this situation can continue. Failure to politically address rising sea levels, increased severe weather and the future loss of prime agricultural land to drought would be economically and socially catastrophic. One might think of this worst-case scenario as global warming’s “hard landing.”
But even the best-case, most cooperative, scenarios will eventually require a massive adjustment to practically everyone’s lifestyle within the industrialized West. Short of a miraculous technological innovation that allows us to pull carbon from the atmosphere at will, huge changes in consumer behavior are likely in store. These will influence what we eat, how we travel and where we live. We are likely to see birthrates plummet across the developed world as raising children becomes more expensive. In the long run, cuts in consumer activity married to a dropping, aging, population, suggests that we could see a significant shrinking of major markets. That, in turn, suggests a massive reduction in the rates technological, medical and social change which we have come to expect.
Anyone who has spent enough time in the social sciences knows how difficult forecasting is. Economists love to make predictions. In my field (political science) we try to avoid it whenever possible. The challenges of modeling climate change are well known and much discussed. But they pale next to the sheer impossibility of predicting how people (at either the individual or national level) are likely to respond to this. And given that the scope of climate change (whether we can ensure a relatively “minor” rise of 2 degrees, or if we end up in more of a worst-case scenario) is dependent on the creative and cooperative behavior of such unpredictable actors, I don’t think that anyone can accurately say what the future will be.
Still, we know a few things. Whether we agree to tie our own hands through democratically decided legislation, or allow unmediated market forces and natural processes to do it through a “hard landing,” the average resident of the Western world will be consuming a lot less. Realistic carbon taxes (if instituted) will raise the price of all sorts of inelastic goods (food, transportation, heating) in relatively predictable ways. Drought, sea-level change and a rising demand for energy will do the same things (though in a much less predictable way) through market mechanisms. One way or another, discretionary spending is going to drop. It is hard to say by how much, or when. But it is impossible to believe that this will not have a substantive effect on where and how we live. In short, we are already transitioning from a period of “wanting more” to one of “getting less.”
This brings me back to the Japanese notion of Wabi-Sabi. Within this philosophical vision “freedom” does not originate from one’s ability to escape the bounds of the natural world. Rather, freedom is found as one lives successfully in harmony with it. More often than not in Japanese history, this has taken the form of finding beauty and meaning in the simple, the frugal, the rustic and the sincere.
As a political scientist I worry that the sorts of “diminished expectations” that climate change is already bringing will lead to increased levels of social instability and violence. It is hard to see the current riots in France (the worst since 1968) as anything other than a preview of what could happen in many other places as carbon taxes start to bite, or governments lose the ability to keep up with mounting natural disasters and rising food prices. Some of this will be unavoidable. But our social expectations of a world in which progress is measured in increased consumption is sure to exacerbate such tensions.
The concept of Wabi-Sabi is interesting to me as it has always been more than a set of guidelines for gardening or architecture. It is a remarkably well-developed argument about the benefits of choosing less, of living simply, rather than always pushing for more. The central problem of modern existence is the creation of social and individual meaning. Whatever its drawbacks, the economically focused “American Dream” succeeded in structuring the imaginations, efforts and expectations of generations. It can only be modified or replaced by another set of principles capable of doing the same.
Telling a generation of Americans that due to their carbon footprint they can only buy “tiny homes,” or 500 square foot urban apartments, is a recipe for revolution. But supporting a vision of society where people spend more time having experiences with friends and family rather than working to acquire ever more things to stuff in ever larger houses could be the beginning of a renaissance. Cultivating a deep appreciation for Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic vision, and accepting the fundamental values that lie behind it, could be an important step in making that happen. Indeed, it might prove to be the most important moment of cultural exchange between Japan and the global West.
This is where we return to the martial arts. Sadly, one cannot really gain an understanding of these concepts (let alone cultivate a new set of values) simply by reading blog posts. In my experience Wabi-Sabi is a set of values that must be physically experienced to be fully appreciated. My small appreciation for these values came from hours spent working in an arboretum as a teenager, time spent living in Japan as a young adult, and countless hours invested in the training hall.
Sadly, Bonsai is not a not a very popular hobby in the United States. But the martial arts are. They are studied by children and adults in a wide variety of settings. More importantly, they are projected, appreciated and debated through our media. While only a minority of individuals practice them, there are very few people who don’t have some sort of expectations about, or understanding of, the Asian martial arts. This makes them an important vector to promote a new set of values as society enters an era of consuming less but appreciate more.
As intriguing as this possibility is, it would still require a massive effort. Indeed, this is where political intervention or well-funded informational campaigns might enter the picture. In large part the martial arts have succeeded in the West as they have been adapted to reflect modern Western values, rather than the full complexity of, say, Chinese or Japanese culture. Yet the perpetual search for authenticity within these communities (and perhaps the new or exotic by those who are curious about them), might provide an opening to increasingly bring notions like Wabi-Sabi to the forefront of public discussions of certain martial arts. Equally helpful would be public relations campaigns linking these values to fashionable changes going on in other areas of popular culture, health, architecture or diet. Again, physically enacting such values, and experiencing them in multiple realms of life, is a necessary precondition for their acceptance.
One might object, correctly, that in focusing on the philosophical or aesthetic dimension of the martial arts we lose sight of their “true purpose.” Worse yet, we risk turning them into purely didactic, rather than practical, exercise. Certainly, care is necessary. Yet it is worth remembering that communities and nations have always been acutely aware of the externalities that the martial arts produce. Throughout the 19thand 20thcentury states were generally much more interested in the “supplementary” side effects of martial practice than the details of what was actually taught in the training hall. Acknowledging this fact is not “politicizing” the martial arts. They have been political all along. The real challenge facing us, both as scholars and practitioners, is to understand the full social implications of what we are already doing. Only then can we ask the difficult questions about what will best safeguard the psychological well-being and physical safety of our students as we move into an uncertain future.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read this piece on gender in martial arts training.