Self defense is a huge topic and, being a martial arts blog, an appropriate topic for discussion. The topic triggers never ending debates about which 'style' is more effective for self defense, which art will give you the tools to protect yourself more adequately on the 'street', which set of techniques is more effective on the ground, in the air, in the closet, under the covers, in the bathroom, and on and on it goes ad infinitum.
I've been studying this topic for almost 40 years now and, while my views have evolved just as my abilities have, I don't believe the underlying cause and effect have really changed all that much. By the way, I'm only 44 but I can honestly say I remember thinking about the subject in my first days of kindergarten when a girl I had my eye on pushed me down on the playground. That was my first 'awakening', if you will, about the concept of self defense as more than just knowing how to fight.
The topic of self defense can be approached from a variety of angles depending on one's experience, be that martial, life, street, prison or some other experience that offers one the ability to form an opinion on a topic. Of course, what typically follows is a bias based on that belief and any information issuing forth will typically be to support that belief system, which is called 'confirmation bias'. Typical self defense discussions often start and end while sitting on the mat after a class or around the table at the bar and one thing is for sure, everybody has an opinion!
When we talk about self defense the conversation usually starts of with a "what if?" scenario. This sounds something like, "what if you were walking through the Walmart parking lot and somebody tried to steal your...", or, "what if you're leaving the bar and somebody walks up behind you and..."
The scenarios are almost endless and there are a wealth of anecdotes to help cement (or refute) one's bias for or against a particular response to a scenario. What's almost never talked about, however, is what lead up to the 'encounter' and what were the 'pre-incident indicators' that may have lead to the confrontation. This is the part of the discussion that's almost never offered, for a variety of reasons, but the main reason being that very few people consider themselves to be a contributing factor in their own demise when a situation occurs. Its much easier and more comforting to just believe that evil exists and we were just hapless victims of its plan than to consider, even for a moment, that we could have done something to prevent, alter, or at least become aware of an impending event within enough time to make a rational decision as to the best response.
In his book, Meditations on Violence, Sgt. Rory Miller offers his opinion that self defense is "...recovery from stupidity or bad luck, from finding yourself in a position you would have given almost anything to prevent. It is difficult to train for because of the surprise element and because you may be injured before you are aware of the conflict. The critical element is to overcome shock and surprise so that you can act, to "beat the freeze". Self defense is about recovery." He finishes the paragraph with what I believe to be far more important in the grand scheme of things than his belief about what self defense is as it leads one to start asking the question of "how", instead of "what". He says, "The ideal is to prevent the situation. The optimal mindset is often a conditioned response that requires no thought..."
Is self defense recovery from stupidity? In many cases I believe it is (depending on the definition of 'stupidity'). I don't believe, however, that self defense is JUST about recovery from stupidity. Self defense is far more about awareness than it is about what to do once 'shit hits the fan', and awareness leads us to a whole new level of discussion of the "how". I'll save that for another post but, in the meantime, I'll challenge you to try this exercise:
Think up (or write out) 5-10 different 'worst case' scenarios you can imagine finding yourself in. Then imagine what your responses to those scenarios might be. Maybe your response is physical, but it might also be a verbal 'de-escalation'. It could be to use mace or to hit an attacker with your car... and that's part 1. Part 2 of the exercise is to then ask yourself, "what would I have done 3 minutes prior to that situation if I knew, or at least suspected, that it was going to occur?"
I think, if you're anything like me, this exercise will lead to a new way of looking at the concept of self defense. It should at least get you to think about self defense as more than a nice set of techniques or moves to help you vanquish that billiard stick wielding biker who just attacked you at the pool hall or the crack addicted carjacker who is trying to pull you out of your vehicle. All of the preconceived scenarios and predetermined responses we can come up with have nothing on the practice of foreseeing a potential scenario before it happens and then asking, "what could I do (or have done) to have that not happen to me?" I have also recorded a podcast talking about self defense. You can listen to it here... or here...