Sean Treanor’s article on the Bullshido phenomenon raises some important questions…
Martial arts practice in America is entirely unregulated. There is no central body that issues standards, no set of accepted practices, no communication between different styles. State and local governments have nothing to say about who is and isn’t a martial artist. After all, consumers are free to make their own decisions.
Unfortunately, it can be very hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality when studying an ancient, esoteric and exotic discipline. Not many people have any idea what martial arts training should consist of. There is almost no agreement within the martial arts establishment over what is effective training and what is not.
Investigation is expensive and the market is too small to attract much media attention, aside from cinematic mythmaking. The mainstream martial arts magazines have never made investigative journalism part of their repertoire. George Dillman, the mental KO king was Black Belt Magazine’s instructor of the year in 1997. There is simply no money in exposing these martial arts entrepreneurs. Some people, however, are willing to do it for free.
Bullshido.com…was set up in 2002 for just that purpose. Bullshido tries to use crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism to investigate and expose the worst of the martial arts phonies. Its founding goal was to be “a virtual meeting place and sounding board for a grass roots movement to restore ethics and realism to systems shrouded in misinformation and irrational mysticism.”
Ten moderators who review its 500 to 1,000 daily posts police this faceless mob. They seem to believe that those moderators are best who moderate least. “We don’t pre-screen our comments,” says Samuel Browning, one of the site’s attorneys. “We don’t have an intelligence test for our comments.”
I have previously described the world of commercial martial arts instruction as a market for lemons. Now, I would like to examine the limits of that analogy.
If the potential buyers of a used car are unable to immediately assess its condition, they nevertheless agree on its ideal characteristics: functioning brakes, smooth shifting, no leaking fluids, and so on. No such agreement exists across the broad spectrum of the world’s martial arts.
This conflict is not a result of fraudulent and under-qualified teachers; quite the contrary, it is driven from the demand side. The majority of martial arts consumers in the United States are irrefutably content with an art that just “doesn’t work,” by Wikipedia standards.
Instead of addressing the underlying issues—legitimate differences in training goals and values—the Bullshido mindset specializes in penny-ante skepticism of lineage credentials and historical claims. At this task, they are a success: they can tell you whether Sensei Bobby Joe really worked as a soldier of fortune in the Central American jungle, or if he truly received a teaching certificate from an unnamed Shaolin monk. (The answer is no.)
With respect to concrete martial skills, and the ability to teach them, their suspects are deemed guilty until proven innocent by YouTube—the kind of populist “reasoning” that would make any legitimate researcher blush.
The beneficiary of these investigations is less clear. Surely it is not the student who voluntarily signed up for Oriental fantasy role-play. Yes, a few of those will be shamed into departing their chosen McDojo, but their embarrassment leaves them no better equipped to search for superior alternatives. Here there is a thin line between exposing victims in the name of justice, and creating them for sport (and profit).
Through its zeal to punish wrongdoers, the Bullshido mindset holds its supposed audience—the inexperienced student—in thinly veiled contempt. Its average product reads more like taunts scribbled on a UFC bathroom stall than an issue of Consumer Reports, with a level of violent fanaticism rivaling the worst martial arts cults.
If all McDojos were somehow wiped off the face of the Earth today: Hollywood would recharter them, charlatans would restaff them, immature students would patronize them, and the equally childish Bullshido mob would ecstatically debunk them. In other words, everyone would find their satisfaction. Personally, I see no problem to be solved.