Two underappreciated facts about self-defense:
- The time for avoidance is before the fight starts. Once it has started, you should abandon any notions of yielding or appeasement, and focus on not losing the fight. To honor this distinction, you must be able to recognize the seeds of violence before they sprout.
- Statistically speaking, your probable attacker does not care about you. It’s nothing personal, really. If someone else had walked into the wrong place at the wrong time, they would have been assaulted instead.
No martial arts training should be required to appreciate these points, which can be derived from basic human empathy. The worst Karate move I ever learned, however, flagrantly disregards both of them. Before examining that inferior technique—and a superior alternative—let’s briefly consider the context in which it is taught.
Whether or not you consider Karate an effective means of physical self-defense, rest assured that most serious Karate students believe in its potential. Nevertheless, Karate authority Gichin Funakoshi insisted that the art should be used defensively, and only then in the gravest circumstances. “There is no first strike in Karate,” and one should “never be easily drawn into a fight,” he famously said.
Tough meets classy
Extracted from their original context, these statements have a strange and detrimental effect on the average American Karate student. They seem to foster a quixotic illusion of knight-errantry: “My Karate is deadly, but fortunately for you, I am too courteous to use it.”
It is when this chivalrous fantasy overpowers a Karateka’s innate sense of empathy, that they are most likely to attempt the worst Karate move ever: uttering the suicidal phrase “I don’t want to fight you.”
Karate World vs. Real World
To the self-absorbed martial artist, saying “I don’t want to fight” represents the epitome of Bushido virtue. It is meant to be heard as “I don’t want to beat you up, but know that I can, and I will unless you back down immediately.”
Disregard that intention, honorable though it may be. What does this statement actually communicate to the potential attacker? Let’s consider it in light of the two self-defense points above:
- “I don’t want to fight.” There is no right time for such words. Either there is no threat, in which case they indicate an escalation, or there is already a threat, in which case they are tardy.
- “I don’t want to fight.” Well, of course not. The potential attacker has already figured you for the loser, or they wouldn’t dare to threaten you in the first place! Anyway, nobody cares what you want!
More direct phrasings, such as “I know Karate,” are hardly any better, for the same reasons. Reciting tough-guy dialogue from Hollywood movies is worse. (I once had a martial arts instructor warn me, after I proposed to knock him over: “I wouldn’t recommend that.”)
Empathy is a Self-Defense Skill
In such circumstances, I would recommend appealing to the potential attacker’s sense of self-interest, rather than your own sense of self-righteousness. The message that embodies this strategy is not “I don’t want to fight with you,” but “You don’t want to fight with me.” It is most effective when delivered non-verbally, and most easily communicated when it is actually true.
There are legal implications to be considered with such a strategy, to be sure. It requires unusual finesse to employ sen sen no sen in the presence of witnesses, without appearing to be the aggressor; even more when executed without physical contact.
Know your limits. And if such an attempt should fail: remember that you don’t need to win the fight, only to avoid losing it.