I am in a particularly creative mood, so I’ll write a bit about something I discussed in a recent public debate in NYC on Political Correctness: Martial arts has greatly evolved and moved forward, including many traditional ones. American political beliefs and conversation, however, have greatly devolved and moved backwards. They have literally undergone the opposite effect, and taken the opposite journey.
There are reasons for this, and Bruce Lee provides a beautiful analogy, even a practical explanation, as to why.
The reasons TMA (traditional martial arts) needed to desegregate and talk to each other was the same reason we need different TPIs (traditional platform ideologies, if I may coin a new acronym here) to get out of their echo chambers and talk to each other: to evolve, to refine, to adapt.
MMA, of which Lee was arguably the first true pioneer, was a living laboratory for these things to occur. Exchange Spaces within universities will also allow this to occur. Community engagement and alternative discussion platforms will allow this to occur. Americans talking to Americans will allow this to occur.
Sifu Lee’s first Dojo in Seattle was an Exchange Space. A place where different ideas, approaches and techniques could learn, adapt, refine and explore better ways within the martial arts. And eventually, most people — first in America, then around the world — were very receptive to this concept. It is now taken for granted. But it was initially opposed. Not only by traditional martial artists, but by many of the Chinese masters and leaders of the day.
Just as the elders and guardians of the traditional Chinese arts opposed Bruce Lee for opening up this exchange with “foreigners” in the West, accusing him of committing “heresy” by trying to create this laboratory, so too will the guardians of various Ideology-based belief systems — leftists, “die-hard” conservatives, orthodox libertarians — oppose the heresy of refining and adapting our own ideologies through the living laboratory of Americans talking to Americans.
Lee was attacked, laughed at, threatened and opposed for trying to create a reality-based approach over a traditional, fixed, static one. Similarly, this routinely happens to people advocating a reality-based approach to things like police reform and BLM, or to healthcare, to teachers unions and our static education system, or to drug laws and social safety nets, or the idea of allowing the States and cities to be living laboratories for bottom-up evolution and innovation. Such attempts will make enemies from the die-hard left and right alike, and by various guardians of the status quo.
People don’t like change. They don’t like having to adapt and refine and evolve. They often respond with hostility to those who challenge their echo chambers and question their “sacred traditions” (the right does it with Reagan conservatism; the left does it with Saul Alinski, Herbert Marcuse, or Derrick Bell; Lee’s enemies did it with TMAs).
The interesting thing is, Lee responded by asking and allowing people to fight him. He made people step up and engage in the reality-based process. He is the ultimate physical example of forcing people out of their Safe Space. He brought millions of people out of their echo chambers.
We can still learn from Bruce Lee, even decades after his death. We can break the echo chambers that are keeping this country in a suffocating death grip. We can open the doors of dialogue to Americans from all walks of life. We can create Exchange Spaces, living laboratories of this beautiful process. We can show people, organizations, and entire movements, the merits of the reality-based approach. We can also challenge those who oppose us, by asking them to step up. Those within groups like Antifa or the Tea Party who often demonize you for even questioning the orthodoxy of Traditional Platform Ideologies (TPI).
We need to pressure these people to fight us. Not with fists or violence, but with real time discussion.
This is not to say that debate is usually the answer. Discussion is. Like martial arts, Jujitsu will often prevail: most people are best reached by non-combative dialogue, rather than blunt force. Jujitsu means “Gentle Art,” and while extremely brutal on the battlefield, was a wonderful form of exchange, humility and self-improvement in the dojo. Gene LeBell brought Judo ( “the Gentle Way,” a philosophical and technical offspring of traditional Jujitsu, via Jigoro Kano), as well as ground fighting, into Bruce Lee’s toolkit.
Likewise, we must bring moral psychology and emotionally effective communication into ours. Just as BJJ is now extremely popular, enjoyable, and considered essential for any fighter, so too can better forms of Socratic and applied psychology methods become similarly appreciated by our intellectual and political fighters. We’re currently far, far from this ideal. We’re still in a swamp of fixed ideology and echo chambers, but we should aim high. We shouldn’t accept the status quo. Would Bruce Lee have done this? Unlikely.
Most who practiced TMA at the time did not step out of their echo chamber and fight in a resistive, real world environment. Most who practice TPI today talk lots of trash against those outside their echo chamber, but rarely step outside of it. They rarely engage people in real time, off of Facebook and Twitter.
We must challenge those who zealously oppose the idea of real exchange and dialogue. Not to literally fight, but to engage and debate. To step into the Octagon of reality based conversation, and leave their filter bubble or safe space. Ultimately, and most importantly, we must get people to challenge themselves.
Beautiful things will follow. We can help start movements to take political discussion and thinking to the next level.
It is in Bruce Lee’s spirit and approach — and his unmatched combination of physical, mental and intellectual diligence — that we can find inspiration for this project. And for many things in life to come.
I feel that an afterword to this article would be helpful for others who wish to follow this line of thought, especially for those with martial arts, skepticism or science backgrounds. Much of my thought process in this article, and in similar writings, podcast discussions and debates of mine, is likely owed in some measure to other thinkers and martial artists rubbing off on me over the years in their works and conversations. Science and martial arts are two things I’ve loved and engaged in early on as a kid, but I didn’t realize for quite some time just how much beautiful interplay there is between these two human pursuits of knowledge and self-improvement. I’ve certainly long understood the concept of reality-based combat. There’s a strong link between reality-based thinking and adaptability, and the practicality of fighting systems; various levels of instruction and cross-training in military combatives of different sorts helped drill this connection into my mind long ago. But immersion within the world of science and skepticism is what has most enriched my metaphorical lexicon in this area.
The philosopher and BJJ practitioner Peter Boghossian and his instructor (and pioneer of early MMA realism within gyms) Matt Thornton, also a skeptic and advocate of science and reason, employ this analogy quite a bit, including in talks with skeptics and college students. At one point, Thornton and Boghossian discussed skepticism and critical thinking — and its connection to grappling and JuJitsu — at Thronton’s dojo in Portland, then rolled around on the mat. The two of them also had a recent conversationon video about the Portland train stabbing, and how we can decide how to best react, intervene and assist the vulnerable in such situations, in the safest and most realistic way possible. “So what is there to say about such a terrible event?” he writes in his blog. “The most productive thing we can do is draw lessons from these incidents that help keep those we love safer.”
Sam Harris, who also practices martial arts and loves Brazilian JuJitsu, ponders, writes and talks about this quite a bit, in particular with Joe Rogan. Thornton’s Martial Arts Scientists is a video podcast that highlight the process of reality-based combat and learning, as well as the humility and ongoing refinement within martial arts that underscores the spirit behind science. In 2013, skeptics and martial artists collaborated at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) on this subject. There is a wonderful interplay — and analogy — between the process of reality-based martial arts, and skepticism. As people in both worlds are discussing more and more, it is something that highlights Carl Sagan’s message of skepticism and scientific attitudes towards life itself.