Violence, Irish Gypsies And Vitriol

violence

“It’s a step backwards”, said Dr. Steve Parnis, vice-President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), “it’s something you would expect from the 19th century.”

This statement came amidst an AMA call to ban all combat sports for individuals under 18, including removing them from the olympics. “But the AMA’s bottom line is that we are there to promote Australia’s health, and as long as these sports exist you will continue to have young people both men and women who will suffer irreversible injury because the sport is being carried out as it is designed to be.” (ABC News, 2015)

The AMA’s position (AMA 2015) on combat sports, aside from making some poorly considered generalisations regarding the nature of combat sports, is easy to understand.  Violence hurts people; combat sports utilise violence; we oppose hurting people; ergo, we oppose combat sports.

It seems reasonable, but like many reasonable things, it’s wrong.

It’s the same level of thinking that would suggest an abstinence only sex education program for teenagers; and it promises to be equally ineffective

This kind of intuition needs to be treated with suspicion.  It’s the same level of thinking that would suggest an abstinence only sex education program for teenagers; and it promises to be equally ineffective. The instinct toward violence is as basic and fundamental to the human condition as the sex drive, so it follows that we ought to teach people how to deal with it, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

The AMA’s position statement fails to cite a single piece of research, and for good reason; the research paints a contradictory picture.  Many papers suggest that not only do combat sports provide a wide range of benefits to practitioners; they may very well reduce violence.

Combat Sports and Violence

One study showed that teaching traditional martial arts, namely a form of Kempo, to juveniles yielded several improvements, including decreased resistance to rules, reduced impulsiveness, and more appropriate social behaviour (Zivin et al, 2001).

Past research has mostly pointed in the direction of the appearance of positive effects, going from a higher level of self-regulation and an increased psychological well-being, to a decreased violence level among its participants.

More persuasively, a comprehensive overview published in 2010 reviewed 27 studies of the effects of martial arts, commenting “Past research has mostly pointed in the direction of the appearance of positive effects, going from a higher level of self-regulation and an increased psychological well-being, to a decreased violence level among its participants.” In fairness, the researchers went on, “Nevertheless, some contrasting images have been found, since a few studies reported negative outcomes as a result of martial arts involvement, such as an increased antisocial behaviour” (Vertonghen and Theeboom, 2010).

In the manual on ‘Combat Sports Medicine’, the authors review of the research noted, “Martial artists do not start their studies as more aggressive than the average person, and become less so as they continue their study” (Kordi et al, 2009).

More specifically, generalising about all ‘combat sports’ is far too simplistic.  A heavily sport focussed ‘Tae Kwon Do’, complete with heavy padding and strict rules, and the Israeli Defense Forces’ ‘Krav Maga’, focussed on survival in realistic combat scenarios, are two completely different disciplines with totally different behaviour profiles.

To this end, a 2014 study stratified by martial art, showed decreased levels of aggression amongst those practicing marital arts compared to their peers who did not train in martial arts, but also revealed the lowest levels of aggression amongst those who train in Jiu Jitsu (Kusnierz 2014).

aggression bjj

Notably, the highest levels of aggression occurred amongst those who do not train in any martial art.

Notably, the highest levels of aggression occurred amongst those who do not train in any martial art.

Despite the small number of dissenting studies, it seems the evidence for a net positive effect of combat sports is significant, particularly when viewed at a population level.  But the AMA’s statement was addressed at the health of the individuals competing; what of them?

Combat Cheerleading?

The SUN cohort study followed 14,000 individuals across Universities in Spain, competing in a wide range of activities over a period of 6 years.  Activities covered extending from martial arts to skiing, soccer to sailing, gymnastics to gardening (Pons-Villanueva et al, 2009).

The highest risk of harm was found in soccer, followed by skiing, athletics and running.  For men in the study, martial arts ranked as one of the safest activities, right alongside gardening. For women it had a slightly higher rate of injury, but still less than that associated with using a stationary cycle.

…martial arts ranked as one of the safest activities, right alongside gardening.

Similarly, a 2012 study on concussions amongst US high school athletes in 20 different sports, including wrestling (a combat sport), found the highest rate of concussion amongst football, followed by boys’ ice hockey and then boys’ lacrosse (Marar et al, 2012). Wrestling ranked as safer than boys’ basketball, girls’ soccer and cheerleading.

Wrestling ranked as safer than boys’ basketball, girls’ soccer and cheerleading.

I Love Irish Travellers

I recently suggested to my wife that we become Irish Travellers, or Irish Gypsies as they’re sometimes known. She declined.  Nonetheless, my enthusiasm for some aspects of their way of life remains undeterred, and one of those ‘ways’ is their approach to violence.

They settle disputes with a ‘straightener'; a regulated, usually refereed fight, after which the disagreement is considered settled.  During these disputes, order and a safe degree of physical harm are ensured by the referee and viewing group in general.

It’s violent, but it’s controlled.  In truth, I don’t get carried away with this.  There’s evidence that domestic violence occurs at higher rates amongst Irish travellers and settling disputes without a ‘straightener’ remains preferable, so I won’t risk inappropriately glorifying their culture around violence, but it does provide a segway to conclusion…

There are risks inherent in a nanny state, one of which is that the culture the state is attempting to impart is too far removed from the human condition to ‘take’.  I believe that dealing with anger and the instinct to physical aggression is one area that this holds true.  These tendencies and urges are core to the human experience, particularly the male-human experience, and learning constructive ways to deal with them is essential.

The AMA believes they are serving to help create a less violent society by their position statement, but they are clearly mistaken. A culture that acknowledges aggressive instincts as a reality, and seeks to anticipate them, control them, and even greater – use them to positive effect, is far likelier to succeed that one which eschews them completely.

For the male of our species in particular, violence is something they are, like it or not, bred for.  If the choice is between complete emasculation of males, a head-in-the-sand approach to the realities of human aggression, or the cultivation of healthy self control in the face of aggression, I choose the latter every time.

A step backwards indeed.

 

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