Self-Defense is Not About Eliminating Risk
09.15.17 by Amy Jones
When we talk about our approach to self-defense, one of the ways we explain it is to say that we don’t give people a bunch of rules to follow. Today I’m going to unpack that idea a little bit.
First of all, if I were to give you a rule, the chances of it being applicable to your life are pretty small. For example, one of the “rules” that well-meaning people will often tell you is to be careful getting into your car – make sure there’s nobody lurking in the back seat, or under the car.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t currently own a car. So that’s a rule that’s useless to me.
If I did own a car, I could look underneath it and in the back seats every single time I got into it, and the chances are fairly high that there would literally never be anyone there. The risk is very low. And that gets me to the second reason we don’t bother with rules.* The rule-givers are trying to sell you on the idea that if you just follow all of their rules, you’ll eliminate all risk of being a victim of violence.
That’s a very compelling idea, one that plenty of folks are eager to embrace. It’s a pretty easy sell, in other words. But here’s the thing: it’s not actually possible to eliminate all risk from your life. If you follow all of the rules that the well-meaning rulemakers give you, you’ll find your movements more and more constrained – never going outside after dark, never going to new places, never meeting new people. And you may STILL find yourself a victim of violence. Most of these rules end up being about strangers – and of course, most violence is perpetrated by people known to the victim.
Life is risk, and risks are part of what make life exciting. In a very literal sense, risks are growth opportunities. So instead of giving people rules and an illusion of safety, we help people learn to realistically assess and decide for themselves what risks are worth taking. We give them accurate information about the realities of violence (for example, that violence from strangers is relatively rare). We give them tools to move through their worlds with confidence, which both makes it less likely that they’ll be targeted, and enables them to be more aware of their own internal signals that something might be wrong. And we talk about ways they can mitigate the risks they choose to take.
One of the criticisms of self-defense training is that it can be victim-blaming. As empowerment self-defense instructors, we work pretty hard to make it clear that we’re not about blaming anyone but the perpetrator of violence for their behavior. When you think about self-defense as mindfully choosing the risks you take, it becomes more clear that we’re talking about ways you can enhance your safety without putting the responsibility on the defender for someone else’s actions.
One of the workshops we’ve started teaching this year is Self-Defense and Bystander Intervention. We’ve always taught intervention as part of our self-defense curriculum, but this workshop expands on the content and focuses on it more explicitly than our ‘standard’ empowerment self-defense workshops. One of the repercussions of the decision to intervene in a potentially violent situation is that it elevates one’s own risk. It’s not our place to tell anyone whether they should intervene in a situation they’re witnessing, but it’s our hope that at least some folks will weigh that risk and decide that it’s worth it, at least some of the time.
*We do have one rule, and even it is more a strong encouragement rather than a rule. Here it is: don’t go to a second, more private location with someone who you know means you harm. Statistically, your situation will not be improved – the new location will be more isolated, less familiar to you, and more familiar to your assailant. If you’re going to choose a moment to fight, the moment right after someone says, “come with me” is a really good choice.