Recently, I was interviewed on a couple of radio shows for the BBC to talk about Krav Maga. Members of Parliament (and their staff) have been offered Krav Maga training in the wake of the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. Naturally enough, the editors of the shows wanted to do a short piece on what Krav Maga is, and what kind of training the MPs might have been offered. By their nature, such interviews are short affairs (around 3-5 minutes), so the opportunity to give detailed answers is limited. But, the questions were interesting and worth elaborating upon more fully here, largely because I’ve had quite a number of emails since from members of the public saying how interesting they found the interviews, and could I give more information. So, in the next four posts, I’ll deal with the more interesting questions: (1) why is Krav Maga different to other martial arts; (2) Do I really need to learn self-defence? (3) Isn’t Krav Maga just scare-mongering?; (4) What would MPs have learned in just 3 hours?

In this post I will address the second question of ‘Do I really need to learn self-defence?’ I was posed this question in a recent interview on BBC radio in something like the following form: Sure, MPs and other public figures might be singled out for violent attack by severely disgruntled, or ill, members of the public, and such training might be useful for them, but I’m not a high-profile public figure, I don’t go to dodgy places, and I don’t go around upsetting people, so my chances of being attacked are negligible. If that’s the case, why do I need such training?

The first point is, of course, the empirical one of whether the chances of being the victim of violence is in fact negligible, even if you are not frequenting volatile areas, and you don’t go around winding people up. There are lots of statistics available about violent attacks and their frequency; too many to review. Some point to overall rises and dips in violent crime. These, obviously, depend on geographical location and other factors. Others point to overall drops in crime.

Other surveys point to things like the fear of violence that people feel, regardless of whether they are actually at greater risk of being a victim of violence or not. Sorting out an accurate picture from all of these different surveys and reports can be extremely difficult. But, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that your chances of being subject to a violent attack are indeed pretty low. Does it follow that you should be unconcerned about being the victim of a violent incident, and not take active steps to prepare for it? I do not think it follows in this way.

The fact that our chances are small does not mean they are zero. What we often play in this kind of case is a cost-benefit style game. Does the cost of protecting ourselves outweigh the benefit of doing so? If the cost is very high, and the benefit almost non-existent, then we would indeed be irrational (at least in one sense) of pursuing that line of action. Like many people I moan about the queues at airport security; those endless lines, having to remove your shoes, belt, coat, metal items, and undergoing searches of your person and hand luggage. They seem like a lot of time wasted for what, actually, is a very negligible risk (that there will actually be some kind of terrorist attempt to take down the plane that I happen to be flying on). But, I would wager that if we were given the option of two identical flights, one with the security checks, and one without (maybe even with a reduced cost of the flight itself), the queues at the latter would be very short. Some people may indeed see flying without security checks as a negligible risk, but I hazard a guess that most of us would weigh the inconvenience against the potential (dis-) benefit, and adjudge the balance in a positive way (though we might still want to revise exactly what and how security checks are done so that they are efficient and effective).

The same with home insurance. The chances of your house actually burning down are pretty small. Yet, it happens to some people. How many of us would actually choose not to insure our homes. The price of the premiums often seem exorbitant, but compared with the catastrophic economic loss if our number did come up makes it seem like a sensible and rational choice to pay the premium. We feel less content to gamble with our lives and homes, literally.

I made the point to my interviewer that we do this regularly with, for example, skills like swimming. I, like many others, can swim but not to what we might consider “performance” standards (not as a club swimmer or anything so practiced). I have no interest in swimming as a sport or pastime activity. If truth be told, I don’t really like the water. But, it’s exactly for this reason that I learned to swim (and for many parents why they send their kids to swimming lessons), because it struck me, even as a child, that it was a really useful skill to have. Not only does it make beach holidays more pleasant because I can join in with family fun, but if I fall into water inadvertently, then I stand a reasonable chance of making it to safety. That’s not a failsafe – there could easily be conditions where no swimmer would make it to safety however good they were, and there may be conditions where had my swimming ability been better than it is, then it would have saved me, but my mediocre skills are insufficient. But, for the accidents I’m most likely to face, it is likely to be enough, and I didn’t invest a huge amount in gaining and maintaining that skill. An irrational fear? That doesn’t seem obvious.

The same is true of self-defence training, in my view. Learning the tools of effective self-defence is just another skill like swimming. You may never need it, and hopefully you won’t. But, as the saying goes, it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. This is because the potential loss is immense, and the sacrifice of a couple of hours a week is pretty negligible in comparison, even factoring in a low level of probability. Violence is ugly and brutal, and it changes people’s lives forever.

If you’re pretty sensible and don’t go around upsetting people, then your level of risk is decreased even further. But, for many people, having an understanding of what it is about their own behaviour that might trigger the disposition in others to select them as a target for violence is, sadly, rather undeveloped. We all have the ability to act like a dick (I know I do at times for sure!). If you have that sensitivity and understanding, more power to you. But, one of the crucial things a good self-defence system should impart is that very understanding.

One of the things I found most telling about this question was that it was a man asking it (and giving his view). It betrays, I think, a male bias in assumptions about violence. Perhaps because of the male ego, many men think they’re adequately equipped to “handle” themselves in potentially violent situations or to avoid them because they’re switched on and have the ability to talk their way out. In practice we see this is not always the case; people overestimate their abilities. But, either way it assumes a model of violence that sees conflict as being negotiable – what Rory Miller calls the “monkey dance” – a kind of game based on ego. Sadly, this is not true of violence against women. There’s no bargaining to be had with a true predator, and it won’t matter how polite you are or the fact that you are a reasonable individual that doesn’t rub people up the wrong way. You don’t have to “do” anything to attract that kind of violence, other than just be a woman (a fact that’s often lost on male judges in sexual assault cases). Most women – because of their daily experience in our society – instinctively understand this. Their understanding of the threat of violence is probably much closer to reality than the average male one. Saying it’s unlikely to happen, so don’t worry about it, just doesn’t chime with lived experience, and smacks of men projecting their perceptions of their own situation onto a situation that is markedly different. That may be why our ‘Stay Away’ programme and courses for women are so popular. Just think about that for a minute…

Relax the assumption of the threat of violence being negligible, and the balance sheet skews even further. How many of us travel? How many of us travel to places where law and order is less established, where street crime, mugging, kidnap, sexual assault and the like are more prolific than where we live? Holidays and business trips are a feature of many people’s lives, and increasingly to the more exotic places, where, perhaps, local customs and unwritten codes of conduct are less familiar to us.

Finally, there are other things on the positive side of the balance sheet that make self-defence training worth the effort, though these are side-benefits. First, if it’s done right, it’s just really good fun! You will laugh a lot at a good class, even if it’s sometimes gallows-style humour or a serious topic; most of us wouldn’t do it if it were depressing. Second, you will improve your health and well-being, meaning you’re defending yourself against stress and its related diseases. Third, you’ll be part of a group that actually provides some of the best mutual support there is – everyone has a shared interest in looking out for themselves; you will help others do that, and they, in turn, will help you.

Irrational? Not clearly so, at least.

Take care until next time.