Unmasking Self-Defense

The internet chock full of all sorts of information that is billed as THE unequivocal method for saving yourself from people with bad intentions. Take a minute to do a search on YouTube for self-defense techniques. Watch a few of them. With a few exceptions, most of those ‘self-defense’ instructional videos would be more accurately billed as ways to get yourself killed or arrested.

I’ve previously written about what one should look for when choosing a self-defense instructor. The purpose of today’s blog is to clarify exactly what self-defense is and what it isn’t.

Self-defense is Passive

Contrary to pretty much all of the videos you found in the YouTube search, self-defense is not a series of moves, strikes, blocks, parries, joint manipulations, or throws. Most of that stuff is what I term parlor tricks and sleight-of-hand. Very few of the tricks you see being taught online will have the desired effect on a threat with serious intentions of doing you harm.

Some of my favorite ads (to make fun of) on social media come from a company with an instructor who bills himself as THE self-defense guru. Promotional videos feature this charlatan striking a BOB (basically, a man-shaped rubber punching bag), throwing 100-pound weighted bags, and conditioning the body with bricks. For the quoted price, you too can learn to beat the crap out of yourself.

That’s not self-defense. It’s a steaming pile of bull-manure.

In my estimation, this myth – that self-defense is violence – is the very reason it’s hard to fill classes with students who want to learn to protect themselves. Most stable human beings – even those whose experience is in violent fields – abhor being violent. We prefer to avoid conflict, often to our own detriment, for the sake of avoiding the potential for physical violence. When the self-defense class is billed as a path to being intentionally violent, rational and well-adjusted human beings balk at the idea, and classes go under-populated.

If we could get beyond the garbage being peddled by charlatans on YouTube, it might be possible to get people to understand what constitutes real self-defense: awareness and communication.

Let’s look at a few things that fall under those categories.

Situational Awareness

Here’s a basic truth: you cannot defend what you cannot see. People who live in their phones (while jogging, while walking to the car, while working, or just in general) have not a foggy clue what’s going on around them. They are prime targets for violence.

I can’t count the numbers of times I’ve walked up to people on sidewalks, in malls, or at the grocery store and had them almost jump out of their skin when they realized I was there. Fortunately for them I’m not one to victimize others. Had it been the case that I was a predator, I would have had practically zero resistance in victimizing these people. Nevertheless, once I was beyond their proximal area, they were back in their phones.

Such people are just victims looking for a place to be victimized.

Awareness is knowing what’s around you at any given point in time. It’s knowing where the exits are when you sit down to eat at a restaurant. It’s knowing the baseline for ‘normal’ for anywhere you might be – work, home, the grocery store, the sidewalk. It’s recognizing when the baseline has been interrupted.

Awareness is a skill – one that can be developed and refined. It is a teachable skill that should comprise the content of the first lesson in a self-defense course.


Call it verbal judo, managing your mouth, or just plain shutting your pie-hole. Whatever it is, communication is an essential part of self-defense.

Communication includes such talents as saying nothing when an arrogant moron bumps into you at the store and doesn’t apologize, apologizing for something that you didn’t actually do or say, or just walking away and letting an idiot win.

I had this experience just a few days ago. A man who I perceived to be a contractor working on a rental across the street confronted me about parking in front of the house. His partner knocked on the door and politely asked if I would move my car so they could hook up their work trailer, which was parked behind my car. “No problem,” I told him, and I moved the vehicle.

As I was walking back to the house from the car, the guy wanted to get ‘helpful’ by telling me where I should and shouldn’t park. He was about 30 seconds into telling me that he would be my new (obnoxious) neighbor when I told him, “I didn’t know that you’re moving in there. Thanks for telling me.” He continued his ‘instructional’ tirade as I walked away repeatedly saying, “Thanks for letting me know.”

Communication is the art of talking your way out of the situation. The talent is nuanced, thus it is worthy of study. Rory Miller’s Conflict Communication is a great place to start that study.

To summarize, self-defense is intentionally taking every available opportunity to avoid conflict.

Now, let’s look at what the lunatics on YouTube peddle as self-defense.

Violence is not Self-Defense

A couple years ago, I wrote an article entitled Violence is What Happens When Self Defense Fails. I highly recommend it after you’ve reached the end of this article.

What traditional self-defense gurus teach too often goes beyond the principles of self protection and into the realm of legally questionable aggression. If the proposed defense against, say, a wrist grab ends with a grounded opponent in an arm bar, it’s not self defense. Any series of moves that ends with a choke is probably illegal and liable to land the ‘defender’ in prison.

There’s an answer I use profusely in my self-defense instruction when people ask me, “What would you do if…” It sounds something like this:

“It depends.”

It’s a cop out, right? “Maybe this Defcon Keith guy doesn’t really know his stuff.” Caveat emptor and all that.

However, it’s the truest answer that can be rendered under most circumstances.

Let’s take that wrist grab, for example. “What would you do if some guy grabbed your wrist?” Well, it depends.

Do you know him? Is he your date who’s had one too many? Is he a stranger who just stepped out of the shadows? Does he have a weapon? Did he grab your wrist and yank you toward him? Did he just put his hand on your wrist? Was there any relevant activity that preceded the grab? Had he indicated violent intent?

So.. yeah. What you do in that particular moment depends on the totality of the circumstances, not just a snapshot of an act.

That YouTube sifu with the snappy joint manipulation technique that renders your ‘attacker’ disabled for life with a dislocated shoulder and elbow is responding only to the snapshot. Following his instructions would be, in my professional opinion, absolutely lunatic. There are just too many variables to consider.

Violence is, well… violent. Again, read Violence Dynamics, an article I wrote on the topic earlier this year. However, it is important not to conflate violence with defense. The two are not necessarily equal, even under circumstances that you might deem threatening.

Questions? Please leave them in the comments below. I’ll try to respond with more than just, “It depends.”

Be safe.

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