"Bullshit martial arts": frauds, exposers and conjurers

I recently came across the video below on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums:

The first segment of Penn and Teller's episode on martial arts

In this episode of their "Bullshit" series, Messrs Penn and Teller examine martial arts and conclude that they are all "bullshit".

I must confess that the show angered me: not because I felt personally insulted - but because I felt that my intelligence (and every other viewer's) was insulted.

First: why assume that everyone who does martial arts does it for "fighting"? Most people I know in the martial arts do it as a form of exercise and/or as an artform or means of physical expression. What's wrong with that? Penn and Teller start their show by arguing that giving money to criminals is cheaper than taking karate lessons. Sure. But I and many others don't do karate expecting to "save money". We pay money for lessons because we enjoy the activity, not because we expect to "get our money's worth" when (or if) we are mugged. What nonsense.

Second: why assume that just because you do "reality-based" training, you should expect to become invincible (and that anything less means you've been the victim of a fraud)? Even the best form of training cannot provide a guarantee. You might be better off (in self-defence terms) with reality-based training, but you'll by no means be able to "best" every attacker. As my friend Zach points out, the only fight you're guaranteed to win is the one you don't get into. And very few people I know in the martial arts are under any illusions as to their own ability. Yes, there are many instructors out there who make ridiculous claims to boost their business, and they are fair game for this sort of criticism. But even most of their students will, as Mas Oyama once said, know deep down inside what their true worth is (in terms of their ability to defend themselves). These students will persist in their training not out of delusion, but because it is their chosen hobby/sport/activity/recreation (see point one above).

Third: why assume that people who are martial artists have some sort of obligation to become vigilantes (to thwart attacks, etc.)? Most people know the difference between their civilian responsibilities and the responsibility of our law enforcement agencies. And given that most students never really acquire a high level of fighting skill (because it is, for most, just a hobby - again, see point one), why expect them to demonstrate powers that you might expect of a top MMA fighter - on a lucky day (ie. where he isn't facing a gun or other overwhelming odds)?

Penn and Teller observe that the "murderous" types of martial art (their categorisation of what I would call "reality-based" schools) sometimes advise people to use tactics that might land them in court on charges of manslaughter or even murder. While it is undoubtedly true that some schools/instructors step outside bounds of responsible instruction, is it fair to take one example and label every "reality-based" school as "murderous"? And isn't it contradictory to expect martial artists to be "law enforcers" on one hand, yet condemn those who purport provide a more realistic form of self-defence tuition on the other?

Fourth: why belittle these ordinary people who choose to do their particular physical activity just because they don't acquire the "fighting prowess" that Penn and Teller simultaneously expect and denounce? For example, why belittle the poor little old lady who is enjoying her exercise? Sure, she might not have "cured" her osteoporosis, but she is probably helping her condition (ask any doctor and he will advise that part of an osteoporosis treatment plan is exercise). Let her talk in terms of qi etc. - she's not harming anyone by suggesting mild exercise for health and wellbeing. Unlike, say, homeopathic "substances" which are nothing more than distilled water (and thus have no health benefit - the amount is insufficient even for hydration), mild exercise has indisputable health benefits, however slight.

This show angered me because it takes a bunch of snapshots of ordinary Joes (the guy in the mall, the old lady etc.) and extrapolates to the huge spectrum that is the martial arts. Penn and Teller assume one common set of objectives for training (ie. "fighting ability") and then demonstrate that those objectives are unlikely to be met by martial arts training by ordinary folk in dojos, community centres and parks (or, if they are, will attract the long arm of the law). Their first premise (the common objective being "fighting prowess") is fundamentally flawed and so, ergo, their conclusions are rubbish. And, like any conjurers, Penn and Teller hope that by distracting us with "smoke and mirrors" we won't see their leaps in logic.

All this episode does is attempt to debunk the myth that martial arts make ordinary people invincible. Yet I don't know many who actually think so in this information age. Sure, there are some out there who make such claims, but most people laugh at them - regardless of their martial training or lack thereof.

I can't help but feel that in some respects the whole "martial mythbusting" industry exists to wage war against a straw man. Most folks who take their kids to the local mall dojo don't seriously expect any real proficiency in self-defence. Truth be told, many use such classes as a type of child-minding. And people who are genuinely fooled by the likes of Ashida Kim are also likely to believe the world is flat, that the moon landings were fake and the British royal family are shape-shifting lizards. We can't spend all our time obsessing about stupid beliefs - or worse, imputing them to the average person.

Phil Elmore's intelligent treatment of martial frauds

If you want to attack stupid beliefs, do it in a reasoned manner, arguing against specific ideas/methodologies (in the way that, say, Phil Elmore does on his "Martialist" site). Don't make a sensationalist, deeply flawed "reality television" show and try to mask this by purporting to argue from some kind of "higher moral ground" (ie. that you are exposing frauds).

In my view there is a good reason that many Chinese refer to martial arts as "gong fu" (kung fu). Gong fu (功夫) refers to one's expertise in any skill achieved through hard work and practice. It does not necessarily have a martial connotation. If you look at someone like Jet Li, there is little doubt that he has "gong fu". His skill is exemplary and there is nothing "fraudulent" or "bullshit" about it - even if he has never used it to thwart a bank robbery or win the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I wonder why Penn and Teller fail to recognise this and appreciate that attaining "gong fu" can be both the means and the end. Yes, we aren't all as skilled as Jet Li - but does this mean we shouldn't engage in the activity and strive to better our skill? If it does, we'd better stop most kids playing soccer because they can't (and won't) all be Maradonna or David Beckham.

I recently interviewed a capoeira teacher, Prof. Leo Santos on radio and when I asked whether they ever did "combat sparring" (as opposed to the ritualised dance sparring that occurs in the roda) he looked at me quite blankly. It was a stupid question: the activity is what it is. It is a centuries old art form that is deeply tied up with tradition, culture and expression. Yes, it has martial roots and some capoeristas make good fighters. But the activity known as capoeira does not exist to teach "fighting" and any attempt to condense it to this objective (never mind judge it accordingly) is fundamentally flawed. I might as well have asked a Morris dancer whether he ever dons boxing gloves.

In the end, most of us martial artists do what we do for a variety of complex reasons. But whatever our particular mix of reasons, we all do it to attain "gong fu" - a level of skill in our chosen discipline. This amorphous goal might be hard to understand from a modern, western materialist perspective. But if you lampoon it, you might as well lampoon all the Japanese koryu arts such as chado (the art of tea ceremony) and shodo (calligraphy). You might also lampoon practically any endeavour that does not generate a vocational or pragmatic outcome - social sport, dance, kite flying, model making etc. And such a mindset would be both narrow and tragic.

I'll finish with a quote my good friend Quint pointed me to:

"Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The râle is easy; there is none easier, save only the râle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance."
- Theodore Roosevelt.


My correspondent Diego has pointed me to this thread at Martial Arts Planet, where Marc MacYoung gives his opinion on the Penn and Teller episode discussed above.

I decided I'd add my response to Diego as part of this article:

Marc MacYoung makes a lot of sense and I agree with most of what he says in his post. However I will add the following gloss:

The tenor of MacYoung's comments appears to be that, while flawed, the program did expose the "ugly underbelly" of martial arts instruction. Penn and Teller certainly did this.

And, MacYoung's comment that we ought to look into our own practices rather than point out Penn's and Teller's flaws is true: we should all look to our practices, and the industry as a whole has a lot to answer for. But as a response to the show, this comment does not address my main objection, ie. that it was unevenly (and unfairly) presented.

As a martial arts teacher I have always been sincere and done the best that I can. Clearly, I haven't been perfect, and some of my teaching and techniques have adjusted (and will keep being adjusted) over time. But I don't accept any responsibility for "wilfully ignoring" fraudulent/nutcase/irresponsible martial arts teachers.

I have always taught a traditional art (which might not be MacYoung's cup of tea) and I've always said "it is what it is". I don't promise my students any particular skill; I can only teach them what I know. I try to inject as much practicality into the classes as I can, but I still teach traditional forms and will continue to do so unashamedly.

So, in summary, I don't care for being splattered by the brush of Messrs Penn and Teller.

Their expose might have had some merit had they gone to a judo school or a capoeira one (to name just 2 very different traditional arts) and found that they have honest and sincere practitioners - and that such activities have merit in themselves (without having to resort to any calculus of their "effectiveness" in self-defence terms). They might have gone to an MMA studio or a kickboxing/Muay Thai gym for another perspective. They did none of these things.

This episode of their show was as commercial and sensationalist as they people they denigrate. It was, quite frankly, bullshit.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Absolutely agreed. I didn't get angry per se, but that's more because i find it hard to get really angry. I did however find it extremely stupid and unreasonable. You might be interested in Marc MacYoung's comments on the episode over at MartialArtsPlanet:


    Diego Romero

  2. Thanks Diego. Truth be told, I didn't get all that angry - but I can write some pretty dry stuff and I thought I'd elicit more responses if I came out fighting hard!

    I agree with a lot of what Marc MacYoung has to say: he is a voice of reason in the oft-muddled world that is the martial arts "industry". However please read my addendum for my response to MacYoung's comments.

  3. To generalize the whole of the martial arts world, it (martial arts) has got to be one of the best/worst arenas for such arguments. In few other realms have I found people so judgmental and aloof, as well as so practical and humble. This is a topic every martial artist must settle with himself. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Everything that you’ve said on the Penn & Teller show is correct though I really don’t think it deserves so much attention. It’s a TV-show designed and made to entertain people just like martial art movies. Whether it succeeds in that mission is another thing, but it’s clearly not made to give someone an objective insight into martial arts.
    Perhaps it would be better to focus on things from the show that are actually worth examining. Take for example, the issue of legal aspect of self-defense. I believe everyone would agree that it was wrong and even illegal for that teacher to say that “he would feel good if his student killed someone with bare hands”. But right there Penn & Teller either deliberately or unknowingly omitted to mention an important feature of weaponless martial arts - the use of bare hands actually allows us to control the amount of force applied on our opponents as required by the law. Guns, knifes, sticks and other “accessories” are clearly indiscriminate in that sense. In my experience, students have more benefit from a critical review than from a pure denial. As a matter of fact discussion over this show could be introduced as a part of training program for higher belts since it would reveal their level of “philosophical” understanding of martial arts.

  5. That clip from Penn and Teller is incredibly patronising. They weren't really going in with an open mind. Its a shame a lot of people will watch this... I like your article though and I think your right most people do a martial art with a self defence aspect as at the bottom of a list of other reasons like doing exercise, encouraging discipline in their children. Its a shame popular culture is so narrow minded.

    Thanks for another great article. Sam

  6. Thanks for your comments all. Edward, you are right that the show doesn't deserve all this attention. On the other hand, someone has to lend a voice of opposition, lest the silence of sincere and honest martial artists be taken to as acquiesence.

    I agree with your comments about the legal aspects of self-defence and unarmed fighting. It is a complex area that was given very glib treatment by Penn and Teller.

  7. Ya it doesn't help The P&T are hard core Pacifist!


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