What is Self Defense

What is Self Defense?

He looked wild. I ran over to assist and grabbed his shoulders. He turned violently, and blood sprayed onto me from his mouth.  Mike pulled him back and added a good dose of pepper spray into the mix. 

But wait.

I’m getting ahead of myself. How did I get here?

It all started at lunch break.

What is Self Defense?

Have you ever left your work lunch at home? You get into the office, do the hard slog knowing that there’s that delicious watershed waiting to break your workday. On just such a day I reached into my bag to have my heart broken. Famished, I decided to take a walk up to the local superette. As I reached the corner of the shop, a commotion caught the corner of my eye. I turned to see one of my senior tactical officers, Mike in a struggle with a wild looking man. I ran over to assist, and I grabbed the man’s shoulders. He turned violently, and blood sprayed onto me from his mouth.  Mike pulled him back and added a good dose of pepper spray into the mix. 

As it turned out, the man had been inhaling contact adhesive fumes. A little narcotic trick, homeless people do to alter their not so easy reality. In his glue induced high, the man had attacked an old street seller who ran a makeshift table selling sweets and some corn chips. Mike intervened and the fight was on. 

After a messy tussle, we got the man to the ground and swung his arms behind his back for the classic cuffing of the wrists. This doesn’t always go like it does in the movies. For a start the mixture of adrenaline and mind-altering industrial glue negated the effects of the pepper spray. In the mind of our chemical crazed attacker, he still had options.  For a thin man, he was amazingly strong. In the struggle to get the handcuffs on him, the teeth of the cuffs closed on my finger lacerating the skin.  

Once the man was restrained, the police made a well-timed entrance. Mike and I were covered with blood and a good smearing of pepper spray induced mucus. We dusted ourselves off and took stock of the situation. Step aside Covid-19, South Africa has the fourth largest population of people living with HIV in the world, with over five million people infected by the virus. Exposure to the man’s blood was a problem, especially on my injured finger and it was time to visit the local emergency room. I was given a shot in the arm for hepatitis, an HIV counselling session and a six-week course of nausea inducing antiretrovirals (it’s kind of like getting into a fight and then suffering from morning sickness). There was a chance that a 20 second wrestling match could change my life forever. The point to this messy anecdote, is that self defense is not a one-dimensional event. The actual fight was over, but the threat was not.

Self Defense Definition

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, there are two definitions for the term “self-defense”: 

1a plea of justification for the use of force or for homicide

2the act of defending oneself, one’s property, or a close relative

I don’t know who Merriam Webster is, when I hear the name, it evokes images of the nice old lady down the street that always has a supply of chocolate chip biscuits and who knows the definition for a lot of words. The term self defense is also evocative of various mental pictures and ideas. The first definition is purely legalistic (that Mrs Webster sure knows her stuff). But it’s the second definition that really grabs my attention.  For years if you said “self defense” to me, my mind played images of, that classic two-person self defense drill. Person A, a big strong guy, grabs Person B’s wrist or lapel. Person B executes a tried and tested wrist lock on her attacker. With one slick move, the attacker is dispatched to the floor where he instantly gives up, terrified that his knitting days are over. 

It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to synch your imagination with mine and share those images.  But it turns out that I had been duped. Merriam Webster wasn’t even a nice old lady; the name is a conglomeration of two surnames belonging to George and Charles Merriam and Noah Webster. Even worse, it’s possible that the term “self defense” is just as off kilter with the real world as Merriam Webster is with a jar of cookies. Putting legal definitions aside, self defense has become a term that is commonly understood in our society. It’s also attached to other terms and phrases that are often used by self defense experts like “in a fight” or “on the street”.  The question is, has the act of learning self defense been caught in a moment of time and never moved on?  

The Self Defense Chain 

My gripe with the two-person drill is that it hasn’t evolved to reflect the full depth of a confrontation. What’s more, it still exists as a reality in the minds of the public and in the teaching practices of many self defense schools. If you don’t believe me then look at this graduate of the University of the useless, or this guy who clearly has not met a drunken Brock Lesnar look alike. Sure, the moves have changed. Self defense practitioners have traded their stilled one step sparring techniques for the dynamic and explosive moves of modern-day combatants. The UFC helped to dispel many of the myths of traditional martial arts. These bouts function as an excellent laboratory showing which range of movements will subdue a non-complying, violent person.  However, MMA fights exist in a bubble in time, precluding the other components of the self defense chain. They exclude the build-up to the conflict, the unexpected randomness of the real-world environment and the trauma that may linger for years after the conflict. 

There is a chain of events that takes place in a timeline. Each point of the chain requires a specific set of responses that are often missing from self defense training.  There is not just “the fight”, but four phases of survival within a confrontation:

  1. Survival of the pre-incident event.
  2. Survival of the physical confrontation.
  3. Survival of the law. 
  4. Survival of the psycho-medical effects of the confrontation. 

Before we explore these phases, let’s reach a random hand into the world’s data hat and add a little context to real world violence. 

  • In South Africa, 30% of all murders were preempted by arguments and misunderstandings.
  • In the UK, 37% of street robberies were initiated by a direct verbal confrontation. 
  • In the USA, one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses. 
  • In Australia, the highest percentage (41%) of all threatened assaults occur in the victim’s home.
  • In the England and Wales, the most common location of homicides was around the house or dwelling (44% of men and 76% of women) and the most common murder weapon was a sharp instrument. 

So, my question is, where is this “in the street” place, and what exactly is a “in a fight”? If we say we are self defense instructors, have we given our students situational awareness skills that could have been used to escape an impending conflict before it started? Does the curriculum include “in a fight” tools like verbal de-escalation? Have we considered that “in the street” may take place in a kitchen or over a garden wall? If I revert back to my untamed glue user, it’s easy to spot the four links in the self defense chain. 

Survival of the Pre-incident Event

There are times that people are taken unawares and are suddenly thrust into a violent confrontation. You make a wrong turn and walk into a mugging or drive into a cash in transit heist. The shock and surprise of the event often become an enhancer in post-event trauma. However, violence usually has a build-up with a series of signs along the way. 

In his classic book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker talks about pre-incident indicators (PINS). These are detectable signs that can be “reliably” used to predict an event. I missed the pre-fight build up, but you can bet it was there. First was the deliberate inhaling of a substance used to stick vinyl to a floor. Then perhaps some pacing and ranting in the parking lot, then a verbal exchange between the suspect and the street seller. 

Identification of pre incident indicators form a part of situational awareness skills. They can be spotted instantly and intuitively, or through a process of examining events in the environment. 

Surviving the fight

Ok martial artists and firearm experts, now is your time to shine. With the right training, it is possible to get better at surviving the actual confrontation. I’ve covered this discussion in my “The Best Martial Art For Self Defense” blog post. I would avoid training that is obsessed with ritual or doesn’t have an element of contact to it. At the end of the day you should be lucky to be attacked by a master of the Smoked Wild Salmon Fist system. It’s more likely that you will be attacked by an angry caveman with beer and anger in his mind. My battle with Glue-Man showed me that pain is not always a reliable method of subduing a violent person. Find a place that will give you those skills in a progressive way that will make you want to come back for more. 

 Surviving the Law

Before you register your fists as lethal weapons, consider this. A normal world encounter would not just end with the police throwing an assailant in the back of a van and driving away. Statements would be taken, and charges would be laid. Depending on the legal system, a court date would be set in the future. 

The US Department of Justice reports that in 2017 only an estimated 56% of violent victimizations involving a firearm were reported to the police. You have successfully survived the fight and the authorities decide that prosecution is required. You will need to sit on a court bench possibly next to the attacker’s family, friends or fellow suspects. You will have to step up in public and swear to tell your version of events and face the questions of a defense attorney. Then it’s the walk back to the car or public transport system. No wonder that worldwide, victims of crime are hesitant to report violent incidents. 

Laws are interpreted through the subjective and sometimes uninformed mind of an official. I have seen one instance where a security officer was charged for attempted murder for using his firearm when he was attacked by a Rambo knife welding suspect. The police ignorantly reasoned that the use of force was not equal or proportionate. It would be terrible to survive the attack only to find that you cannot survive the legal system and its important to know the basics of self defense law in your country. 

  • What are the fine lines between self defense and assault?
  • Can you carry a pepper spray, a firearm or knife for self defense in your country?
  • In what instances can you use force to defend yourself, and when is lethal force permissible?  

This is all part of surviving the law and being an effective self defense practitioner. 

Surviving the psycho-medical effects the fight 

So, blades flashed, fists were thrown, and the court went alright, job done, right? In my case I needed to face the reality of possible HIV infection. I still recall a point made by martial arts veteran Burton Richardson at a seminar. In a fight I hit you, or you hit me, or we hit each other. That means you have a one in three chance of coming away unscathed. This principle is applicable to confrontations with fists, guns and knives. It’s therefore logical that first aid needs to become part of your survival skills. I would advise including a first aid kit at home, in the office and in the car equipped with safety gloves, something to control significant bleeding and an alcohol-based disinfectant. 

Then there are the psychological effects of facing violence. According to Kaminer et al. (2008), it has been established that of all the causes of trauma, violence the most likely type to be linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD crosses all sectors of society and class, but there are variations between men and women as to which trauma events are more likely to be linked to PTSD. In one study, it was found that 50% of the sample reviewed acquired a high long term PTSD burden by witnessing a traumatic event. Something you may want to think about before you engage in a battle with your neighbourhood caveman in front of your wife and children. PTSD symptoms can be brief or lifelong. The key is that PTSD can be managed.

Complete your training

Luke Skywalker: But I need your help. I’ve come back to complete the training.
Master Yoda: [sighs] No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need.
Luke Skywalker: Then I am a Jedi.
Master Yoda: Ohhh! [turns back toward Luke and laughs, before coughing again] Not yet. One thing remains: Vader. You must confront Vader! Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.

The links within the chain of self defense exist within in a before, during and after timeline. If we are going to pursue the art of self defense and approach real world violence, I would suggest that our training and preparation needs to address this timeline. I’m not saying that you should sacrifice your weekly sparring sessions or the time you dedicate to strength and conditioning. But some time and resource needs to be dedicated to gaining the knowledge and skills to address the other links in the chain. Without this your training will not be complete.  


Additional inspiration from Managing Violence Podcast with Joe Saunders

Atwoli, L., Stein, D. J., Williams, D. R., Mclaughlin, K. A., Petukhova, M., Kessler, R. C., & Koenen , K. C. (2013, July 01). Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in South Africa: analysis from the South African Stress and Health Study. BMC Psychiatry, p. 182.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016, 02 16). THREATENED ASSAULT. Retrieved from 4530.0 – Crime Victimisation, Australia, 2016-17: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4530.0~2016-17~Main%20Features~Threatened%20assault%20~10001

De Becker, G. (1997). The Gift of Fear. New York: Random House, Inc.

Kaminer, D., Grimsrud, A., Myer, L., Stein, D. J., & Williams, D. R. (2008). Risk for post-traumatic stress disorder associated with different forms of interpersonal violence in South Africa. Social Science & Medicine, 1589-1595.

KRISP. (2020, May 11). HIV Bioinformatics in Africa. Retrieved from Bioafrica: http://www.bioafrica.net/subtype/subC/HIV_prevalence_rank.html

Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. (2020). self-defense. Retrieved from Merriam-Webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-defense

Monk, K. M., Heinonen, J. A., & Eck, J. E. (2010). Street Robbery. Problem-Oriented Guides for Police No. 59. Retrieved from https://popcenter.asu.edu/sites/default/files/problems/pdfs/street_robbery.pdf

Morgan, R. E., & Truman, J. L. (2018). Criminal Victimization, 2017 . U.S. Department of Justice.

Movie Quotes Database. (2020, May 25). Retrieved from Movie Quote DB: https://www.moviequotedb.com/movies/star-wars-episode-vi-return-of-the-jedi/quote_29987.html

National Sexual Violence Resource Centre. (2015). Statistics about sexual violence. Retrieved from tional Sexual Violence Resource Center z Info & Stats For Journalists: https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf

Office for Natiional Statistics . (2020, February 13). Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2019. Retrieved from Office for Natiional Statistics : https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019#what-do-we-know-about-the-circumstances-and-location-of-homicides

Office for National Statistics . (2020, February 13). Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2019. Retrieved from Office for National Statistics : https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019#what-were-the-most-common-methods-of-killing

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS). (2019, September 12). Circumstances leading to murder in SA. Retrieved from ISS Crime Hub : https://issafrica.org/crimehub/multimedia/circumstances-leading-to-murder-in-sa

UNAIDS. (2020, May 11). PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV RECEIVING ART – AS OF 30 JUNE. Retrieved from UNAIDS: https://aidsinfo.unaids.org/

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (2020, april 14). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merriam-Webster

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