One of the most powerful things in the world today is a strong, enduring soundbite. A “soundbite” is a short phrase that can be repeated again and again, that can be used to summarise a position or campaign or belief, and can even to some extent be a rallying cry. This can be useful to HEMA clubs, but it can also be detrimental to the HEMA community as a whole, if soundbites are allowed to develop without due care.
Definition of a soundbite
For the purpose of this article, a soundbite is a phrase that, with a minimal variation, can be heard or read on a somewhat regular basis as people repeat the phrase. Eventually, the phrase may become well-known and respected, or well-known and mocked; but usually the soundbite is a phrase containing an idea that allows the idea to travel and to spread through a community or population quickly and easily.
In the broadest sense, it should allow the idea to spread to people who do not know the originator of the idea, which differentiates a soundbite from an instructor’s favourite instruction (such as “threaten the parrot on his shoulder”, for example, or one of my own favourite instructions for effective cutting mechanics: “hit the bird”). Such an instruction may not make a lot of sense to anyone who has not heard the instructor using the phrase in the correct context, it does not convey a meaningful idea to the broader community, and so it is not a proper soundbite for the purpose of this article. Such instructions may become quite effective soundbites in the smaller, local community of that instructor’s club, where the phrase may become well-known and helps to spread an idea within that smaller community.
Some recent soundbites from the news
The news can be a good source for soundbites. Politicians and international companies use soundbites quite regularly, to give the public a bitesize idea that they can come to terms with, even if it is a gross oversimplification of the reality of the matter. The following soundbites from the recent news, from the world of politics, do convey a strong idea that the public could grasp, that were repeated over and over again. Some were more effective than others, needless to say!
“Strong and stable” was the preferred soundbite of the Conservative party in the UK at the general election in the summer of 2017. The Conservatives wanted to project the idea that they could keep the country in good condition after the Brexit referendum, and “strong and stable” is quite an effective soundbite for bringing two important characteristics to people’s attention. However, although the soundbite became well-known, it was mocked significantly, because the Conservative party were not able to be “strong and stable” themselves as a party, let alone preserve the stability of the country.
“Make America great again” was a powerful soundbite that Trump used during his campaign for the 2017 presidential elections in the USA. Although it is debatable what “great again” would actually mean, it was a strong idea that caused many people to get behind him and support him. He didn’t need to worry too much about the details because the simple idea itself was so strong.
“Take back control” was a common soundbite during the Brexit referendum in 2016. In a similar vein to “make America great again”, it didn’t offer any details, it offered no real plans, it just gave the vision of a better future where people had more control rather than less control – a very tempting and powerful soundbite for many people.
I don’t want to bring my own political views into this article, so I will not comment on whether or not I think any of these figures, groups, or campaigns were right or wrong. Instead, I hope we can look at the soundbites in a neutral, objective fashion, and see how they gave these campaigns a powerful way to express key ideas in a fashion that the relevant community could grasp and use to further the cause.
Within the HEMA community, there are certain soundbites that appear on a somewhat regular basis. In my experience, most soundbites in the HEMA community are actually wrong, and are the source of modern myths and misconceptions in the community today.
“Flat of my strong” is a soundbite that is very well-known and often ridiculed in the community. It was the very fervour that made this phrase into a soundbite that also made so many people see it as a joke. By repeating the phrase so often in videos and (with slight variations) in articles, the phrase came to encapsulate an idea about the correct way to defend yourself with a sword. Even today, people still ask questions about whether or not it is correct to parry with the flat of the strong, or will respond to a statement about using the edge by saying that they had heard that they should always parry with the flat of their strong. The phrase has managed to influence the ideas of a decade and a half of HEMA practitioners.
“Meyer was a sport fencer” is another soundbite that comes up again and again. This is a very flawed idea, and can be rebutted quite easily in person by anyone who knows their subject matter (although at this moment in time, I am unaware of any well-sourced written articles discussing this in depth). Nonetheless, it only takes one person in a club to say something to the effect of “Meyer was just a sport fencer” for all the students to think that that might be the case; without correcting the misconception, the myth takes root, and becomes seen as fact. Students then have a completely false understanding of the context of the sources, leading to poor quality interpretations and inaccurate understanding of the material; and then, as students become more confident in their own (mistaken) ideas, they begin to interact with others on social media, engaging in discussions, and sharing their soundbite further.
“Rapiers can’t cut” is another soundbite that people repeat with some amount of regularity. This is problematic, because what exactly do we define as a rapier, and why can’t we cut with it? What does the source material say on the subject? What does examination of surviving artefacts tell us about the cutting potential of these swords? What can we learn by test cutting with modern sharp swords? As this video by a member of the Phoenix Society shows, it is quite possible to cut tatami with a sharp rapier. It is quite clear that the soundbite is wrong, yet because people repeat it, it assumes the veneer of fact and permeates the consciousness of the community.
What can we do about this?
What can we do about these unhelpful soundbites? Should we do anything about them? Can we use soundbites productively in the community?
Whenever I hear a factually incorrect soundbite, I challenge it. Oh, you think Meyer was a sport fencer? Show your evidence. Oh, you think he doesn’t thrust? Here, read these articles on the subject, and here are some other relevant books you can read.
If we want to spread good quality information in the community, we must also challenge poor quality information whenever we see it. However, we cannot just say “no, you are wrong”, we have to be able to argue properly and construct a sensible argument with evidence. Of course, this becomes quite easy when there is already a well-written article on the subject – it makes life so much easier when you can point at something already written and sourced and referenced, rather than having to repeat your research every time someone utters a tired old soundbite.
As long as people continue to repeat these incorrect soundbites, the ideas will continue to spread, and we must be able to combat these misinformations and modern myths whenever we see them.
I do think we can use soundbites to our advantage, though. We can make soundbites work in our favour for the benefit of the community. By organising your thoughts so that you can express important ideas with a profound little phrase, you will be significantly better able to counter modern misconceptions and replace them with better information.
If I am giving a presentation to the public, then I will reinforce the idea that “swords were actually quite light” and that they were “no heavier than they had to be”. I will repeat these phrases, precisely, several times. If I said it just the once them my audience could forget it quite easily, but by making the point several times, I stand a better chance of addressing their prior misconceptions and providing better information.
When I am teaching lessons, I usually talk about “silly little touches” and “proper cuts”. I want my students to understand that a silly little touch is exactly that, and is not what we are trying to achieve – that a proper cut, with good body mechanics and adequate structure, is what we want to achieve. At events in Scotland, people often poke some fun at me by laughing when they say that a hit was “a bit tippy”, as that is a phrase I use regularly when throwing out touches that I deem insufficient for scoring. However, large parts of the Scottish HEMA community have, as a result, come to agree with me that silly little touches are not good, and have improved their fencing skills to be able to give proper cuts with good mechanics and structure. The soundbite “a bit tippy” has been a large part in bringing the idea of good cuts versus bad cuts to the community consciousness.
When speaking to members of the press, I use the soundbite “proper martial art” regularly, to try to ram it home that what we are doing is exactly that: a proper martial art, and not roleplaying or re-enactment or Battle of the Nations or anything else with which the press may wish to compare us that may be an inaccurate representation of what we do.
I hope this article has shown that a simple little phrase can have quite a lot of power to spread an idea throughout a community. We have to be prepared to combat inaccurate soundbites that lead to the spread of inaccurate ideas and misinformation. We should also try to create useful soundbites that help to spread better quality information throughout a community, whether it be a local community of a single club or just the people in a single room, or a national or international community.
Words have power, and the better we can craft our speech and communication, the more likely that people will adopt helpful ideas and discard out of date and generally false ideas.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.