A few days ago, it was Bonfire Night in the UK, which means lots of people setting off fireworks. Where I live, it meant people setting off fireworks from mid-afternoon until late evening, making it really quite difficult for me to concentrate on anything for several hours, and leading to quite a substantial headache.
Obviously, I’d like to complain about people and fireworks, but perhaps more constructively, it is a good way to start thinking and talking a little about rights and responsibilities – both as people in general and as training partners in a martial arts club.
I do think that people should have the right to do as we please, as long as we are not hurting anyone else. At the same time, the right to do as we please should extend only as far as we can go without hurting others; the moment another person is hurt by our actions, I believe that we should lose the right to continue doing that thing.
- We should have the right to play whatever music we want to listen to, at whatever volume we prefer to hear it; but we also have to turn it down when we start giving the person in the next room a thumping headache.
- We should have the right to walk on the pavement when we want to go somewhere; but we shouldn’t just bump into people and push them onto the road if they are in our way.
- We should be able to eat whatever we want to eat, whenever we want to do so; but we shouldn’t steal it from another person’s plate when they have purchased a meal for themselves.
Along these lines, we need to consider the extent and boundaries of our rights and responsibilities when we are in the training hall at our club. Whether student or instructor, we should have the right to be safe in that club, to be free of harassment or molestation, and we should be able to learn things and improve our abilities. At the same time, whether student or instructor, we have the responsibility to keep our fellow club members safe and without harassment or molestation, and we need to make sure that they too are able to learn things and improve their abilities.
Attending a club can be a selfish act. Of course it can be selfish! You want to learn a thing, so you go to the club. You achieve your personal goal to your personal satisfaction.
And yet, while at the club, you cannot deny other people their opportunity to learn things. You cannot demand that the entire club changes what it does just to suit you. To some extent, you may need to change what you do in order to fit in at the club – maybe that is altering your schedule so that you have time to go to the club, maybe it is making the effort of carrying an additional bag with your training clothes with you when you go to work or university that day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but you might still need to make the effort to change what you do, rather than demanding that the club changes to fit your every preference.
When you are training with a partner, you cannot be the person doing all the repetitions, and having all the opportunities to learn the technique. You do the have right to do some of those repetitions, because you have the right to be able to learn when you attend a class; but so does your partner. Your right to be able to learn things extends as far as your responsibility to let other people learn things too. Therefore, you and your partner take it turn about, or do three repetitions each, back and forth, so that you can both learn from the exercise.
To take this line of thinking one step further, it is also the case when sparring. Yes, you have the right to be able to learn something from the activity, and maybe that means you need to go a bit faster or work at a higher intensity. But at the same time, you have the responsibility to keep your partner safe, just as they have the responsibility to keep you safe and the right to learn something from the activity. You can’t just go in like a wrecking ball because that’s what YOU enjoy. If you damage your opponent, that is entirely your fault for participating unsafely and not having the necessary care for the people who do you the favour of fencing with you.
I have had the experience more often than I can count where someone asked if they could spar with me and then they went hell for leather with the intensity dialled up to 11. Sometimes, this has led to me receiving an injury, because my “partner” couldn’t look after me and did not exercise their responsibility to be safe with me. There was no opting-in on my part, and no permission or consent given for these “partners” to act in this fashion. They just asked if they could fence with me and then came in like a wrecking ball to satisfy their own desires, health and safety be damned.
This is clearly not a good situation – especially not for me. I see the same situation played out again and again whenever I attend to teach at events around the world. Sometimes, people just don’t pay enough attention to their responsibility to look after their training partners, and this is something that we as a community need to look at quite closely, and to improve across the board.
That being said, the vast majority of people I meet at events are lovely people, who take their responsibilities seriously, and who go to great lengths to look after and help their training partners. This is something that we, as a community, should value explicitly and praise more often in public.
To switch the theme for a moment, it is often said that “the customer is always right”. I don’t think so. The customer is certainly able to ask for what they want to purchase, and the seller has a duty to provide that if payment is received for it – but that’s where it ends. People can be bad customers, and businesses should feel able to fire their clients. If a customer cannot respect where their rights end and their responsibilities begin, then it is not good to do business with them.
Sometimes people say that “the customer is always right” in terms of the relationship between student and instructor at a martial arts club. I definitely don’t agree with this. The instructor certainly has responsibilities toward the student, and the student certainly has rights; but the instructor has rights too, and the student also has responsibilities as part of this relationship.
If you hire a plumber to visit your house and fix your shower, then you have to let the plumber into the building. If you don’t open the door, but demand that the plumber still fixes your shower, then you are clearly the problem here, not the plumber. The plumber may have the responsibility to fix the shower, but you have the responsibility to open the door and let the plumber in. You might have the right to get your shower fixed in this situation, but the plumber has to have the right to access your house to be able to apply the fix.
Similarly, if you join a club to learn a martial art, then you have to be part of that learning process. You can’t just turn up, pay your money, and expect that the instructor will somehow get the knowledge into your head or the skill into your body; you need to be part of the practice, you need to be engaged, you need to do the repetitions and break a sweat. You need to follow the instructor’s instructions to the best of your ability if you want to learn from their knowledge – and, of course, the instructor needs to give you good instruction. It is very much a balanced relationship where both parties have rights and responsibilities.
To bring this all to conclusion, I do think that most people who are involved in HEMA are excellent people. Everywhere I go, I see people caring for each other and helping each other. It is wonderful to see.
But still, there is work to be done. Clubs and events can still be made safer in many different ways – physical safety, mental safety, safety from harassment of any kind. If we all pause for a moment, and consider both our rights AND our responsibilities when we attend a club or event, maybe we can make these experiences better both for ourselves and for our training partners.
And if people who set off fireworks would think this way, then they would realise that their right to have a bit of fun and to set off fireworks should extend only as far as their responsibility not to harm other people, and I would have fewer headaches around this time of year.
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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.