Like most primates, humans are hierarchical creatures. An acute attunement to the social order—including both where oneself and others stand within this order—is hardwired into our DNA. Indeed, where we stand in relation to others can even affect our health (see here for more). It’s why we like rankings, etc. It’s also why we are constantly striving to get ahead of others while ensuring we don’t get surpassed. Our (perhaps lamentable) preference for hierarchies (and the propensity for violence and dominance that goes along with it) has obviously served our evolutionary ancestors well. While these tendencies have arguably become maladaptive in the contemporary world, for present purposes, I am not going to pass judgment on these natural preferences and our social psychology. Rather, I want to consider a basic practice in contemporary jiu jitsu that is thoroughly hierarchical and predictably creates tension within gyms—namely, promotions (whether stripes or belts).
For starters, what do the belts mean? For instance, what’s the difference between a purple belt and a brown belt (or a brown belt and a black belt)? Different practitioners will give different answers to this question. For some, competition is the key to promotion. For others, it’s teaching (at least when it comes to the upper belts). Yet still for others, it is the mastery of technique or the breadth of one’s knowledge set (or both). Given this diversity of opinion and given the absence of uniform standards, I am going to set this thorny question aside for the present post. I want to focus instead on promotions *within* academies (rather than differing opinions about the belt standards *between* academies).
In my experience—which ranges over ten years, five states, and multiple gyms—promotions are often treated by instructors as if they occur in a social vacuum. On this atomistic approach, promotions are individualized—that is, they pertain only to the individuals being promoted. As such, if A gets promoted, the decision to promote was based solely on A’s skills, knowledge, experience, progress, etc. Moreover, it is no one else’s business why A got promoted (rather than B or C). The promotion is solely between the instructor and the student. Indeed, for instructors who adopt this attitude and approach, if a student merely asks for a clarification for why A got promoted while he did not, this question alone is taken as a sign of pettiness, immaturity, narcissism, egoism, etc. On the one hand, such a student will invariably be told to focus on himself and stop worrying about others. On the other hand, the question itself—viewed as an inappropriate act of defiance—will often be used as a reason for holding back or punishing the student who dares challenge the instructor’s decision. On this view, the instructor knows best and that’s the end of the matter.
I am here to argue that this atomistic approach to promotions is misguided and the repercussions of adopting this approach will end up generating inequity in the gym and feelings of frustration and unfairness among the students. So, why do I think the atomistic approach is misguided? Because, as a matter of fact, promotions do not occur in a vacuum and they are not merely individualistic. Rather, promotions are inherently social—that is, they occur within a collective or community setting such as a gym. Moreover, they are also often public—that is, some students are promoted (and others not) in front of the class. In this way, promotions are not just individualized assessments, *they send social signals*—that is, they have social meaning.
Here is what I have in mind. If students A and B started at roughly the same time and A is being promoted much faster than B, it is completely reasonable for B to wonder why he is sliding down the hierarchy while A is moving up. After all, the promotion is, by its very nature, *contrastive* in these contexts—that is, the promotion of B says something *both* about what B is doing right and what A is doing wrong (or at least not doing right). This contrastive element is *inescapable* in social settings like gyms. One student can’t be promoted and others not without signaling something to both those who were promoted and those who were not. Moreover, it is precisely the contrastive nature of promotions that leave students feeling like they’ve been treated unfairly, that favoritism is playing a role, etc.—especially when it’s unclear what explains the instructor’s decision to promote one student but not another.
Now, a traditionalist is going to insist: “But the instructor knows best! It’s not the student’s position to question the instructor’s decision.” In my eyes, as an educator, this is complete and utter rubbish. I have been teaching college for the past 15 years. I try to grade fairly. But sometimes, a student wants to understand why he received a C for his essay exam while a friend of his in the class received a B. Given that the student isn’t in the position to figure this out on his own, it makes perfect sense for him to ask me for an explanation. I would be derelict of my pedagogical duties if I punished the student for asking or held it against him on future exams. Instead, I should be able to explain in detail why the one student got a C and the other a B. After all, I assigned the grade for a reason. And any teacher worth her salt ought to be able to clearly articulate and explain these reasons to students who don’t understand the differential grades that were assigned. Patiently and openly answering these questions is part of my job as an educator.
Imagine what kind of professor I would be if I treated my inquiring students—who are often genuinely interested in figuring out what they’re doing wrong and others are doing right—in the way that students are often dismissively treated in jiu jitsu. It would be a scandal and perhaps even a fireable offense (at least for those who don’t have tenure). Yet, this response is completely commonplace in jiu jitsu. It’s a negligent, misguided, and arrogant approach. Small wonder that students are often upset and frustrated when they can’t figure out how and why others are being promoted while they are not.
Let’s return to my classroom for illustration. If I assign a student a grade, I damn well better be able to justify and explain the grade to the student (and to any other students who feel they were graded unfairly or unjustly). Saying, “just keep at it,” or “keep doing what you’re doing,” or “how dare you” are worse than useless—they are counter-productive and provide students with no guidance whatsoever. And if it’s not appropriate for a college class room—where grades are usually private—it’s certainly not appropriate in the social and often competitive environment of hierarchical gyms.
So, if I am a student in a gym and I am getting promoted at half the rate of my peers and (a) I can’t figure out why, (b) it seems to me that both merit and fairness require that I be promoted at the same rate, and (c) asking for an explanation is dismissed, held against me, or met with completely unhelpful advice, I will reasonably feel the sting of inequity and unfairness. Maybe I keep my head down, keep my mouth shut, and continue fumbling around in the dark until I hit upon the mysterious path that I should apparently be on. Or maybe, at some point, I will decide enough is enough. Even monkeys can tell when others are being given favorable treatment for doing the same damn thing (see below).