One of the things that makes jiu jitsu so extraordinary is that practitioners have the ability to meet, learn from, train with, and even compete against their idols and heroes. It's what makes competing at major IBJJF events so amazing. For example, years ago I competed at the Pans as a white belt. Making my way out to California was like a pilgrimage. Once I was there, I suddenly found myself bumping shoulders with grappling giants--a Gracie here, a Machado there. Having spent most of my life a fan of professional sports--where there is usually a well maintained distance kept between athletes and spectators--I was completely starstruck to be in such close proximity to the people I read about at BJJ Heroes.
In my experience, no other sport provides one with such access to the champions (past, present, and future). Indeed, for those lucky enough to have a black belt and the registration fee, it's possible to be able to step onto the mats with the proverbial pantheon of grappling greats. It is one of the things that makes this such a special martial art. However, there is also a price that goes along with this otherwise unprecedented access to the sport's legends--namely, we get a glimpse behind the veil into the beliefs and values of our champions, Masters, and Grand Masters. Unfortunately, what we often see on this front is not flattering. It's not just that we find our heroes to be mortal. It's that we find that they are morally flawed (and often in fundamental ways that are irreconcilable with our own beliefs and values).
The particular flaw I want to discuss in this post is misogyny (although one could just as easily focus on racism or homophobia). There are two reasons I think misogyny is an especially important example: First, jiu jitsu is still a male-dominated sport despite the potential benefits that the art offers women. Second, the lineage of jiu jitsu is itself a tradition steeped in misogyny--a tradition that traces back to the machismo culture of Brazil. In short, Brazil is a breeding ground for discrimination against and the mistreatment of women. Consequently, it is unsurprising that:
Brazil has the seventh-highest rate of violence against women in the world, with a woman assaulted every 15 seconds and one murdered every two hours. Since 1985, 92,000 women have lost their lives, often at the hands of a husband, partner or family member.
An online survey of 8,000 women and girls conducted by the Think Olga NGO found that 98% of respondents had suffered some form of harassment. The research also found that 90% of respondents have changed their outfits before leaving the house because they feared harassment, and 81% have given up doing something or going somewhere for the same reason.
Indeed, some commentators have suggested that "misogyny is pervasive across all classes of Brazilian society" and perhaps even "intrinsic to Brazilian culture" (see here). Given that my wife is Brazilian, this is a topic we have discussed on a number of occassions. For example, when I told her a recent study here in the United States showed than 1 in 3 women who jog claim they are regularly harassed while running, my wife suggested that a similar survey in Brazil would likely show that 3 out of every 3 Brazilian women who jog are regularly harassed while running. And while some progress is being made, more needs to be done.
For now, I point to all of this simply to highlight that the birthplace of Brazilian jiu jitsu has a misogyny problem. It is therefore unsurprising that (some of) the founding fathers of the martial art we all love suffer the same moral myopia. Whatever one wants to say about some of the legends of the Gracie clan--good or bad--one thing is clear: Many of them embody the misogyny that is entrenched in Brazilian culture. I have heard overtly misogynistic comments come directly from the mouths of Grand Masters without a moment's thought or hesitation (even in the presence of a handful of women who were actually paying for a seminar--only to be talked down to by an otherwise revered legend). Similar secondhand stories are just as easy to come by. And while it is easy to dismiss these kinds of unacceptable beliefs and behaviors as the products of a bygone era--the "Crazy Ol' Uncle" approach to the issue--the tendrils of misogyny are just as apparent in some of the things said and done by even some of the younger champions.
The question is, what should one do about it? Rather than focus on what the community might do more generally to address the misogyny problem (which really is a blight on the art) I want to focus on a more narrow issue--namely, what should one do when one finds out that an instructor or association head is an overt misogynist? After all, we do not and should not expect our instructors to share all of our moral, political, and religious values. So, while I am a liberal and an atheist, it's fine if one of my instructors happens to be conservative or religious. These otherwise important differences are of marginal relevance when it comes to whether I want to keep attending a particular gym. Why? Because these are issues about which reasonable people can (and often do) disagree. So, if we aren't intolerant and dogmatic, we will set these sorts of differences aside when determining our allegiances and affiliations.
But misogyny is different. Most importantly, it is most decidely not something about which reasonable people disagree. It is an unreasonable, unjust, unfair, and discriminatory belief steeped in tradition but not based on reliable scientific evidence. It is something both stupid and dangerous that ought to be rooted out of a culture or society and actively frowned upon by those right-minded people who encounter it. On the one hand, women must learn to resit misogyny. On the other hand, men must learn to stop perpetuating it. At the end of the day, this is a collective enterprise. Women and men alike should be committed to stamping out misogyny where it persists. Yet, where does that leave us when it comes to Brazilian jiu jitsu--a martial art that has long been steeped in precisely the kind of misogyny that is here under attack?
I can't speak for others, I can only speak for myself. But at least in my case, I refuse to voluntarily associate or affiliate myself with someone who seems openly committed to misogyny lest I be complicit. As someone who is working on a non-profit designed to empower the disempowered with the art of jiu jitsu (see www.learntoresist.org for details), I am in no position to compromise my own moral firmament in the name of expediency, hero worship, or deference to outdated modes of thinking in the hopes that things will incrementally improve with each passing generation. No, I cannot tell women to learn to resist misogyny while tolerating it in the person I freely choose as my teacher and mentor. Rather, if I expect others to take a stand against misogyny, this must be a line I, too, am willing to walk.
Therein lies the rub: If one refuses to associate with known misogynists on principled grounds, one drastically reduces the number of potential people to call one's mentor--a sad but true state of affairs. After all, many of the Masters and Grandmasters of the sport are (or were) openly misogynistic. Indeed, even if one refuses to associate directly with some of the misogynistic luminaries of jiu jitsu, one cannot shake their morally tainted mark. For misogyny was baked into the lineage of the martial art. But just because misogyny has a storied past when it comes to jiu jitsu, it need not have a future. And unless and until it is rooted out, the art we love will continue to exclude or turn away women who could otherwise benefit from the effectiveness of jiu jitsu as a vehicle for empowerment, self-awareness, self-respect, and self-defense.
We both can and should do better as a community. We should not acquiesce. We should not tolerate misogyny just because the misogynists happen to be our heroes. Rather, we should refuse to lionize those who have morally backwards and regressive beliefs that have positively no place in contemporary society. In short, the close proximity we often have to our fallen heroes--which is where this post began--forces us into the position of having to choose whether to stand up and fight against bias and stupidity or tolerate it in the hopes that things might slowly change as time passes. For my part, I don't want to continue kicking the can of misogyny down the road. Rather, I want to be an agent of change. Moreover, I want my mentor to be an agent of change as well. Therein lies the conundrum--what ought one do when one's mentor turns out to be a misogynist? I have made my own response clear. Figuring out how you respond is your own moral cross to bear.
p.s. Before closing, I just want to point out that regardless of whether folks agree with what I say here, I am most decidedly not making a logical fallacy known as the genetic fallacy--that is, assuming that just because a belief (or practice) has a questionable origin it continues to be problematic in the present context. For example, I cannot dismiss the present institution of marriage merely because it has misogynistic roots. Rather, I would need to address the present institution of marriage head on while leaving the past where it belongs. However, the case of jiu jitsu is different. As I noted in the post, "misogyny was baked into the lineage of the martial art" (emphasis added). By this I was not committing the genetic fallacy, rather I was at the same time trying to (a) partially explain the lingering mysogyny in the jiu jitsu community, and (b) pointing out that because we track our lineages in jiu jitsu--many of which trace back to openly misogynistic Masters and Grand Masters--the problem is always only a few steps removed from us. In short, this post is predicated on three assumptions: (a) the past of jiu jitsu is rooted in misogyny, (b) this may help partly explain why the martial art is still presently not especially welcoming to women (that is, mysogyny is alive and well in jiu jitsu--especially among the "Old Guard"), and (c) the jiu jitsu community should collectively come together to allay the problem. If you don't share these assumptions, then this post isn't for you. Indeed, neither is this blog. That said, let the trolling begin!