BJJ & The Empathy Gap

I have unsurprisingly been frequenting BJJ forums during the current pandemic. The dominant voices tend to echo the view being put forward by Trump and his administration when it comes to the necessity of ending local shutdowns throughout the country. In the case of the BJJ community, some members care about this at least in part because they feel entitled to train and they bridle at the thought that the government has the authority to paternalistically intervene in their lives. On this view—which we might call the “right to choose risk” view—if consenting adults want to gather to train thereby knowing they run the risk of contracting Covid-19 and all that involves, then that is their inalienable right. The mantra could aptly be described as My Risk, My Right. This line of reasoning is ubiquitous in BJJ discussion threads. It seems that in addition to suddenly being experts in epidemiology, virology, and public health, these members of the BJJ community also fashion themselves as moral, political, and legal philosophers. As an actual moral, political, and legal philosopher, I am writing this in an effort to put the My Risk, My Right movement in the BJJ community to rest. Obviously, I can’t force people to give up the view, but I can expose its many flaws.

The best place to start is with the source and limitations of government authority. The American founding fathers were deeply influenced by philosophers who broadly fall into the classical liberal tradition (not to be confused with contemporary liberalism) such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Classical liberals all adopt what Gaus (1996) calls the Fundamental Liberty Principle whereby “freedom is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would use coercion to limit freedom. It follows from this that political authority and law must be justified, as they limit the liberty of citizens. Consequently, a central question of liberal political theory is whether political authority can be justified, and if so, how.” Given that freedom is foundational on this view, one of the key questions is where the government gets its legitimate authority to intervene in our lives (when it has such authority).

According to social contract theory, governments get their authority from the consent of people who sacrifice the radical freedom they have in the absence of government in order to secure the safety and benefits that go along with communal living under governmental rule. On this view, there is always a trade off between liberty and safety—the only question is where we decide to draw the line. Classical liberals suggest that in deciding which balance to strike in this regard, we should defer to what Mill calls the Harm Principle. On this view, paternalism is never justified. Here it is suggested that we have the liberty to do as we see fit so long as the only harm we cause is to ourselves. Our liberty with respect to our own interests is here sacrosanct and inviolable. Mill captures the idea in the following way: “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…” The presumption of freedom means that governmental intervention must be justified. The question is then when and why it is justified (when it is).

The answer given by Mill and other classical liberals is that the government is justified in regulating our affairs only when our behaviors create unnecessary risks and harms to other people. So, while I am allowed to take my own risks and thereby harm myself, I am not permitted to create unnecessary risks and cause harms to other people. On this view, while we ought to be free to commit suicide (at least when doing so only harms ourselves), we are not justified in committing murder, rape, robbery, assault and battery, etc. In this way, our freedom both is and should be circumscribed when it comes to harm to others.

This line of reasoning justifies all manner of paternalistic interventions on the part of the government: seat belt laws and helmet laws (which cut down on medical costs and insurance premiums for society), civil commitment laws (which allow the government to temporarily detain anyone who poses an immediate threat to themselves or others), licensing for drivers, doctors, etc. (which minimize the likelihood that incompetent agents harm others), and, most relevant to the present discussion, quarantine. If someone returns to the U.S. from abroad and is infected with a highly transmittable infectious disease like tuberculosis or Ebola, the government quite understandably has the authority to detain such a person indefinitely until they no longer carry the risk of infection for other people. Only the most radical libertarians think this amounts to a governmental overreach. While these infected individuals are free to do as they see fit as a matter of principle, as soon as they pose a threat to the welfare of others and society more generally, their freedom is rightly curtailed.

Now I am not suggesting that Covid-19 is a perfectly apt comparison when it comes to the other diseases for which we quarantine people in the traditional sense. I merely use the quarantine example to make clear that we do not have an absolute right to do as we see fit regardless of how our actions might negatively impact others—especially where communicable diseases are concerned. It is part of the government’s job (indeed, classical liberals would suggest it is the government’s primary job) to protect its citizens and promote both their liberties and well-being as much as possible given the invariable tension between the two. But this makes it clear why the My Risk, My Right movement in the BJJ community is so wrong-headed. On the one hand, it is not in keeping with the American tradition (based as it is on classical liberalism). On the other hand, it is based on a stunning lack of empathy when it comes to the risks BJJ practitioners are willing to create for others in order to satisfy their enjoyment of what is ultimately a hobby for most practitioners.

To have empathy is to have other-regarding feelings when it comes to the interests of other people. When one is largely indifferent to these risks, one is egocentric. Egocentricity can lead to the externalization of costs to others in the name of one’s own self-interests. It is clear that the advocates of the My Risk, My Right movement in BJJ are lacking in empathy given the very way they frame this issue. It is always about them and what they petulantly want to do. No consideration is given to the fact that insofar as Covid-19 is highly transmittable even when people are asymptomatic, by deciding to train in the middle of the pandemic people are running the risk of unknowingly infecting their families, friends, co-workers, and even the strangers they interact with on a daily basis. This risk is unavoidable. Indeed, just as it is to be expected that churches and meat-packing plants are uniquely situated to increase the risk of infection, BJJ gyms are also highly likely to become vectors for the virus. The very nature of BJJ means that it is difficult for gyms to adopt all of the preventive measures that minimize the risk of transmission—social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

This means that those proudly and loudly carrying the banner of the My Risk, My Right movement are wrong on many fronts. First, they’re wrong to think that their freedom is inviolable (at least as far as the American tradition is concerned, influenced as it was by classical liberalism). Second, they are wrong to think that the government does not have the authority to regulate our behavior during pandemics (where highly contagious diseases are involved). Third, they are wrong to think that it is only their risk that is at stake. Fourth, while they are right, in principle, that they have the right to run whatever risks they want, they are wrong to think this protects them from intervention when the risks they run also create obvious risks for others. Given that the entire My Risk, My Right movement is driven by the egocentric desire to do what one wants no matter the risks to others, it is strikingly lacking in empathy and the very fellow-feeling emotions that make collective living possible. Yet, despite all of these flaws, this will continue to be the dominant view in the BJJ community for the foreseeable future. For my part, I just hope I have done enough to problematize this view and encourage people to find better arguments for reopening gyms during a pandemic. As I have already argued elsewhere, such arguments exist (see here). They should be our focus moving forward.

p.s. I do believe that gym owners and practitioners who take the pandemic very seriously could take preventive steps that would sufficiently minimize the risks involved to justify people's right to train. The problems is that the many gym owners who openly endorse the My Risk, My Right mindset will not take these steps and thereby pose an undue risk to their members and the local community.

A Very Unpopular Opinion

Needless to say, it’s been a shamefully long time since I posted something new here. In the wake of my second neck surgery a few years ago and my more recent shoulder/bicep surgery, I haven’t had the drive to stay on top of the latest happenings in the grappling world. That’s not to say I haven’t done some teaching here or there or that I don’t still watch a lot of instructional videos, it’s just that my enthusiasm has waned given that I haven’t been able to train. My frustration with not being able to train serves as a nice segue into this post, which is motivated by all of the ceaseless chatter I see in FB threads and other grappling forums about reopening gyms as soon as possible. Much of what I see is willfully misinformed and even petulant. But as gyms go about reopening their doors, I did want to critically address one talking point I see a lot—namely, that the main safety measure gyms plan to use is suggesting that those who don’t feel well (or who know people who don’t feel well) should stay at home. While this advice makes sense for most communicable diseases, it doesn’t make sense with it comes to Covid-19. After all, the feature of this diseases that makes it so highly transmittable is that people can be the *most* contagious when they are still *asymptomatic*. Indeed, roughly half of the people who are infected with the virus never realize it despite the fact that they could nevertheless be shedding it. But this means that the aforementioned strategy will be too little too late. By the time people notice symptoms and hence stay home, they will have already passed on the disease to their training partners during the 5-14 days that they were asymptomatic (the range of the incubation period). There is no way of getting around this inconvenient fact. By opening gyms and training even though we can’t use social distancing, wear masks, or clean ourselves between rolls (which means we can’t meaningfully mitigate), we will thereby run the risk of turning gyms and the people who train there into vectors for Covid-19. In short, jiu jitsu gyms are uniquely situated to create unnecessary risks not just for gym members, but for their families, friends, coworkers, and the people they encounter while going about their daily lives.

Of course, I have seen countless people online insist that they have the freedom and the right to run those risks as they see fit. Worse still, others suggest that the risks will be *no different* than the ones we already ran in deciding to train before the pandemic (which is clearly stupid on the face of it). But this claim about the right to run risks cuts no ice. This only makes sense in contexts where the risks you run are your own. But lots of activities create risks that harm not only the agent, but also others (as is clearly the case with Covid-19). So, while the government doesn’t usually have the authority to paternalistically intervene to prevent people from causing harm to themselves (although, even here, the government can intervene when it comes to people who are suicidal), they *can and should* intervene when the agent’s actions will likely harm others. That is just to say that there are limits to our rights and freedoms where other-related harm is concerned. And in the case of training during the middle of a pandemic, it’s clear that those who are training are creating unnecessary risks not only for themselves (which is their business) but also for their families, friends, co-workers, and even strangers. In both criminal and civil law, this type of behavior is classified as either negligent (if done unknowingly) or reckless (if done knowingly). This suggests that this is not a trifling matter but rather something that requires deep and careful consideration. The mere fact that folks are impatient to train is not a sufficient reason to create these kinds of risks for others.

While I think the desire to train is an insufficient reason to open gyms, I appreciate the economic incentive of gym owners. After all, most gyms can’t stay in business long enough to wait for a treatment or a vaccine. So, these gyms must either reopen too early or run the risk of going out of business. I appreciate that this is a very difficult decision and I also realize that many gym owners are not taking it lightly. But in deciding to reopen, I think owners need to be frank about just how risky the decision is. Given the reasons I spelled out earlier, there really is no safe and effective way of doing this given that none of the usual precautions can be taken. Is the risk being taken worth the financial gain? That’s for others to decide. I am just suggesting that we ought to have our eyes wide open in this regard. I also think that patience and an other-regarding perspective would go a long way to prevent people in the grappling community from enacting the last scene from Braveheart—following William Wallace in bellowing “Freedom!” in protest to a grave injustice. These are extraordinary times that called for extraordinary measures. Peddling conspiracy theories and ignoring the policy suggestions of experts just so one can rationalize one's desire to train is singularly unhelpful. It also happens to be unduly dangerous to lots of people who need our help and consideration. So, while I, of all people, appreciate the frustration that goes along with not being able to train, I also appreciate the virtue of not being entirely solipsistic. Other people exist. The risks we create for them are morally weighty. Just my two cents…

p.s. I think there are lots of creative ways to keep gyms afloat while they are closed. Members who didn’t lose their jobs could and should continue paying their dues (since it’s an investment in their own future). Gyms could run fundraisers to drum up revenue. Gyms could run HIT body weight and mobility classes (which allow for social distancing) for drop-in fees. Gyms could give discounted rates to members who have the resources to pay their dues in advance. Gyms can use online conferencing platforms to deliver content to their own students and to students elsewhere (with a digital “tip cup” for people to donate money). That’s all on the gym side of things. At the state and federal level, the government could do a better job helping gyms and other small businesses instead of giving $500 billion to corporations and $130 billion in tax cuts to the real estate industry.

Cross Your Feet!

So, in thinking about leg locks lately, from the ground up as they say, I have been mindful of the importance of where one places one's feet. For instance, if you are in bottom half guard and you figure four your feet, then you inadvertantly give up what will become your secondary leg if your opponent either backsteps or frontsteps into reverse half mount. Check out Keenan Cornelius' ingenious "knee bar trap" series here. You'll see what I mean. Once you've trapped your own foot, I can take advantage of that by keeping it there and then you lose your secondary leg--making it nearly impossible to defend the knee bar once I drop to the side to finish.

Today, while watching people roll, something dawned on me that I had never thought of before--namely, that it matters which way you cross your feet when you have someone in your closed guard. I never thought it made any difference, so I have always been in the habit of crossing them the same way. It seems I was overlooking something important. Imagine I have my opponent in closed guard and I have a cross collar grip with my left hand. Given my hand placement, my opponent is going to try to pass to my right. This means he will also be trying to pry my feet apart by pushing down on my right leg. If I have my left leg crossed over my right leg, then this makes it easier for my opponent to pry my feet apart by pushing down on my right knee or inner thigh (since there is nothing in the way). However, if instead I cross my left leg under my right leg, it now serves as an extra barrier that reinforces my crossed feet. After all, when my opponent pushes down on my right leg, my left leg is in the way (much as we do when defend the armbar with our other arm). Having given it some more thought, I thought a nice way of remembering this is as follows: When I cross grip with my left hand, my right foot goes on top. Conversely, when I cross grip with my right hand, my left foot goes on top. Perhaps an even more general principle would be: Whenever your opponent is trying to break your crossed feet by pushing down on one of your legs, make sure that leg is on top of your other leg.

Thoughts? This escaped my notice for 13 years--which is surprising. Has anyone ever been taught that it matters which way your feet are crossed from closed guard? Try it out and see. I tinkered with it for a few minutes earlier and it seems to make a difference. But because I can't train, I couldn't test it under more realistic circumstances. 

p.s. Sorry I didn't/couldn't just make a video--which would make it easier to demonstrate and explain!

Reverse Mount + Reverse 1/2 Mount Revisited

As readers of this blog know, I am very fond of leg locks. I think that despite their recent popularity, they are still underutilized. In my experience, far too many upper belts are clueless when it comes to how to use and defend against leg locks. Since I am teaching class tomorrow at the academy, I thought I would go over some leg locks in an effort to address the hole in people's games. My focus will be on two positions I love--namely, what I call reverse mount and reverse 1/2 mount. I will be focusing on knee bars and toe holds. So, as I often do when I teach a class, I am going to post some videos here that cover the techniques I will be covering in class--namely, the rolling toe hold, the knee trap to knee bar, the knee bar/toe hold combination from reverse mount, and the calf slicer from reverse 1/2 mount. So, without further ado!

Rolling toe hold:

Knee trap:

Knee bar/toe hold from reverse mount:

Calf slicer from reverse 1/2 mount:


Attack the Back!

This Friday I will be filling in for our head instructor. For the past few weeks, he has been working on taking the back and maintaining back control. So, I thought I would get back to basics and focus on the following back attacks: (a) rear naked choke, (b) short choke, (c) bow and arrow, (d) arm bar, and (e) murder choke. To give the students some additional information and details and the help them remember what we worked on, I thought I would post videos of each submission. So, here they are:

Continue reading "Attack the Back!" »

Foot Locks Revisited

As readers of the blog know, I am a fan of the leg lock game. Now that my knee is heeling up a bit, I am slowly edging myself back into the waters--which is good timing, as we are finally starting to work on leg locks at the gym for the first time. So, I thought I would post some videos I have found helpful in thinking about some of the basic concepts--especially the basic positions and the entries into the basic positions. The videos below should help to get you started! So, watch, learn, and go train!

Continue reading "Foot Locks Revisited" »

Portuguese for BJJ

Unfortunately, just last week during training I suffered a Grade 2 MCL tear in my left knee. So, no training for me for a few weeks. I am just glad the damage wasn't worse. The upside: I am going to use this time away from the mats to continue working on my Portuguese ahead of my trip to Brazil this June. A few years ago, Kid Peligro had a cool app called Portuguese for BJJ--which was really helpful. But it seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs. So, for now, this is the best resource I can find for the translations of both body parts and techniques/positions. While it is obviously incomplete, it's a good place to start.

I also thought this might be a nice time to start combing Youtube for good technique video that is only in Portuguese. The talent and experience pool in Brazil is wicked deep, but lots of people don't know English (or don't know English well). As a result, any videos they post may get unnoticed (unless one is searching for the Brazilian names of the techniques). This has a two-fold purpose: It gives me some additional practice listening to Portuguese. Plus, I may find some nuggets of wisdom along the way that may otherwise get lost in translation! So stay tuned!


Featured Grappler: Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu

I thought it might be nice to highlight specific grapplers from time to time. So, I am starting yet another series here at TGG--namely, Featured Grappler. First up, Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu--a true monster on the mats and a legend of the sport (see here for details concerning his storied career). Below, I have included a hodgepodge of vidoes--ranging from highlights and documentaries to instructional videos. In the months ahead, I will compile similar videos of other top grapplers. For now, enjoy the videos of Cyborg! As always, watch, learn, and go train!

Continue reading "Featured Grappler: Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu" »

Earn Your Way to the Ground: Blast Double

This is the second post in the series of posts here at TGG about take downs. In the first post, I covered how to run the pipe from the single leg. In this post, I want to focus on the blast double--which is a simple and effective take down that prevents inexperienced grapplers from getting stuck underneath their sprawling opponents. Moreover, this technique--also known as the high double leg--comes more naturally than traditional low double legs (at least in my experience). That said, here are some instructionals that you might find helpful (plus a highlight video thrown in for good measure). So, watch, learn, and go train!


Continue reading "Earn Your Way to the Ground: Blast Double" »