I take ethics very seriously, to the point of writing a short book on them. As you may know I have recently begun offering online courses, in addition to the free videos on my wiki, and the books that I write. When I emailed my list about the Medieval Dagger course, I got this reply:
I'm sorry Guy but this kind of breaks my heart. Having come over from EMA and seen the damage internet dojos have done there. I honestly can't believe we are doing the same thing. Nobody can learn empty hand arts via video and adding weapons into the mix is just frankly dangerous. Surely you aren't recommending people train unsupervised with weapons.
Obviously I disagree with the premise that you can’t learn martial arts from a video (or a book!), and nobody has criticised my books in the same way (at least not to my face), so I replied:
I perfectly understand your concern, which is why it’s taken me 15 years to come around to the idea. But the simple fact is that my books have gotten hundreds of people started in their training, and my online (free) videos too; I don’t see any moral difference between this kind of course and the books I write. And this way I can actually keep track of the people using my material and assist them more directly. Do you object to my youtube channel too? I learned unsupervised with weapons back in the ’90s, working from old books- how is this any different?
If HEMA is possible (the recreation of historical martial arts from historical sources), then learning it from videos must also be possible. The danger lies primarily in mistaking watching a video (or reading a book) for training- in failing to actually get up and do it in practice.
Am I missing something?
To which he replied:
Yes I do object to all forms of internet martial arts teaching. I'm fine with it as a marketing and promotional tool to spread the word about the art/club but it should never be a teaching tool for martial arts (especially weapons arts). The difference is that you are profiting from something you know is inherently unsafe. This is a very clear and moral distinction. While you may be providing a superior product it sets precedence that will allow less reputable and unscrupulous people say well if Guy Windsor does it why not me? This is exactly what happened in Eastern Martial Arts. Of course you are not breaking any laws and I expect that I will be completely ignored but I didn't want it to go unchallenged. The economic narrative of the times we live is the only one people seem to listen to these days.
I wish you well.
This is a clear and damning accusation so I thought I’d run my thinking past you, my readers, and get your take on it. I’ve already run it past a couple of my friends who I can trust to tell me if I’m wrong, and they agree with me, but casting the net a bit wider seems like a sensible idea on an issue this serious.
The assumptions I see here are:
1) that you can’t learn martial arts from video, so selling such videos is fraudulent.
2) that it’s irresponsible to communicate weapons skills except in person
3) that while I may be able to break assumptions one and two, it recklessly opens the door to ‘less reputable and unscrupulous people’ doing the same.
4) that ‘I know [that my online courses] are inherently unsafe’.
5) that it is unethical to profit from these videos, though apparently giving them away would be ok.
I reject assumption 1 “that you can’t learn martial arts from video, so selling such videos is fraudulent” because it closes the door to anything other than direct, personal transmission of martial arts. Which means that this person, as a member of a HEMA club, is being at least inconsistent, because the HEMA arts he practises are derived from books, which are harder to learn martial arts from than videos. Who wouldn’t give their non-sword-arm to watch video of their historical master performing their art? And there is just no way to recreate HEMA without at least the instructor training ‘unsupervised’ by a qualified person, because somebody must be learning from a historical source for the “H” in HEMA to make sense.
Assumption 2 “that it’s irresponsible to communicate weapons skills except in person” is based on the idea that it’s inherently safer to be taught by an instructor in person. This might be true some of the time, but I know from experience that it is not true all of the time. Most of the worst injuries I’ve ever seen have occurred during properly supervised training of one sort or another (usually tournaments). And I’ve never heard of anyone injuring themselves working from any of my books or videos- or anyone else’s for that matter. Sure, a competent instructor will tend to run safe classes- but will also push students further out of their comfort zones too. And accidents can happen in even the best-run classes.
Assumption 3 “that while I may be able to break assumptions one and two, it recklessly opens the door to ‘less reputable and unscrupulous people’ doing the same”, makes me somehow responsible for other people’s behaviour over which I have no control. That makes no sense, and I reject that out of hand. Of course I’m obliged to set an example, but as I think the courses I create offer good training, that’s the example I think I’m setting. Am I wrong?
Assumption 4, “that I know [that my online courses] are inherently unsafe” is simply false. I do not believe for one second that my courses are unsafe. If they were, I wouldn’t do them. If we start to get injuries on the courses, I’ll change them or pull them offline. But we won’t, at least not at any greater rate, and probably at a lesser rate, than injuries would occur with no guidance. Because let’s face it: people will train these arts with or without my help, and my courses emphasise safety above all other considerations. You can check this for yourself with any of my free courses: Knee Maintenance, Arm Maintenance, and the Beginner's Longsword class.
Assumption 5, “that it is unethical to profit from these videos”, though apparently giving them away would be ok, is also simply false. It is demonstrably safer to charge for the videos. It dramatically reduces the number of people using them (about 20 times as many people have signed up for my free knee maintenance course, than have paid to join any one of my other courses), and the payment selects those people for seriousness- nobody is going to pay for a course like these and then just dick around dangerously. In addition, it means I can put the safety guidelines at the very beginning, and exhort all enrollees to watch/read them. This is vastly safer in principle than the weapons training videos I’ve had up for free on the internet for the last 7 years or so (and yet, no reported accidents there either).
But this is a matter of safety, and ethics, so I’m not inclined to just take my own opinion as gospel. What do you think? I’ve put together a short survey for you to let me know. Please be honest: I will take nothing personally, and I will keep your answers 100% confidential. And please note, I'll be checking this form regularly, but I might not see your comments on social media, so if you want me to take your opinion into account, please use the form or the comments below.
And please do share this post – it's really important that I get the opinions of people outside my usual fan base.
[Update, May 30th 2017]
As you can see from the pie chart, over 93% of the 236 respondents think that online martial arts courses are or can be ethical. Of the tiny minority who said No, almost all of them had misread the question. I know this because of the 9 No responses, 6 had comments that made it clear that they were in favour of the courses (such as “The entire premise that the person sent to you is ridiculous.”). Two Nos left comments: one with the opinion that “Fencing needs to be taught in person”, and the other was clearly under the impression that I am offering online certification (I'm not). I contacted all 7 of the ambiguous Nos, and in each case they told me they were in favour of the courses. Of course, it's possible that an equal number of Yesses were intended the other way, but not one of the other comments is negative, so I doubt it.
If you ran a poll amongst plantation owners in 1820s Louisiana, I imagine that 100% would vote that slavery was ethical. So ethics are not really a matter of democracy; and readers of this blog are clearly not a representative sample. But given that my community appears to agree with my gut, I'm happy to continue offering the courses.
Thank you to everyone who has completed the survey, and have read, commented, and/or shared this post. I'll leave the survey open, to see if this changes in any meaningful way over time.