~Kenshin Himura, from the anime and manga series Rurouni Kenshin~
The above quote may not have been used in the series in the context of this article, but it still holds true.
It may be surprising that Kenshin, a pseudo-samurai, is speaking against the notions of inherent honor in his art. However, looking at it from a purely pragmatic point of view, the very phrase ‘martial art’ means ‘the art of fighting’.
You read correctly – no mention of ‘fighting with honor and respect’, no ‘be fair to an opponent’, just ‘the art of fighting’.
Respect is not something we should go to a dojo to learn. It should be learned everywhere in our daily lives. It is a noble thing to try to teach self-discipline in the dojo, but if this is absent from the start, we should not be taking martial arts anyway. The abilities we, as martial artists, learn are things that have to come with restraint. After all, we are learning how to execute a potentially lethal level of force to an opponent – with our bare hands oftentimes.
This said, one of the main reasons many of us likely took up martial arts was self-defense. As such, we must be prepared to do anything it takes to ensure safety, even if it could be considered ‘dishonorable’. Groin strikes, eye/throat gouges, use of nearby objects as weaponry – all these are fair ways to protect our lives and safety. If the dojo teaches, for example, that certain strikes should never be executed under any circumstance, it is time to seek another dojo.
I do not wish to send across the message that martial artists should not behave with honor and respect, but rather, do not begin the path expecting to be taught these things. In fact, if we do NOT display these qualities, advancement is next to impossible in any good dojo. After all, at the highest levels, the art should never have to be used.
The strongest punch is the one never thrown, the most effective block is the one never used, and the sharpest sword is the one never drawn.