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It takes two to fight
                    American Proverb

The difference between fighting and self-defense

On this page:
Abusing the self-defense plea | Fighting| Self -defense | Legal | Realities and aftermath | Use of lethal force | Training to fight

Many martial artists are concerned that, if they "have" to use their "self-defense" training, they will face criminal charges. This is a true and valid concern. It is made even more true because in about 99 percent of the cases, when they are using their training, the martial artists were, in fact, breaking the law.

Let me start out by saying: Most martial arts/self-defense training will get you thrown in jail, sued or both.

That is because, while self-defense is legal, fighting is not. Most martial arts instruction is oriented towards one-on-one fighting or "dueling." As such, it is predicated on the assumption that you are a willing participant. Now you can rationalize around it saying "That isn't what we train for," but until you understand what the legal differences are between self-defense and fighting (and how the police, law and society look at the subject) you are putting yourself in serious danger -- both physically and legally.

We highly recommend you take a side trip to the Self-Defense Explained page before you read any further. It's a layman's explanation about how easy it is to cross from defending yourself into attacking or fighting.

Abusing the self-defense plea
Begin by accepting the fact: Police tend to arrest the winner of a fight.

The reason this is so is  because in about 95 percent of the cases, the winner was the "aggressor." If he was not the instigator of the fight, then he is almost always the one who went the farthest out of line and to the most extreme. And that, by legal definition, made him the aggressor -- even if he did not start it.

Perhaps the most important thing for you to realize is that when it comes to the self-defense plea, that pool has been seriously pissed in. And it has been polluted for a long, long time. Even if the guy really did just walk up and, without any provocation or forewarning,  knock you off the bar stool, when the cops show up there is at least a 75 percent chance of his claiming it was "self-defense." If there was a confrontation where words were exchanged prior to blows, the odds go up to about 97 percent.

How's that going to make your claim it was "self-defense" sound?

The reality of the situation doesn't matter, that is what he is going to tell the cops. He's going to lie to try to avoid going to jail. This is about as unpredictable as the sunrise. In otherwords, it will happen. Recognize that the police have just shown up on the scene. They have no idea who is telling the truth. But what they do know is that both parties are telling them the same thing -- except who was to blame. On that one they are accusing each other.

Most officers tend to assume (and often rightly so) that both parties are guilty. Depending how severe the altercation is, they will act accordingly and arrest you both. If you are in a smaller  jurisdiction, arrest is almost guaranteed if it went physical. In larger metropolitan areas or on busy nights, you *might* get away without being arrested -- if you blatantly lost the fight or can present a calm and reasonable justification for your actions. But I wouldn't rely on that.

In a nutshell, the police have seen 999 times where both parties were guilty of stupid, obnoxious and illegal behavior (which is the difference between fighting and self-defense), so don't be surprised if they don't look at you as that one exception in a thousand. And this is especially true if you weren't the exception.

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I was sitting in a Combat Coalition seminar when Sammy Franco and Richard Dimitri both stressed a point that I thought was obvious. Judging by the shocked look on the faces of the seminar attendees, I was wrong. Way wrong. Apparently people do *not* know the difference between fighting and self-defense.

Fighting is a participatory event. As defined in a legal context, it is "mutually agreed upon combat."

That means you are actively engaged in the conflict. *and* your are half the reason that it escalated.

Random House Unabridged gives us these about "fight":
1) a battle or combat 2) any contest or struggle 3) an angry argument or disagreement...7) to engage in single combat; attempt to defend oneself against or to defeat subdue or destroy an adversary....12) to maintain (a cause, quarrel, etc.) by fighting or contending...

Do you notice a recurring thread there? Namely, joint participation in the creation of the problem. A less obvious thread is that both are contending for the same thing. Not to sound too much like a parent, but it does indeed, "take two to fight."

Someone who is *not* more interested in saving face than avoiding a fight will do certain things: Like leave. Someone who is seeking to prove something to an asshole could walk away from the conflict, but he chooses to remain in the immediate area. Now the motivation for not really leaving is varied and beyond the scope of this page. However, no matter what your motivations, choosing to there is not looked upon by either the police or the courts as a true indication that you were serious about not wanting to be involved in a conflict. It means you put other priorities ahead of doing something that would have prevented violence.

You may have a long litany of reasons as to why you didn't leave and/or "had" to stay and engage in further conflict. But they are, more often than not, emotional and prideful, not reasonable. Our legal system is predicated on "what a reasonable person" would do under the same circumstances. And while an emotional decision might seem "reasonable" at the time, it is *not* going to hold up to that standard when examined later. So when someone gives you a weird look and asks you, "Why didn't you leave?" know that your behavior prior to the fight was not pure and innocent, much less totally reasonable. And that is how it will be looked upon. A "reasonable" person would have left a public area rather than fight.

Now all of this might seem preposterous in the heat of the moment, but it is a very functional standard when you sit down and think about it. More importantly, it is the standard our legal system is based. So whether or not you agree with it, you are going to have to deal with it. And if your pride or selfish desires prevented you from acting in a reasonable manner, you will be looked upon as part of the problem -- not a victim. And you will be treated accordingly.*

Perhaps the easiest way to realize when you are fighting is when you are trying to "win."

While there are many psychological implications to that statement that are worth investigating, a shorthand version is that you are either trying to prove something to yourself or to someone else.

If you are insisting on "having your way," you are fighting -- not defending yourself. And that will put you in the crosshairs of the legal system.

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So what is self-defense?

The working definition we use is: Using whatever means necessary to quickly end a situation that offers you grievous bodily injury.

Talking your way out of danger is self-defense. Running like hell is self-defense. Breaking someone's jaw so you can run fiercely from the six guys who are attacking you is self-defence. Pulling out a gun and blowing the head off the guy attacking you with a knife is self-defense. Not putting yourself in the situation in the first place however, is the best form of self-defense there is.

In short, self-defence is only oriented towards one thing: ending an immediate physical threat. How you go about it is a multi-layered strategy that far supercedes simple physical application.

Self-defense is *NEVER* oriented towards ending a perceived emotional threat, such as hurt pride, wounded feelings or to prove yourself right. That is fighting. It is not a form of punishment or to prove your superiority over another human being. That's an assault.

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Fighting is illegal; self-defense is legal.

If you are walking down the street and are unexpectedly beset upon by six thugs who demand your money and then attack, defending yourself is self-defense.

Standing there, nose-to-nose, calling the guy a cocksucker so he swings at you is NOT self-defense. It is fighting. When the police show up, and find out that is what you did, that is how they are going to write up the incident report. You had better have a damn good lawyer who can get you off that hook.

If you are honestly trying to withdraw from physical danger and -- without provocation -- you are assaulted, that is self-defense.

However -- and this is a big however -- backing away, while proclaiming that the guy has an amazing resemblance to various anatomical items, is *not* looked upon as being attacked "without provocation." That is still participating and escalating the problem. Your ass may have been backing up, but your words were still attacking. In fact, some states have laws that state you cannot say certain things and then claim he attacked you for no reason.

Most, if not all states have "assault" laws whereby if you threaten to "kick his ass" or respond to such a threat with "go ahead and try" you will be charged as a participant to the fight. Check your local statutes and consult with your attorney before engaging in what you think is "self-defense." Also, take a look at the 'Lectric Law Library's outline of the common legal interpretation of self-defense, then compare local interpretation and caveats. Pay close attention to the "mutual combat" and "quarrel" clauses.

These are just a few examples of the difference between fighting and self-defense. Violence is an extreme. But it is an extreme that seldom - if ever - occurs without willful acts by all participants. The police and the courts know this and they will view your actions in this light.

You would be well advised to go to the legal section of this Web page for further information and research into the subject. Also take a look at Brandon Otto's Introduction to Use of Force page. It is not as simplistic or as cut-and-dried as your sensei might have told you.

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Realities and aftermath
In our experience, there is an underlying assumption by a disheartening majority of martial arts instructors that if one of their students uses their martial arts it will automatically be self-defense. To this end we have seen neck breaks from behind, slashing a punching attacker with a knife, blitzkrieg/beserker attacks and countless other "over the top" moves taught as "self-defense." All of which put the student in more danger than not having such moves at all.

The reason we say this is simple. While the "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six" attitude sounds brave, the way most people use it is as a serious denial of reality. The reality is that someone who doesn't have this kind of training is more likely to turn tail and run -- thereby both saving his life and avoiding the aftermath of violence.

Violence doesn't happen in a vacuum, one way or the other, there will be ramifications.

This is a point that is conveniently overlooked by dojo-darlings who are training for that mythical streetfight that they expect to happen. There are three main results from serious violence.

1). Police involvement/legal repercussions -- You will not only face criminal charges, but there is a good likelihood of facing civil charges as well (being sued). How the responding officers write up the incident report will have major influence on this. If the officer, after interviewing witnesses decides you were as much of a participant (or even the aggressor) you are a) going to jail and b) going to court. From there, what is guaranteed is that you will end up paying lots of money, if you end up serving time in the county jail/prison or are sued is a "it depends" issue.

2).Revenge/vendetta. If the police don't become involved, spend the next three months looking over your shoulder, because someone will be coming after you. The kind of people who DON'T call the police are the ones that will "back up" on you. The reason the police weren't called is because, sometime real soon, he intends to be stepping out of the shadows with a shotgun as you are getting out of your car.

3) A combination of both. You may both get arrested. On the other hand, his court case is going to go much easier for him if you are dead or lying in a coma in a hospital after "someone" stepped out of the shadows and cracked your skull with a tire iron. And if you are lucky enough not to fall victim to his retaliation, odds are you will have manslaughter or aggravated assault charges on top of the original charges.

Use of lethal force
The bottomline is that ANY time you engage in fighting or violence you have to accept that it could end up with a death - yours or your opponents. There is no "glass ceiling" where violence won't escalate past -- no matter what your intention going in. There is a very narrow spectrum where the use of deadly force is allowed, and if you don't know it you will end up in prison, losing everything you own to litigation -- or both.

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Training to fight
If you stop and think about it, you can see why many people are not interested in learning the martial arts. Although martial artists claim not to be training to fight, when two people willfully step into the ring to engage in fisticuffs -- that sure looks like training to fight. Yes, there are rules. Yes, there are judges. Yes, there is safety equipment. But if it weren't for the lack of wild emotions and intent to harm the other person, it would qualify as fighting.

This is why it is of critical importance for you to objectively assess the degree and intent of your training to make sure you are not training yourself to run afoul of the law. Most hard-core fighting styles are not self-defense. Think about it does "Extreme fighting" "Ultimate Fighting Championship" "American Congress of Knife Fighters" and "Shoot fighting even sound remotely like you are looking for conflict resolution through negotiate? I don't think so. Unfortunately, many reality based self-defense programs, women's self-defense programs are also, in fact, geared towards fighting: Not towards either the legal or common definition of self-defence.

When I mention this, I am met often with vehement protests that these programs do teach avoidance, de-escalation and personal safety. Ignoring the obvious sports roots of what is being taught for the moment (which doesn't work against larger stronger opponents), despite the volume of the protests one question stands out:

How much do you practice fighting vs. how much time is spent learning how to avoid having to fight?

If a significant majority of the time is spent on physical techniques and drills, then you are being taught how to fight. And that training will get you in trouble with the law.

Once again, we strongly suggest you visit the Self-Defense Explained page to acquaint yourself with how easy it is to cross the line from defense into offense.

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*Jerry Van Cook in his book Real World Self-Defense has an excellent introductory section on dealing with the police. Return to text

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