While Aikido has lofty aims of promoting peace and harmony, its internal behavioral norms are, in important ways, out of sync with the goal of establishing robust conflict-resolution practices in verbal or linguistic domains of action.
This is especially evident where Aikido has been transplanted into cultures that tolerate verbal interpersonal conflict, and that support the development of verbal skills to manage and resolve conflicts. In such cultures this disconnect can lead to confusion and ineffectiveness when students seek to apply Aikido principles in their problem-solving and conflict-management behavior off the mat, especially with one another.
As a martial art and the product of Japanese culture, Aikido promotes within its practice communities behavioral norms biased toward non-verbal conflict management and unilateral strategies for saving face both for one's self and for others. To bluntly challenge another, especially a superior, can be interpreted as disrespect. Yet, for example in the US, such strategies are often seen as evasive, duplicitous, and disingenuous (this does not mean people in the US do not act this way; I think they do despite perhaps a greater espoused tolerance for open verbal conflict). Acting according to these indirect strategies in the US often leads to increasing mistrust, as people grow to expect that the spoken message is a distortion or contradiction of the real message which remains unspoken.
Specifically, I think that the culture of Aikido maintains norms of behavior that make it difficult to communicate assessments -- especially critical ones -- validly and authentically with other Aikido people, especially Aikidoka of higher rank or of other styles. While acting in ways that purportedly show respect for the art and for one's sempais and teachers, students are motivated unilaterally to do or say things aimed at saving themselves and others from embarrassment.
In Aikido training we are taught that committed, unambiguous physical attacks are good, and that hesitant or uncommitted attacks are bad and even dangerous. Yet on the verbal level we do not practice this way with one another. Instead, we tend not to speak forthrightly what we are thinking if it means disagreeing with or challenging the position of another, especially if the other is a sempai on the mat.
To complicate the picture further, there is ample reason to accept and follow the notion of keeping quiet and withholding assessments while on the mat, and concerning matters of training. Aikido is a difficult art for westerners to grasp both conceptually and physically. Humility is a virtue for students who wish to begin and continue learning, and usually withholding assessments in order to discuss issues discretely later with sempai or teachers can be a wise choice.
However, this on-the-mat virtue can become an off-the-mat liability when Aikidoka interact on matters not directly pertaining to aikido practice, such as making business arrangements for seminars, organizing member dojo associations, performing administrative duties, and doing tactical or strategic planning at dojo or association level. The norms of speaking and listening that we get used to practicing with one another on the mat tend to remain in use when we address one another off the mat, and so the circumspect, overly polite manners we properly practice in training become our default behavioral guides in other, verbal domains. A common result is that a stagnant status quo is upheld for want of authentic debate. Off the mat conversations may very well be better served by increasingly frank challenges among those who disagree or have concerns and positions incompatible with those of others in the conversation.
Just as physical training requires committed, honest attacks; verbal exchanges on difficult issues are often well served by blunt, honest give and take. Indeed, for peace and harmony to be restored there must be some kind of open conflict to give people something to work with.
I feel that this relationship between Aikido cultural norms and the way we actually behave with one another off the mat is an issue worth addressing out in the open. I believe that continuing to accept the apparent disconnect between our espoused Aiki values of resolving harmony out of honest physical aggression and our established off-the-mat verbal norms of avoiding direct conflict is a detriment to the art and an obstacle to its continued growth around the world.
Moreover, for those Aikidoka who wish to transfer aikido principles into the realm of conflict resolution for non-martial artists in everyday life, to maintain linguistic practices that inhibit authentic verbal exchanges will become a tremendous obstacle to their success.
technorati tag aikido