Knife work is inherently "dark" and it is all too easy for your students to go over to "The Dark Side" while training in it. While I want my students to take their training seriously (and the consequences of their actions VERY seriously), I don't want them to take themselves or even me too seriously. Here is the danger I am trying to avoid. What should be a defensive tactics class that simply focuses on one practical defensive tool, can easily be turned into "The Cult of the Knife.”

 When teaching knife, it seems almost a natural inclination of some students (especially the young men), to turn the class into a cult built around what badasses they are because they train in knife work. Unfortunately, if an instructor actually wanted to turn his martial arts class into a cult, the knife class is an easy place to do it.

I believe that a responsible martial arts instructor should actively work against this tendency. If it’s a teacher's responsibility to look after the welfare of his students as to what he is teaching them, then that welfare includes not only their physical safety, but their legal and moral safety as well. You really have to be careful not to send your students out into the world with a hair trigger that can go off at the slightest insult in a bar or a fender bender on the road. To do so is just plain irresponsible on the instructor's part (and is probably fueled more by a desire to build up his own ego or wallet, rather than to improve the lives of his students).

Human beings have a natural instinct to form themselves into groups such as clans and tribes. This tribal instinct has a long history among humans*. Among indigenous tribes around the world the name they use for their own tribe will often translate literally as “the people” or “human beings,” while neighboring tribes, who are genetically identical to them but live on the other side of a natural border such as a river or mountain range, will be called “the enemy,” or some variation of non-humans such as “demons,” “monsters,” “beasts,” etc. 

Young men especially feel a need to be part of a team and to follow a leader to a successful hunt or to victory in battle. This made perfect sense in hunter-gatherer societies. If you lead the hunting party to success, not only did you feed your family, but you received elevated status in your tribe. If you were a member of that successful hunting party and, although not the leader, contributed in some other way (tracking, stalking, throwing the spear that took the animal down, etc), you would still share in the meat from the hunt and feed your family and therefore, were a successful member of your tribe.  If you were too old to hunt anymore, but contributed by making tools or teaching the young hunting skills, you would still share in the meat from the hunt and feed your family and therefore, were a successful member of your tribe. In fact, even if you did not contribute to the hunt directly, as long as you belonged to a successful tribe, you got to eat. This instinct to be part of a successful tribe as an important factor in survival is so deeply ingrained within us that the testosterone levels of male sports fans will rise when their team wins a game and decline when they loose.*


When speaking to Pekiti-Tirsia students in a edged weapons class, I often go over some general legal principles on the use of deadly force first, as well as some practical advice on the subject. 

I tell my civilian students that they should only carry knives that are legal for the jurisdiction they are in. The knife is there to get you out of trouble, not get you into it. 

All else being equal, using a plain looking pocketknife that is of legal size in a self defense situation will look much less suspicious to the police and district attorney's office than using a model that looks like a "combat knife" in the exact same circumstances.

While, on the face of it, a gun and a knife are both deadly weapons, most people look at the two far differently. In most parts of the U.S., if you use a legally owned firearm to defend yourself against an armed attacker, you stand a far better chance of being exonerated by a grand jury, then if using a knife under the same circumstances. You will also stand a better chance of surviving the legal battle to come, if you are seen by the jury as just a normal guy who used a normal tool to defend himself when he had no other choice and not as a trained killer with a hair trigger hoping to get an excuse to use his “fighting knife” on someone.  

So then, how do I prevent my knife classes from becoming a “Knife Cult?”

Humor is part of the equation. I joke about myself, I joke about the students; all the while telling deliberately bad jokes (have any of you guys seen my "rabbit trap" technique?).

It's hard to turn into a serious cult if you don't take yourself too seriously. I get the students to laugh at themselves so they won't form themselves into a cult and I get them to laugh at me so they won't build a cult of personality around me or any other instructor. My particular technique is to use a lot of self-depreciating humor in my classes, (not too difficult when you are among the "follicly challenged" (:-)

Another thing I emphasize is that they leave class in class. While I ask the students to address me in class by my rank (Tuhon), I ask them to call me by my name outside of class. I tell my students that we are not an “army” or a “tribe” or a “gang:” we are just friends coming together to train and learn. I ask them not to wear their school shirts in public and keep their training very low profile.

A final way to help prevent “cultish” behavior is to emphasize that there are no invincible techniques. Everything can be countered and no technique is magic.

I do this by showing the counters and recounters to each technique as early as I can, as well as the reasoning behind why we do things a certain way and the pros and cons of each technique.

Above all, I emphasize that the martial art they train in is there to be their servant; to teach them self defense, to keep them in good health and to protect their families.

If the students become the servant of the martial art then something very, very wrong has occurred. They have begun to worship that martial art. In fact, one way I define a martial arts cult is when an instructor teaches the students that they are there to serve the art, rather than that the art exists to serve the students.

Train hard, but train smart,

Tuhon Bill McGrath

Further reading:


*Read about the limit humans will recognize as within their “tribe” in Dunbar’s Number:

More on human tribalism:

Men's testosterone soars when their team wins, similar to war:

 Science Explains Why Women Are Faster to Mature Than Men