“Are you challenging me to a fight?”
The statement above is an official sample of verbal jiu-jitsu, as sanctioned and promoted by the Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu empire. In their Bullyproof instructional video, Ryron and Rener Gracie explain how kids can use the principles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to stand up to bullies. Their program emphasizes respect, self-discipline and restraint, and the avoidance of physical force. Verbal jiu-jitsu is one tool a child can use to assert dominance over the bully without getting into a fight.
This question was not what I had expected from the “verbal jiu-jitsu” section of the curriculum. I had anticipated a statement that would allow the child to stand up for himself—something like, “I am not going to do what you tell me to”— not an invitation for the bully to take a swing at him.
The Gracies explain that this is a strategic question that might produce several outcomes. The bully might answer in the negative, in which case he or she has effectively backed down and can’t continue harassing the child (according to the Gracies, although I envisioned alternate scenarios, like, “No, I’m just going to carry on making your life a living hell, if that’s okay with you”). Or the bully might answer in the positive, in which case he or she will have to make the first move in the fight, at which point the child is justified in defending him or herself. That’s when the physical jiu-jitsu comes into play.
In this way the question truly does mimic Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which anticipates a range of outcomes and responses in reaction to any single move. A jiu-jitsu lesson often sounds something like: You will pull on your opponent’s right arm with your left arm. If he steps his left foot forward, you will put your right foot behind his knee. If he kicks his leg back for balance, you will put your foot behind his opposite ankle. If he falls to the side, follow him and take his back.
So I suppose the question about whether the bully is actually looking for a fight is a good example of verbal jiu-jitsu. Rather than waiting passively and without a strategy, the child asks a question that could provoke several predictable reactions, and then prepares for each possibility.
Whenever I hear the term verbal jiu-jitsu, I wonder to what degree it is possible, or advisable, to view a verbal interaction as a martial art. On the one hand, we often face situations where we are trying to use language to achieve some end, to gain power over a situation or get something we want, and strategic use of language could help us do that. On the other hand, all dialogue can be seen as trying to get our own interests met; so how do we know when to call off the battle and just talk?
Most of the time that I hear the term—and I hear it a lot, mostly on NPR—it seems to refer to a use of language that is misleading or tricky, either in a positive way. A common statement like, He is a master of verbal jiu-jitsu, might be a compliment or an insult.
When I hear the use of the term to mean trickery, I often wonder what the speaker thinks jiu-jitsu is. The word jiu-jitsu means “the way of yielding,” which refers to using an opponent’s force against him, usually to trap him into a technique that causes pain and damage without much force, such as a joint lock or choke.
I imagine that the concept of verbal jiu-jitsu came from someone who actually knew what jiu-jitsu entailed, someone who observed similar uses of deflection and submission in language. But now, the concept of jiu-jitsu is as blurry as the line we are toeing—or is it towing?—in that other dying metaphor. It reminds me of a recent complaint, sent in by an NPR listener, about the use of the word kabuki to refer to something that is a sham, a performance that is just for show. These Japanese terms may lend an air of worldliness to our critiques of our own culture, but not if we don’t know what the words actually mean.
Occasionally, though, I see verbal jiu-jitsu used to mean something related to the actual principles of jiu-jitsu. One good example is from a website critiquing an exchange between President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain:
MCCAIN: I would just make one comment. Why in the world, then, would we carve out 800,000 people in Florida that would not be—have their Medicare Advantage cut? Now, I proposed an amendment on the floor to say everybody would be treated the same. Mr. President, why should we carve out 800,000 people because they live in Florida to keep the Medicare Advantage program, and then want to do away with it?Despite some typos and spelling errors on the website, the person who called this verbal jiu-jitsu was actually working with an idea of dialogue as a martial art. He writes, “When Obama does not meet rhetorical force with force of his own McCain quite simply does not know what to do next and so he just stops.”
OBAMA: I think you make a legitimate point.
MCCAIN: Well, maybe….
OBAMA: I think you do.
MCCAIN: Thank you very much.
In other words, Obama is using the force of McCain’s attack against him. McCain expects a disagreement, and when he is confronted instead with an agreement, he rotely disagrees with it, which leads him to disagree with his own initial statement: “Well, maybe [I make a legitimate point],” he says. This reflects a classic martial arts principle: if your opponent pushes, you should pull; if he pulls, you should push. McCain pushed Obama, expecting him to push back—when Obama pulled instead, McCain lost his balance and fell on his face.
One other place this metaphor gets fully teased out is in a Wall Street Journal interview with David Mamet. The article’s title, “Mamet’s Jiu-Jitsu Isn’t Just Verbal,” refers to the playwright and filmmaker’s six years studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which was the topic of his movie Redbelt.
In contrast to its title, the article spends quite a bit of time explaining how Mamet’s jiu-jitsu is verbal. Most obviously, as a playwright, he is known for his obsessive focus on the slipperiness and trickiness of language.
In the article, Mamet explains how he applies lessons from jiu-jitsu to conflicts in his regular life. For example, when Mamet was betrayed by a friend, he asked his teachers how he should handle the situation.
"My teacher Renato, of course, came back with 'Don't carry someone else's weight. Let him carry the weight; let it come back to haunt him.' This is one of the central tenets of jiu-jitsu. When you carry the other person's mass you tire yourself and so lose your ability to think clearly. That was the group's way of telling me to let the situation go, to walk away—which I did."
But when Mamet uses so-called verbal jiu-jitsu on the interviewer, he really just gives obnoxious, evasive answers to the interviewer’s questions. When the interviewer asks how Redbelt relates to Mamet’s other work, Mamet responds, “It’s later.” When the interviewer asks if there are differences between the use of language in this film from his earlier ones, Mamet responds, “None.”
The interviewer considers these deflections—which many people would just call rude—to be linguistic martial arts moves: “Mr. Mamet proved as slippery as a well-oiled grappler,” he writes, in preface to this section of the article.
This made me wonder, when we think we are being martial artists with our speech, how often are we just being rude and obnoxious?
Like Mamet, and perhaps like most people who study martial arts, I have tried at times to apply these arts to verbal interactions. I sometimes feel a thrill of power as I sit through a heated debate at a meeting at work and keep myself from engaging in the pointless bashing of conflicting ideas against one another. I sink into a kind of meditation, waiting until all of their respective punches have been thrown. Then, if there is still time, and if I think I have anything productive to add that will help resolve the problem, I will say it. If not, I don’t waste my energy countering force with force.
I know this strategy is working because it’s had the unfortunate side effect of getting me dragged to a lot of meetings—I’ve been told that I am seen as a good mediator. However, I am often also told that I freak people out when I am sitting, blank-faced and disengaged, waiting for the arguers to wear themselves out. Which makes me wonder—am I like Mamet? When I practice the martial art of discussion, am I being strategic, or am I just being an asshole?
Ultimately, the idea of showing off one’s clever wrestling moves in conversation is misguided. With the exception of some boxers and professional fighters, who like to use talk to bolster their confidence, real martial artists don’t talk a lot. They listen, and they speak selectively. That’s the real verbal jiu-jitsu, knowing when you need to assert your views and when you don’t. I’m not always so good at it, but I’m learning.