On Her Own

Is something better than nothing for self-defense?

Hey y’all – Apparently, wasp spray is a passionate topic for many of you, based on the response to Wednesday’s post. If you’re new around here because of it, welcome and I hope you stick around!

There’s a particular point I mentioned in that post that I want to dig into a little bit more today. It’s the concept that something is better than nothing.

It’s a difficult point to address because just about everything you can think of has worked for self-defense at some time or another. Not all attackers are determined, and will give up as soon as they meet the slightest form of resistance. Some defenders are just effective no matter what they’re doing or using, perhaps because of their size, strength, or fury. It creates a lot of false positives as there will always be somebody who knows somebody who was able to successfully fend off a bad guy that one time with a particular tool or strategy. The problem is not that those self-defense approaches never work, it’s that they don’t work reliably. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other sports, we have what we call “high percentage” moves. They’re techniques that work consistently under a wide range of conditions, meaning they are often successful against lots of different types of people. There are no guarantees that they will work, but they can be counted on to be likely to work, unlike “low percentage” moves that might require an element of luck or a major mistake on the part of your opponent for you to complete them.  Sticking with the high percentage ones mean you’re more likely to come out ahead. So yes, a particular thing may have worked, even more than once, but is it high percentage enough that you want to rely on it for your safety?

You might believe that even if something as a low chance of working, that’s not no chance of working so it’s worthwhile to try. The problem is that every option at your disposal takes up a certain amount of resources: space and weight on your body or in a bag to carry, effort devoted to learning how to use it, money spent in acquiring it, time devoted to figuring out if now is the right moment to try it. Having lots of different choices might seem like a good idea, but reality dictates that you will never be able to have them all at your fingertips in a time of need. You will run out of money and time to train and acquire. You will run out of capacity to carry. You will run out of time in the middle of a fight to decide what tactic to use, or to try one after another as you frantically try to stop the bad guy. It’s that last bit that’s the most problematic. Since you will only have limited time in the midst of an attack, it’s important to prune those decision trees so that you aren’t vapor-locked into indecision about which is the best to use this time, and to only include the highest percentage options as the branches on those trees because you might only have one chance so you need to make it count. See last Wednesday’s post for more about why fewer choices is actually better.

Another reason many self-defense ideas are difficult to address is because they sound great in theory, and aren’t easily debunked because of a certain truthiness that seems convincing based on what you already believe. It just seems to make sense that spraying a liquid meant to kill things into someone’s eyes will make them at least flinch. It just seems to make sense that kicking a man near the groin will make him double up in pain and instantly give up whatever he was doing before. It just seems to make sense that hitting someone with a pokey object will make them want to stop hurting you.  Then, once you get invested into thinking that it will absolutely stop or slow down a bad guy, it’s difficult to hear that you are wrong and have that feeling of safety stripped away from you. Something you thought might keep you safe might not, and that’s a scary thing. I’m sympathetic to that feeling, because nobody – including me – wants to feel like they are in danger. Nobody – including me – wants to find out that the talisman they carry or the plan they have against a potential attacker won’t work. Everybody – including me – wants to be capable of avoiding injury. Everybody – including me – wants that one magic spell that will cloak them from harm. Learning otherwise can be incredibly traumatic, and it’s understandable why we would avoid it.

The problem is that it takes sufficient background knowledge and experience to be able to rely on our own intuition. Just like I’m not an expert on your specialty area of knowledge, you’re likely not an expert on the areas of knowledge that are relevant to stopping bad guys when they try to hurt private individuals. For that matter, some of the people you’ve gotten your advice from might not be, no matter how many followers they have or how they present their background. It’s important not to take anyone at their bare word, and to delve into whether they really are a reliable source and understanding why they’re claiming a particular strategy will be effective. More than that, you need know what they have left unspoken, the assumptions that they’ve baked into the conclusion that a certain thing works – a level of skill, perhaps, or an expectation about size or strength. In my Self-Defense Resource Center (linked from my profile), I’ve shared some ways of telling if a particular piece of self-defense advice is worth listening to. If all we have is a bit of Internet lore and feelings, and haven’t had them contextualized or tested appropriately for real-world viability, then all we have is a hope. While hope is an important element to being willing to fight for your life, it alone is a bare thread to base your survival on, when you could have a strong system of tools, techniques, and strategies to shore it up.

Is something, even something that is likely not to work, better than nothing? Perhaps. But don’t you deserve more?

Hi, I'm Annette.

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