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Judo with WordsReview - Judo with Words
An Intelligent Way to Counter Verbal Attacks
by Barbara Berckhan
Free Association Books, 2001
Review by Robert Anderson
Jul 8th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 28)

This is a book review that I think I could do without ever having read the book. “Judo With Words” trades on the supposed analogy between physical self-defence and self-defence of the verbal kind.

The title is enough to get me going, since the theme of verbal self-defence is not new. Suzette Elgin has written on this subject well over ten years ago and it was then that I started thinking about the analogy.  

I don’t think the analogy is strong enough. We tend to defend our physical well being since there is obvious pain and harm if we receive a punch to the jaw. Loosing blood can be dangerous. A knife slash or a hit with a club can be fatal. The consequences of physical violence are dire but is it the same with verbal violence?   What is there to hurt?  Nothing physically embodied, only psychologically embodied. So wouldn’t it be better if we were just immune to verbal attacks – treating the rhetorical slashes of the enemy with a calm composure and a bit of folk wisdom like, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’.  Someone, Dalai Lamic in stature, I suppose, would never need a book like this, since they have enough virtue to deal with petty insults when, at best, the insults are a function, (of low self-esteem, jealousy, resentment, etc.,) more of the insulter than the insultee.

Wherein is the analogy? At best there is a gentle metaphor. And given the fact that much of our vocabulary to do with both rational and irrational argument are metaphors borrowed from war and buildings, it’s not hard to understand why the verbal defence line gets it’s impetus from. War and buildings I hear you say? Yes, “he knocked down my argument”,  “her position is not grounded and will collapse at the slightest pressure from any opposing opinion”,  “you better get ready to defend your point of view otherwise the other debating teem will start hurling objections at you”. Get my point? Arguments are constructed at presented only to be torn apart. Our language of proof, of having an opinion, and contra-wise, of rejecting other opinions, is steeped in battle and destruction, of claiming territories and of winning battles.  ‘Polemical’ itself has its Greek root in ‘war’ and is now used to describe a vocal diatribe saturated with attacks, defences, guards, and taking prisoners.  

So there is a metaphor in “Judo with Words” --  in the verbal art of self-defence. However, it still remains to be discovered how can words hurt us, and is it that they hurt us only if we let them hurt us. Not all of us can have the character of the Dalai Lama and now that I have read the book I commend it to all of us who are hurt by words.

Berckhan uses the martial art Aikido, (which is like Judo), as the core principle in her advice. Somehow, the seemingly weak person can overcome the stronger attacker and, as in the case with aikido, so also with verbal defence.

What was a bit weird was the chapter on “Giving a Quick-Witted Response”. For example -- Be Unpredictable, Confuse Your Opponent, Discard All Logic and Reason. Quote the Inappropriate Proverb.    A specific example -- if your attacker says to you, ‘You look terrible today, have you been sleeping in a haystack?’  …say back to them,  ‘Make hay while the sun shines’.  And if you can withstand the incredulous stare from your opponent as his mind is embattled with your non sequitur, you make your escape.   I know a lot of elderly people who use these tactics and they win against me every time. (I hope my mother isn’t reading this!).    But really I suppose this would work in real life if your intention is to shut the other person up.

Despite my misgivings with the title, I commend the book to anyone interested in words, conversation, arguments and emotions; and for anyone who has a particularly difficult time with difficult people in their family or work places. The book was extremely clear to read despite being a translation from the German. There are many practical examples and exercises to follow. I would only end this by saying that, as in martial arts, sometimes you just have to run away and not get into a fight if your opponent has more power. The same goes for verbal self-defence. It might make the average person a little bit better in their day-to-day life but anything pathological needs more expert treatment. The only other thing to say is that sometimes arguments are worth fighting for and one may have to suffer the pain and harm if one stands up for the truth.  We may grasp the choice between protecting our ego and asserting what we think is right against violent attacks. We shouldn’t always seek a panacea whenever we experience a little discomfort. It’s part of the territory. 

 

© 2002 Robert Anderson

 

Robert Anderson a PhD student in Philosophy at Macquarie University. A registered fitness leader, he is also a keen martial arts student in Jeet Kune Do, which is commonly described at the art of fighting without fighting.    


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