A deep dive into Matt Thornton, Sam Harris and Mr Inbetween

One of the most interesting things I listened to this week was Matt Thornton’s interview with Sam Harris on his Making Sense podcast. Matt Thornton is the founder of the Straight Blast MMA gym network and an early advocate of Jeet June Do, and cross-training in multiple martial arts. He moved quite strongly into practicing Brazilian Jiujitsu after encountering the genius of Rickson Gracie. He was an early advocate of the concept of ‘aliveness’ in training, as well as his uncompromising attitude to martial arts, which is probably what he’s most famous for.

He’s got a new book out called The Gift of Violence, and is promoting it via the Sam Harris podcast. It’s an hour long podcast that you can listen to for free. It goes on longer, but that requires a subscription to the Making Sense podcast. (To be honest, Thornton has done lots of other interviews before, which can be found on YouTube, so you can probably get the info from the bits we are missing by listening to a selection of those.)

Here’s the book cover:

(That’s a terrible, terrible cover, design btw. Using “Full Justify” on text on a cover is a true crime against humanity, not to mention design. Plus, the gorilla looks like it’s yawning, and is badly cut out. However, since Matt’s picture on the BJJ Heroes website is of him in non-matching blue Gi top and white Gi pants, I don’t think fashion sense, design or style is really on his radar, and that has its own attraction)

Check out the podcast on YouTube:

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Thornton is quite blunt about stating his belief that most martial arts simply don’t work and are therefore silly or a waste of time. I noticed that his comments seemed to annoy quite a few of the more serious Chinese marital arts practitioners that I follow online.

I’m somehow stuck in the middle on this. I find Thornton’s views on practicality quite compelling – the martial arts are full of stuff that is hardly what I’d call best practice for actually protecting yourself, and if I was being less generous, downright bad advice, however I can’t get onboard with his eagerness to throw every martial art that isn’t 100% dedicated to practical, alive, self defence training 100% of the time, under the bus.

As I’ve talked about before, I believe Chinese martial arts were never ‘just’ marital arts. They are part of a complex web that linked all sorts of aspect of life in ancient China together – religion, ritual, festival, theatre, healing, medicine and of course, self defence. And while several attempts were made throughout history to isolate just the self defence aspect of Chinese marital arts and separate is out from the rest (particularly after the disastrous Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and then again much later by the Communists in the 70s and their attempts to stamp out individuality and ‘rotten old traditions’ ) much of the previous branches remain – their roots go deep. But is that really a bad thing? People are multifaceted beings too. We don’t only do martial arts for one thing either. I know in my own training for instance, I don’t only train just for self-defence. I train because I enjoy it and it is good for me! I enjoy the puzzle-solving challenge that is Brazilian Jiujitsu, I enjoy the workout of forms in Chinese marital arts and the sense of mental balance and peace it gives me. I enjoy the ritual of having a little morning routine that I practice by myself and the quiet time it gives me. I enjoy the friends I make doing martial arts and the discussions we have, etc.

But I think Thornton’s opinions on martial arts are a side issue here to the most valuable insights you can get from him. What I’m most interested in from Thornton are his insights into violence. I haven’t read his book yet, but I’m going to. The book blurb makes some great points about violence

“In today’s modern world, we are largely isolated from the kind of savagery our ancestors faced on a daily basis. Although violence was as natural to our evolutionary development as sex and food, it has become foreign to most of us: at once demonized and glamorized, but almost always deeply misunderstood.”

Matt Thornton

That sounds exactly right to me – our approach to violence in the modern world have become very unnatural. We glamorise it in almost every TV show we watch, yet we’ve lost connection to it in daily life.

One TV show I’ve been rewatching recently (for the third time I think!) makes very much the same points about violence and its role in society is the the award-wining Australian series, Mr Inbetween created by the brilliant Scott Ryan. I don’t think any other show since The Sopranos has really tried to peel the lid on violence quite so effectively.

Scott Ryan as Ray Shoesmith. A man who knows a thing or two about violence.

As it says in this interview, Ryan’s character represents consequences. The show also deals with another factor that the modern day martial arts are often called in to deal with – bullying. Whether its children or adults being bullied, this is perhaps the one area of modern life that we as a society struggle to deal with the most, and it’s perhaps one area where violence really is the answer. Or is it?

In the UK, Mr Inbetween is on Disney+. I’d recommend it.

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