“Be the change you want to see in the world.” is a quote that I keep close to my heart, and while the last year or so has been really disheartening for me as far as taking off the rose colored glasses I’ve had for the Aikido community, it wasn’t one that ultimately made me want to turn my back on it. I still think we have a chance to turn it around, to truly practice what we preach, to provide a welcoming, kind, compassionate, and helpful place rather than an echo chamber for those who’d like to flex their metaphorical muscles. But the question is, how can we do it?
I’ve actually been active for several years in a few other online forums on Reddit, Facebook, and Discord–poultry keeping, cooking/recipes, real estate, homesteading, gardening, foraging, permaculture, and mushroom hunting–while Aikido is an inescapably large part of my life, these other things have always been my first love (sorry, Adam.) Interestingly enough, while the activity of these other forums are high, if not higher (who woulda thunk that mushroom hunting, for both the magical and culinary kind, would attract such a huge following) all of them have somehow managed to remain friendly, encouraging, welcoming, and rarely, if ever, have any cause for arguments or criticisms towards it or between members. Just what is it about Aikido, and perhaps martial arts in general (although I am on a general martial arts Facebook forum that’s about 4x as large as the Aikido one, and it’s very supportive of both TMA’s and MMA’s), that trigger people to interact so negatively with one another?
The other groups that I take part in also require skill, knowledge, and practice to become the masters of that craft/activity. They also have groups that subscribe to different and sometimes polar viewpoints within them (the “spray” and “don’t spray,” “organic” feed vs. regular, collect in the city or leave’em alone are some of the most common differences that come up) but it never goes beyond, “I choose this way because of x, but you should do what makes you happy.” The experts within these communities also never give passive aggressive or condescending comments, nor do they present themselves as experts providing unsolicited criticisms to other posters. Other than the activity itself, why is there such a huge difference in how the community present themselves?
I spent some time looking at differences, and while there might be an issue of the selected sample–that perhaps practitioners of Aikido who contribute to online discussion are more likely to be of a certain personality versus practitioners of poultry-fu who might be of another–I’m finding that the toxicity may more than likely be a product of what the culture historically accepted as appropriate behavior. Below, I will list the few ideas I ended up coming up with in terms of how we can affect change in our community. After speaking in person to a lot of Aikidoka, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt like one of the biggest issues crippling us was the way we present ourselves to the world and each other, and so if you’re interested in affecting change, then I’d love to come together and be a force to sway the tide.
If, after reading this, you have any other ideas about how we can come together and create a better community, please don’t hesitate to drop me a message (https://www.facebook.com/josephine.fan) or Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Objective moderation of online forums. Perhaps this is the biggest difference I noticed between our most popular Aikido forums versus the other ones that I am a part of, in that as long as the topic is Aikido, it doesn’t matter how nasty, condescending, passive aggressive, or outright mean the conversation gets–anything goes. Every other forum (including a general martial art and MMA forum that’s over 100k strong) I’m apart of that have active, calm discourse have moderators who enforce the rules equal to everyone, regardless of where their personal opinions stand. While they rarely enforce what is said (unless it breaks the rules of spam, inappropriate content, etc.), they do enforce how it’s said.
I have personally found that while the protection of free speech is an important one, without some stipulations, what actually occurs in an online forum is that only the loudest, most toxic contributors tend to remain after they’ve chased everyone else off. Those who dislike confrontation or don’t have it in them to insult others will keep quiet and avoid contributing because they are afraid of toxicity being thrown their way. While in theory, allowing absolute free speech is great, in order to create the kind of community we are hoping for, objective enforcement of how members interact with one another is a must. If you are a moderator of online forums, please consider providing guidelines on what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t, and sticking to them. Create an escalation protocol that all members are aware of. If you are a contributor of a forum that currently has no guidelines or does not enforce them and you would like them to, please contact your moderators and express a desire for them to do so.
If you are wondering where I’m getting this from, I am currently a moderator on the Aikido subreddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/aikido/), as well as on an Aikido Discord server (https://discord.gg/C5scEx4), and have found that a good, fair team of moderators is worth their weight in gold in creating a welcoming and non-toxic community.
2. Instructors and Dojo-cho verbalizing and modeling acceptable behavior. While it seems easier said than done, leading by example is an important aspect of creating the kind of community we would like to see. It would be great if instructors actively reminded their students that how they present themselves online is representative of not only the art, but of their dojo as well. However, that can’t be done unless the instructors are actively monitoring how they present themselves in the forums as well. If the instructors are critical of other styles, practitioners, and react poorly to perceived attacks, it is likely that their students will think that is acceptable behavior and model that.
Setting a standard in our own dojo means that we can nip these behaviors in the bud, and show students alternative ways of responding to things that might trigger negative feelings. One resource that’s great to provide to everyone is a summary of the popular book: How to Win Friends and Influence People (https://fs.blog/2012/07/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people/) which, admittedly, is insidious sounding but provides great insight to how to cope with perceived attacks and the right way to respond to them.
This isn’t to say you should shield them from possible online criticisms, as those will always exist but that being capable of handling them gracefully is an important soft skill (online or in real life).
On that note, it would be even better if organizations updated their ethics policy to address inappropriate behavior, but one small step at a time.
3. Being Supportive and Encouraging of Content. While it might be tempting to just go with the majority flow and criticize every little thing you see wrong when someone posts questions, videos, or statements, it is actually very detrimental to generating positive contribution. If you have any criticisms and you were truly worried about them, it’s a good idea to take it to private messages. This way, rather than feeling embarrassed publicly and possibly reacting poorly and defensively, they know that you sincerely wish them well and care about their well-being, rather than being seen as an “expert.”
(Repeat after me: intention does not mitigate reality–I may not have intended to embarrass them, but the reality is that they felt the embarrassment and that does not absolve me of responsibility. Only someone who lacks personal responsibility will tell someone how they react is all on them.)
Edited to add: To clarify–I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t offer help, especially when it’s asked for, or that we can’t voice our thoughts about something but that there is always a choice in how we approach the topic. If one is truly interested in helping others be better, they’ll choose the verbiage that is the kindest and most readily swallowed, since how we present ourselves is an active choice.
There is a huge difference between “That will never work. I would never do it that way.” and “Thanks for sharing, it’s not how I personally do it, but I can appreciate the differences.” While both show that I diverge in my thinking from the poster, only one is empathetic to the other person’s feelings and opens the path for respectful discourse. Just because I believe I “speak the truth” doesn’t mean I forget that another person has a different set of truths, and nor does it mean that I’m allowed to be as disrespectful as I want to be.
4. Creating Positive Outreach With Other Martial Artists. One of the important things that we are often missing is that when practitioners of other martial arts criticize or try to troll, we tend to react very defensively and aggressively. One of the things that I hear very often is, “It’s so easy to trigger them.” and it is very unfortunate that I have to agree. This makes for a very poor combination since it becomes terrifyingly easy for trolls (those who trigger others online on purpose) to generate the most terrible examples of Aikidoka responses.
I have personally found that not reacting poorly, which includes trying to rebuttal and defend the art at the outset to outside criticisms, rather, letting them “attack” until they ran out of steam and letting them know you understand and have those very same concerns created a much better overall result. By creating a rapport with them and then exposing them to what you love about the art (without being condescending or being on the proverbial high horse) have done more to improve the opinion of the art by individuals than any other action I have personally undertaken. I found, perhaps unsurprising to those who have good social skills and people management, that in actuality, the rejection of the art is a rejection of the practitioners due to the negative emotional ties they’ve associated with Aikidoka.
Recently, a study came out that showed “Rich students who have poor classmates become (i) more prosocial, generous, and egalitarian; and (ii) less likely to discriminate against poor students, and more willing to socialize with them. These effects are driven by personal interactions between rich and poor students.” It highlights how positive personal rapport can affect the view of people towards a group.
Finally, on the last note, I want to leave you all with a link to an article about my personal hero, Daryl Davis, who, by utilizing the fundamental concept that all it takes is the willingness to connect, that you can affect change at the root. https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes