In this new world that is the dojo, there is no such thing as freedom of speech or expression. There is no such thing as equality. A traditional dojo functions like a family, something I've addressed in several previous articles. But also as a family, there is a clear hierarchy. There is a parent, and there are children. While as human beings we all have a basic right to be treated with dignity and respect, there is a clear order of succession. There is a rigid hierarchy, driven by both rank and title/license, that establishes your place in line.
It is generally assumed that you are training in that specific school because you trust the instructor enough that they can help you reach your training goals. You trust that they have more experience in their given field, and therefore their expert opinion is what you should be following. If you do not trust that they have more experience and knowledge than you do, why are you training there? So that being said, you must also trust that they know what's best for you and how to best guide you on your path once you have clearly established what your goals in training are. You must trust that they know what they're talking about. This does not mean to blindly follow your instructor or to never ask them to clarify why they say or do something a certain way. Lord knows, the martial arts are full of cultists today who never question what they are taught. But what I'm talking about goes much deeper than simple curiosity or willingness to learn, so let's explore it...
Thanks to the internet, anyone and everyone now has a platform where they think they deserve to be heard and unfortunately, this mindset has carried over into the martial arts community. But that's not the way it works. Respect must given to those above you. Even if you do not respect the person, respect their position. So for example, if there is a group of masters standing around having a discussion, as a low grade black belt (1st to 3rd Dan) you have no business interjecting. You have not earned the privilege to be part of the discussion, and the same principle goes for the dojo. If the black belts are all hanging out after class, as a colored belt you have not earned the privilege to join them. In conversations between schools or styles, instructors talk to instructors. Students talk to students. It has nothing to do with arrogance. It's simply paying your dues, but why?
As I reiterate in nearly every article, martial arts are quite literally skills of war. The word "martial" is derived from the root word, Mars, the Roman god of War. When we talk about martial law, we are talking about the imposition of direct military control. When we talk about martial weapons, we are talking about tools used by the military. Therefore, when we are talking about martial arts, we are talking about the skills and systems developed for combat by the warrior class (military). A martial arts system is like an army unto itself, with very similar structure. Colored belts represented enlisted ranks, while Dan grades represent the officers (in koryu arts where there are no Dan ranks, the hierarchy is established by the various Menkyo licenses and titles). Generals do not fraternize with captains, and lieutenants do not fraternize with privates. Doing so blurs the line of authority and compromises the chain of command, an establishment in place to maintain order when confronted with chaos.
The hierarchy of a martial arts system, and the community in general, is laid out as such. Even the traditional shogo titles used in Japanese martial arts are derived from Samurai military rankings. It is perfectly fine and encouraged to get together for functions outside of the training hall in an effort to reinforce the bonds of the dojo family, but do not ever forget where the line of respect is drawn. Your instructor is your instructor first. They are a mentor, a guide, and a confidant. They are not your friend until they decide to cross that line with you, and it does happen. I can truly say that my instructor is my best friend yet that does not negate the respect and deference I give him when we are on the mat or at a martial arts related event. There is a time and place to joke around and be light-hearted, but once the tone changes everyone must fall in line.
However, like I specified earlier that does not mean you cannot ask questions. If something doesn't make sense, or you need something clarified, your instructor should welcome you to ask about it (though there is a time and place). Questions are how we learn, and from an instructor's standpoint I can gauge my students' progression by the types of questions they ask. It only becomes disrespectful when you begin to challenge an instructor's expertise during class. If there is something you don't agree with, ask permission to speak to the instructor about it after class in private. There is often a reason we do something, and it's all in the approach. Simply blurting out, "Well, what about this?" or, "Wouldn't it be better this way?" is a complete disregard for the instructor's position and shows you do not trust that they can teach you. If that is the case, why are you still there?
Now, as an instructor who runs his dojo exactly as I have described above, I can say it's not for everyone. The way I look at it, however, is very simple. There are numerous other options for martial arts training in my area. I do not run a commercial school, and do not accept every student with a credit card. My goals as an instructor are not to share the art with as many as I can, but rather preserve the integrity of what has been passed down to me. Therefore, if my students want to train with me there are certain caveats of doing so. No one is forced to train with me, but while they are members of my dojo I expect them to follow strict etiquette and function in this way. If what I am teaching is important enough to them, they will make it a priority to assimilate to our dojo culture.
Is it old school? Yes. Do I get accused of living in feudal Japan? All the time. However, in my opinion it is the culture of the martial arts that separate them from any other endeavor (especially MMA). Anyone can punch and kick. Anyone can learn how to harm another human being. Without the culture of respect, compassion and discipline, we are no better than two monkeys in an octagon.