The HEMA community has exploded in the last four years, especially after the widely-publicized and well-received coverage of Longpoint by The New York Times. Since then, the number of HEMA students and clubs has exploded. This has come with its good and bad parts–the fruition of a dream that many people worked tirelessly for for years. However, it’s also led to a breakdown of communication between the community at large and the people who built it.
This article series is a chance for members within the community to hear from some of the people who built it–where HEMA comes from, what it’s intended for, and why some things are done the way they are, as well as ideas for tackling problems our community currently faces.
This is the first of those letters, from an instructor in the northeastern U.S. named James Clark. James has been studying HEMA for 16 years, and is currently affiliated with Capital KdF and MEMAG Luray. His current focus is montante.
Letter to the community, from James Clark:
Throughout my competitive HEMA career, I have received many, many, injuries. I’ve had my ankle broken by being intentionally crushed by a friend at one event, each of my wrists has been broken twice (two triple-fractures on one, and one double and one triple on the other), my left shoulder’s been dislocated in ringen at another, three fingers broken (my left thumb twice), five concussions, and too many bruises and face-waffles to count. I know that I have also myself dealt out at least two concussions to others I care about.
One thing I’ve learned through this, is that face-to-face voicing of force concerns is something that’s always lacked in HEMA. When it does happen face to face, it’s enough of a shock that feels personal. A friend from Maryland bringing mine up to me face to face one Longpoint followed by a thinly-veiled passive aggressive post after [Longpoint South], is what caused me to take a serious, then more serious, look at my buffalo-ish fencing, as while I was fast, I didn’t think I was hitting terribly strong (I was wrong).
It also got me started paying attention to others complaining about similar things at my home club and other events. Complaints are very rarely directed at the offender, always complaining behind the back after the fact to others, or scowling off on the sideline or to another spar. This was when we in HEMA were still in the knowing-everyone category.
Cultures of excessive force, irreverence, and harm-to-win, form in the school when people choose to save face with someone by not complaining. The harmer learns either that their excess let them win, that taking a hit to give a hit is a good idea, or that someone beating them should be punished. Then that goes into an event, where these new competitive souls can turn off their “this is my school” inhibition button and “let loose” even more for the sake of competition. Someone who has not learned the boundaries of harm is not going to be able to feel when they cross it, and pose a danger to others.
Nowadays in HEMA, this same withdrawn attitude has gone online, with more people who have never met each other and have even less of a reason to care about each other than in years past. On top of that, the faces of HEMA as well as most event organizers and school leaders have a laissez faire attitude of “ignore it and it’ll take care of itself” or “well, others will take care of it, we don’t need to punish anything ourselves” when they see or hear about it in other schools or events.
The internet community of practitioners meanwhile does what it does best, which is get threateningly angry for a week or two, then completely forget about the problem and move on. Rather than the approach of willful, hopeful, ignorance or that of petulant anger, we need to learn to enforce ourselves against both willful and neglectful harm. We need to remove intentional irreverent harm as a possible, redeemable, action for winning a bout or tournament, which unfortunately does mean unintentional breaks of discipline need to be handled similarly to intentional violations.
At events, individuals that who perform actions intentionally harmful, or seemingly intentionally harmful, need punishment at that point of infraction. This operant conditioning is intended to give a visceral response to someone pumping with adrenaline, who can now no longer use it. People remember they didn’t get their reward, people remember when they did something bad in front of their peers. Whether that punishment is a penalty, or forfeiture from the tournament, or expulsion from the event would depend on the infraction.
People with empathy will strive for more discipline after receiving an eye-opener. Someone without empathy will continuously be kicked out, and schools will learn to teach which behaviors are unacceptable, or stop bringing undisciplined people for competition before they’re ready. Groups have very small attention spans, an individual person learns and remembers. When a person is punished, they will take that to their group, and that group will learn and remember from that person more easily. This allows the groups to more easily, readily, and quickly change their internal cultures to self-select people who are too forceful or spiteful and train that out of them.
People will speak out, people will pay more attention to themselves, and the culture of “harm-to-win” will diminish in that club. Without both event culture and school cultures cracking down together, this will probably just steadily worsen.