Something I have noticed about jiujitsu is not unique to jiujitsu. It’s part of many organizations. It is related to the rules that are spoken and the ones that are unspoken.
The written rules
Brazilian Jiujitsu is a martial art where you are divided into a hierarchy based on your belt color. There are understood rules of conduct that apply to where you are in the hierarchy. For example, where you line up at the opening or closing of class is based on your rank. There are clear rules on what belts can teach, what moves are legal in competition, what moves you need to know to advance to another belt, what rank belts can promote others. These rules provide a strong framework for how to navigate. Every organization needs rules. And organizations with a hierarchy definitely need some delineation to help understand the hierarchy itself: who reports to whom, and who has to defer to whom, are important rules to maintain order and allow those of higher ranks to have authority over lower ranks to the extent it is necessary in an organization.
The unwritten rules
In jiujitsu we also learn other rules of conduct that aren’t always written down but are understood and you’d better learn them too if you want to get along. For example, if you and your friend are rolling and come too close to another pair of athletes rolling, it is understood that the lower ranked belts have to stop their roll and move away. Certainly the rule will have to be spoken at some point usually by an annoyed higher belt that tells the lower ranked belts to get up and move. This rule is a simple tie breaker and it makes sense because often matches between higher belts are a little more intense and have a little more at stake. And also it is more likely that higher belts might be training for an event and that lower belts are not as invested in the outcome of their roll. A less known and less defensible unspoken rule is that lower belts should not ask higher belts to roll and a the related rule that if a higher belt asks you to roll, it’s considered bad form to decline the invitation. This rule doesn’t seem to have any logic behind it other than maintaining the hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy. There is no real reason why people shouldn’t be allowed to ask to roll or decline from rolling with anyone for any reason. This is more so with female athletes. Male teachers should avoid situations where they are asking to roll with their female students and especially creating situations where they feel that they are powerless to decline. Furthermore, it is important that everyone feel empowered to ask to roll with whomever they want. This is also tempered by the fact that the instructor should try to pair up good matches by size, ability, and gender.
There are myths that also abound in the jiujitsu culture. For example, the classic myth that students should never wash their belts because all their power and knowledge will wash away is ludicrous but people still say and, worse yet, people believe it. You should wash your belt because it gets sweaty and carries germs, not knowledge. There are other myths as well like a higher belt should never tap to a lower belt, a good blue belt could beat any regular person in a street fight.
The shit they don’t tell you
The shit they don’t tell you, is stuff that happens that is slightly more subversive. Every BJJ school has a few “enforcers” — those guys that are the first line of defense when an outsider comes in. Usually when someone comes into the school with a chip on their shoulder, the instructor will have their go to enforcer roll with the outsider to test them or humble them. Sometimes the enforcer doesn’t even know they’re the enforcer, sometimes its just a guy you can count on to go 100 percent and not give anybody a light roll. Sometimes the enforcer is someone whose personality is well suited to the job and all it takes is a knowing glance from the instructor to signal that person to do what they love: lay a smack down.
Jiujitsu is often referred to as a “brotherhood.” We share the love for this art and we have each other’s backs. School’s have a tight knit culture. There are lots of fast friendships within the school and lots of socializing outside the school and although schools often have rivalries with other schools, but when it comes down to it, it’s always jiujitsu against the world. So when two new people meet and find out they both do jiujitsu, it is easy to become friends. When schools have rivalries it is easy to that spill over into social interactions in real life and on the internet, but when a non-jiujitsu person says something bad about jiujitsu, all the jiujitsu people rally together.
None of this is me saying there’s anything wrong with jiujitsu. It’s me saying that in an insulated, male-dominated, testosterone-driven, sport that is based on physical dominance, where a top-down hierarchy exists there are layers to the rules and beliefs that people hold and that everyone knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to. The important thing is to look at the organizations that you are affiliated with and understand what rules are you subscribing to. Take a hard look and try to understand the unwritten language of the world you’re in. On it’s face we can say this organization is good because of the forward-facing rules that are there for everyone to see. And we can look at the individual level and say, all the people are good people. But a bunch of good people in a good school can still have a few people that fall for the myth that they shouldn’t wash their belts and that could lead to a staff infection.
Can we extrapolate this idea to other institutions and brotherhoods where the written rules say one thing and the unwritten rules say something else? Take another male-dominated, brotherhood with an emphasis on physical dominance and power and combine that with top-down hierarchy and you have a good recipe for abuse of power and bad decisions. It’s a great way to get good people to do bad things.