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There’s virtue and value in thinking. To a point.

A fighting art is a complex pursuit. Matters of positioning, force, counterforce, attention, weight distribution, technique, personality, and skill (to name a few) are available for consideration in every moment.

Analysis, questioning, clarifying, challenging, and critiquing are strategies of mind that can and do lead to deeper levels of understanding. But, when I’m at my best as a practitioner, I am aware of the line that differentiates exploration from rumination.

And when I start to feel the physical sense of constriction that comes with over-analysis, I try to shift focus.

It’s a matter of letting go of the need to understand fully right then, which I can often achieve with a little humor—”ah fuck it” usually works pretty well—and a dip back into the waters of not-knowing.

For a mind conditioned to knowing, the sensation can be a bit brisk—er, biting. But, as the darkness closes in, and the chill cuts to the bone, not-knowing becomes its own kind of relief. I guess you could say I become comfortable with drowning.

And that’s when I start to make progress.

This article is part of my “Martial Arts Journal” series on self-defense, mindset, and practical philosophy in the martial arts and in life. If you liked it, you can read more of my journal entries here.

P.S. Ever wonder what it’s like to have no head? Read more here.

P.P.S. The drowning metaphor was inspired by Sam Harris’ blog post The Pleasures of Drowning.

We had a great martial arts practice last night. As usual.
 
I’ve been practicing a lot more on my own, and it’s interesting to see how much progress I make when I do. But I’m also a better practitioner than I used to be.
 
He Jinbao, our teacher, reminds us to “practice an understood art”. To me, that means two things.
 
The first is, to practice an art that can be understood. Your senior practitioners should be able to communicate about the art in an understandable, non-magical, way.
 
The second is, to practice in order to understand. Always know what the goal is with any strike, combination, or stepping pattern. If you’re practicing “shadow boxing” or “forms”, make sure you can always explain to yourself where your opponents’ arm, head, hand, center of gravity, and feet are.
 
Without that understanding, you’re not practicing martial arts. You’re practicing superstition and possibly some aerobics. Which may or may not have their place (that’s a blog post for another day). Just not in the martial arts.
 
Fighting is an intricate pursuit, and it’s taken me several years to even begin to understand what I’m doing. But I now have a foundation that I can use to ask smarter questions, to think about my practice, and to plan progress going forward. This is a great place to be. It also means that my practice is beginning to bear fruit: strength, power, technical skill, enjoyment of the art, health.
 
I guess the moral of the story is—don’t give up on something just because you don’t understand it. Make sure you understand something before you decide whether it’s “for you”.
 
As I see it, this is an epidemic problem in our world today. For example, it seems like in any given conversation, 80% of time should be spent achieving an understanding. 20% should be given to expanding, challenging, and changing viewpoints.
 
This applies to martial arts as well as to the world of ideas. Now go forth and seek understanding.

This article is part of my “Martial Arts Journal” series on self-defense, mindset, and practical philosophy in the martial arts and in life. If you liked it, you can read more of my journal entries here.

I’m not a proud complainer, but I’ll complain to anyone who will listen that most nonfiction can and should be distilled to a five- or—maybe—ten-page flier, brochure, or leaflet.

By contrast, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction could, with no apologies, be expanded to a 500-page bible of writing technique. And then, to emphasize its biblical pedigree in the mind of many modern writers, printed on the finest available onionskin.

The pedigree is well-earned. I’ve been saved.

That’s why, in tradition with my previous “book notes”-style blog posts, I’ve created a 13-page On Writing Well checklist to inspire and equip all would-be Zinsserites. But this PDF is not a review. Nor is it a summary. It’s an actionable checklist that any writer, aspiring writer, or non-writer will find useful as a reference point for what makes good writing good.

And while the goal of strengthening my craft and helping others do the same is what motivated this project, there’s an even stronger force driving me to publish.

I’ve been writing a lot on this blog and on various social media platforms about freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am concerned with a creeping trend toward totalitarianism on the world political stage. In his recent essay The Threat of Tyranny, author Michael Meade helped me pinpoint this fear:

When the highly presumptive nominee states that: ‘We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it… certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country…’ he is preparing the ground for tyranny and usurping powers that not only diminish democracy, but also defile human decency and dignity. The real ‘binary choice’ is between tyranny and democracy.

And, although Zinsser steers away from the rocky shores of social commentary, I was often reminded as I read that we have a daily choice to make between hands-on violence and communication. Communication is, after all, a defining feature of a civilized society. The alternative is true barbarism.

Writing, as Zinsser emphasizes, helps us to clarify our thinking. But it also helps us to join with other thinkers in conversations that evolve our thinking.

And that’s a form of salvation that most of us seem eager for.

You can download the checklist by clicking here.

 ☆

Here’s an excerpt from the section on conducting interviews:

Interviewing

Prepare thoroughly:

  • Do research on the subject and context.
  • Make a list of likely questions—and be ready to leave it behind.

Write, don’t record:

  • Don’t record; write things down.
  • Only record where it’s critical that you maintain cultural integrity (i.e., of words, phrases, details).
  • If needed, ask people to “Stop, hold on a minute” while you catch up.
  • Develop a personal shorthand.
  • When interview is over, go back and fill in the missing words.
  • When you get home, type out your notes so you can read them easily.

Connect things and organize:

  • Single out important and colorful sentences.
  • Connect sentences as needed (even if they aren’t sequential). Stay true to what was said (not necessarily order).
  • Add words if needed, or feel free to call the interviewee to clarify.
  • Write a lead that tells readers why the person is worth reading about.

Write the interview in a way that balances his words with your writing:

  • Start sentences with quotes, don’t lead up (no “Mr. Smith said…”).
  • Don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said” (only “he added”, “he replied”, “he explained).
  • You can use imagined dialogue and emotion but don’t invent opinions or guess what people “might have said”.

Click here to download the checklist.

Sometimes I make tangible progress in my martial arts practice—striking/stepping technique, force generation, endurance.

But occasionally, what constitutes progress is far more difficult to lay a finger on. Tonight was one of those nights. While I was challenged physically, the real growth was psychic.

I came to the edge of total frustration, and found that I was okay with it for once. That’s a big shift for me—there’s something about being frustrated that regularly undermines my sense of competence.

Today, I was able to engage my frustration as a natural part of the learning process. And to leave it behind when class ended.

I can trust that over the next few days of rest and personal practice, integration will happen. Practicing on my own helps that process along. But nothing helps more than simply letting the process of learning be what it will be: sometimes hard, sometimes joyful. But always challenging, always rewarding.

This article is part of my “Martial Arts Journal” series on self-defense, mindset, and practical philosophy in the martial arts and in life. If you liked it, you can read more of my journal entries here.

Pop quiz. Should colleges be:

  1. Havens for free thought, places where big ideas are discussed and thinking is challenged, and beacons of intellectual diversity?
  2. Spaces where some ideas are too risky, too frightening, and too taboo to discuss openly, and students are stringently insulated from having to grapple with them?

My guess is that, for most of us, and whatever your political leanings, the answer is more or less plain. After all, if we aren’t practicing free thought, free speech, and building intellectually diverse communities in our institutes of higher learning, where is it happening?

Although a case could be made for digital environments like the blogging and podcasting communities, and social platforms like Reddit and Twitter, the internet is still in its infancy with regards to its impact on the mainstream marketplace of ideas.

So, for the moment, the answer has to be: nowhere.

In his 2015 article for the Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out the problem—well-intentioned students are putting pressure on school administrators to create “safe spaces” and issue “trigger warnings” wherever contentious ideas may be encountered:

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American ‘Where were you born?,’ because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.

Haidt explains that, by limiting the range of ideas up for discussion, this trend is not only harmful to intellectual discourse, it threatens our mental health. And there is a precedent in current psychological science. Let me explain.

According to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which I’ve talked about before, when you or I avoid, ignore, or run from a source of anxiety, it effects us by further ensnaring us in the anxious emotion. According to CBT, the way out is systematic and progressive exposure to the source. Find a version of the fear that’s not so threatening, face it, and repeat at ever-increasing levels of intensity until the “core” of the fear has been addressed.

Ideas can have a similar effect. For example, if you or I experienced abuse as a child, a college class that touches on abuse may (understandably) bring up discomfort. The argument against safe spaces and trigger warnings is that, according to current science, there is a way through, but what promoters of the approach are doing is nothing short of structuralizing systems of psychological avoidance.

At this point, I feel that I should issue a caveat: trauma does exist and free-thinking schools and communities would do well to think about how to help people negotiate the darker corners of the mind. (Some ideas that come to mind: partnerships with therapists, psychological education, mental health training, and peer mentoring programs.) However, when we leave such exploration out of the curriculum, we only ensure our future lack of resilience, intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity.

Today, I’m happy to share some positive news on this front: the University of Chicago has issued a kind of trigger warning to end all trigger warnings. In his welcome letter to incoming freshmen, dean of students John Elison writes:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own..

Now, while that sinks in (and I suggest you read the quote again), I began this post with a question and I’d like to end it with another.

In our currently toxic climate of political grandstanding, partisan alienation, identity warring, and demagoguery, which do you think is more likely to be a contributing factor: a national trend towards free inquiry, or a slide into a more reactionary, antediluvian, kind of intellectual intolerance?

Again, it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, I think we can all agree that one path looks like progress and the other looks like—well, something much less tolerable.

Read Richard Pérez-Peña, Mitch Smith, and Stephanie Saul’s full article below or scan for bolded/italicized highlights:

The anodyne welcome letter to incoming freshmen is a college staple, but this week the University of Chicago took a different approach: It sent new students a blunt statement opposing some hallmarks of campus political correctness, drawing thousands of impassioned responses, for and against, as it caromed around cyberspace.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the class of 2020, who will arrive next month.

It was a not-so-veiled rebuke to the protests calling for limits on what kinds of speech should be condoned on campus, and who should be allowed to speak, that have rocked Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and many other colleges and universities in recent years. Some alumni, dismayed by the trend, have withheld donations from their alma maters.

Some alumni, dismayed by the trend, have withheld donations from their alma maters.

The Chicago letter echoed policies that were already in place there and at a number of other universities calling for “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.” But its stark wording, coming from one of the nation’s leading universities, and in a routine correspondence that usually contains nothing more contentious than a dining hall schedule, felt to people on all sides like a statement.

Kevin Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University in Des Moines, dismissed the letter on his website as “a manifesto looking for an audience,” one that “relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance.” The Heritage Foundation wrote on Facebook that the letter “will make you stand up and cheer.”

Other universities have made similar statements, but the message from Chicago is “clearer and more direct than I’ve seen,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a leading critic of what it says are destructive speech restrictions at many campuses. “Sending a letter to freshmen is different than I’ve seen, at least in a long time, and certainly from a major university.”

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, said the Chicago letter was, at least in part, a publicity stunt — “Gosh, is there any doubt?” he asked — and a way of “not coddling students, but coddling donors.”

Jeremy Manier, a University of Chicago spokesman, insisted there were no hidden motives behind the letter. And he said professors remained free, at their discretion, to use trigger warnings, the messages sometimes posted atop campus publications, assignments and other material, noting that they might be upsetting for people who have had traumatic experiences.

Conservatives have been the loudest critics of campus political correctness, and hailed the Chicago statement as a victory. Mary Katharine Ham, a senior writer for The Federalist, a conservative website, wrote that it was “a sad commentary on higher education that this is considered a brave and bold move, but it is, and the University of Chicago should be applauded mightily for stating what used to be obvious.”

But while conservatives often frame campus free speech as a left-versus-right issue, the dispute is often within the left.

But while conservatives often frame campus free speech as a left-versus-right issue, the dispute is often within the left.

“Historically, the left has been much more protective of academic freedom than the right, particularly in the university context,” said Geoffrey R. Stone, a University of Chicago law professor who specializes in free speech issues. Conservatives “suddenly became the champions of free speech, which I find is a bit ironic, but the left is divided.”

Mr. Lukianoff said he and his group are often mistakenly called conservative, adding, “I’m a former A.C.L.U. person who worked in refugee camps.”

The dispute over free speech has ricocheted off campuses and around the country. In a commencement speech this year at Howard University, President Obama said: “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”

In a commencement speech this year at Howard University, President Obama said: “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”

The University of Chicago has long been associated with the conservative school of economics that is named for it. It also takes pride in a history of free expression, like allowing the Communist Party candidate for president, William Z. Foster, to speak on the ornate neo-Gothic campus on the city’s South Side in 1932, despite fierce criticism.

Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at the university law school.

The university said Friday that Dean Ellision and the university president, Robert R. Zimmer, were not available to discuss the letter or what prompted it, but Mr. Manier referred queries to Professor Stone, a former university provost.

Last year, a faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression, appointed by Dr. Zimmer and headed by Professor Stone, produced a report stating that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Last year, a faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression, appointed by Dr. Zimmer and headed by Professor Stone, produced a report stating that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

“We didn’t feel we were doing something, internal to the University of Chicago, that was in any way radical or different,” Professor Stone said Friday. It is clear that some colleges are retreating from the same free speech values, he said, “but my guess, if you asked most of these institutions 10 or 20 years ago, they would have said more or less what we said in our statement.”

Since Professor Stone’s committee produced its report, several other universities, including Princeton, Purdue, Columbia and the University of Wisconsin system, have adopted similar policies or statements, some of them taken almost verbatim from the report. And this week’s letter to University of Chicago freshmen draws from that and specifically cites the report as embodying the university’s point of view.

Many academics say the concerns reflected in the University of Chicago letter, while real, are overblown. “I asked faculty if any had ever been asked to give trigger warnings,” said Dr. Roth, of Wesleyan. “I think one person said they had.”

There often seems to be a generational divide on campus speech — young people demanding greater sensitivity, and their elders telling them to get thicker skins — but a survey by the Knight Foundation and Gallup gives a murkier picture. It found that 78 percent of college students said they preferred a campus “where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints,” including offensive and biased speech, over a campus where such speech is prohibited. Students were actually more likely to give that response than adults generally.

78 percent of college students said they preferred a campus “where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints,” including offensive and biased speech, over a campus where such speech is prohibited. Students were actually more likely to give that response than adults generally.

But when asked specifically about “slurs and other language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups,” 69 percent of college students said that colleges should be allowed to impose restrictions on such expression.

Eric Holmberg, the student body president at the University of Chicago, said the letter suggested that administrators “don’t understand what a trigger warning is,” and seemed “based on this false narrative of coddled millennials.”

“It’s an effort to frame any sort of activism on campus as anti-free-speech, just young people who are upset,” Mr. Holmberg said, “when in reality I’d say the administration is far more fearful of challenge than any student I know.”

Sara Zubi, a Chicago junior majoring in public policy, said the dean’s letter seemed contrary to some of the support programs the university has created or endorsed, like a “safe space program” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. “To say the university doesn’t support that is really hypocritical and contradictory,” she said, “and it also just doesn’t make sense.”