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The difference between doctrine and dogma

The difference between doctrine and dogma

The world of self defense seems to be full of polarizing opinions. While it can be said that any field of specialization has its strong opinions (and adherents to them), my observation is that this one is by far the most Balkanized. It doesn’t matter how you look at it, someone else will see it very differently and be ready with a quick retort to your point of view. The disagreements are almost religious in nature, with all the trappings of a medieval crusade against unbelievers. Of course, who is a crusader and who is an unbeliever is open to interpretation!

The defensive training newcomer, unfortunately, is often confronted with choosing amongst the options — each having its very vocal adherents. How is someone to choose, let alone be able to take the best of each and ignore the nonsense?

Knowing the difference between doctrine and dogma will help.

Doctrinal teaching

Every person who teaches any aspect of self defense in an organized manner, whether it’s of an active (defensive shooting, martial arts) or passive (de-escalation, avoidance) nature, has a doctrine. Doctrine simply refers to the body of knowledge or opinion which is taught to others. Whether skills or principles, doctrine is the codification and arrangement of knowledge so that it can be learned by students, as transmitted by their teachers.

Interestingly, I’ve known self defense instructors who assert that they don’t have a doctrine. I suppose that could, technically, be true; since doctrine is the arrangement of knowledge, which presupposes an overriding structure dependent on logical consistency, someone who teaches without purpose or organization of thought could be said to have no doctrine. Frankly, I don’t want to learn a bunch of inconsistent and conflicting information! I do want to learn a doctrine, a body of knowledge which is logically constructed and whose components reinforce each other. That is what doctrine should be.

Cult of personality

Dogma, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs that is accepted without question. Dogma doesn’t need to be internally consistent or even valid, because it exists not out of value but simply out of declaration. Dogma is accepted as true regardless of any lack of evidence to support it. Most importantly, because dogma is based on assertion instead of fact it cannot be changed without affecting the belief system behind it. That means dogma is usually a package deal: you have to accept all of it or none of it.

There’s a lot of dogma in the defensive training world. Dogma can often be recognized by the cult of personality which surrounds it: the originator is often revered to the point of unquestioned loyalty. Dogma will often be out of context, meaning that its application isn’t the same as the circumstances under which you might need the knowledge or skill.

Its adherents are often quite hostile to competing ideas or to examining evidence which might conflict with their beliefs. Where evidence is offered, it may be horribly out of date or badly interpreted. Finally, dogmatists often belittle or try to discredit those who don’t share their beliefs. Ad hominem arguments or appeal to authority will frequently substitute for logic- and evidence-based discussions.

Look for doctrine, avoid dogma

Doctrine, properly constructed, helps your learning; it indicates thoughtful purpose behind what’s being taught. A well-constructed doctrine is relevant to the student’s needs, open to change as knowledge progresses, and internally consistent with itself. The parts make a whole that is greater than their sum. It is organized, which makes it both easy to teach and easy to learn. Doctrine develops skills that you can be confident in, because you know it’s based on something real. Doctrine has integrity.

Dogma, on the other hand, has none of that. It exists to feed egos, both those of its originator and those of his or her students — who’ve gained illusory prestige by becoming part of the body of followers. Dogma doesn’t change, because there is an assumption that everything the guru says is correct. If one thing isn’t, it throws all else into question because dogma is based on that assumption of correctness. Attempts at factual analysis by outsiders is met with ridicule and, if attempted by a follower, ostracization. Dogma is dangerous because it leads the student to accept skills and ideas that might not be optimal for their situation. They may even be completely unsuitable.

(The ultimate expression of dogma are the various “no touch” martial arts which rely on pseudoscientific ideas like “mind projection”. They continue to exist because of the charismatic force of the personalities behind them, but they’re useless. They simply don’t work. The person who buys into that dogma is completely unprotected against any real aggression, hence the danger.)

When you’re considering training that may save your life or the lives of others, look carefully at what’s behind the curriculum. Is is doctrinal or dogmatic? Look for the former, reject the latter.

– Grant Cunningham


Photo by Ryan McGuire

  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On September 23, 2016
Tags: integrity, teaching