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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Why I'm Excited People are Watching Cobra Kai

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog! This week I've noticed that a LOT of folks are posting about the Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai as it was just recently made available on Netflix. I had the pleasure of watching both seasons when the show was still only available on YouTube Red (does that even still exist?) and I loved every minute of it. But, I wanted to say that this show is more than just fan service--it has really important things to say about martial arts institutions and the ethical responsibility of teachers/trainers to their students.

Before I get into that though, I wanted to remind you all that I am still raising money for Pil Seung Tae Kwon Do, a martial arts school in Blacksburg, VA that helps students of all ages and backgrounds realize their full potential as athletes as well as moral human beings. The school is struggling financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic and your donations can help them continue their community mission. If you donate more than $10, I WILL DONATE my time to the charity of your choice. Help me help you and help me help Pil Seung!

You may recall that not too long ago I posted about Karate Kid in a blog entitled "Why Do We Bow?" In that post I workshopped some words that ended up finding their way into my dissertation about the embodied rhetorics present in Tae Kwon Do practice.

Here's a slightly updated selection from the dissertation:

Right now I can only anecdotally say that a martial arts education helps students become more emotionally stable and less likely to commit violent acts. I believe it, but I don't have any actual hard evidence. There are some studies out there that start to gather some data one way or the other, but they are few and far between. Back (2009) for example, discusses various data sets and studies indicating that participants in "traditional" martial arts were more likely to have “good moral character” as measure by the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index), JPI (Jackson Personality Inventory), or criminal records. These results were in contrast to serious combat sports participants or other collegiate athletes who, on average, revealed that there was a correlation to high level competitive sport and “bad moral character” (227-8). The question, then, is what is so different about “traditional” martial arts instruction and the more competitive or combat sports oriented instruction that leads to such a difference in student behavior outside of the dojang?
One thing that makes these training facilities different is the kinds of rhetorical concepts they teach students to embody. The Karate Kid movies come to mind here as an example. Mr. Miyagi famously taught Daniel-san blocking techniques in the form of household chores (wax on/wax off, paint the fence, sand the floor) as his introduction to Karate. In this way, Miyagi's Karate was about defending one's own body in the same way you protect or preserve other objects like fences and cars. Daniel-san learned martial arts as a constructive activity, one that creates and builds new life in the world. Johnny Lawrence, on the other hand, is introduced to Karate with the now infamous maxim "strike first, strike hard, no mercy." Right off the bat, the Kobra Kai school of Karate is dedicated to the attack, the opportunity to destroy without hesitation or remorse. As the film and franchise progresses, these two characters transport these ideologies into different facets of their lives, intersecting with other people, often violently. While both character's learned the same physical techniques, the Karate-do (the application of the martial arts to a personal way of life) they embodied was distinctly different because of the rhetorical underpinnings.

Yes, Karate Kid is a fictional film, but it's also an illustration of a longstanding cultural belief about how athletic training can change the social behavior of a person. The data Bäck (2009) presents indicates that this belief may be rooted in actuality. Future research could help codify which martial arts institutions (the more "traditional" schools as Bäck labels them) more frequently provide that kind of critically reflexive education in order to understand if these curricula can actually promote non-violence in students. Additional research could help us understand if martial arts education could help populations who are at a higher risk of being involved in a violent crime avoid such an instance. If so, this data would be especially persuasive in securing grant funding for future philanthropic missions, like those proposed by the Rhetorical Roundhouse Network, ones designed to help provide opportunities and education for students from lower-income communities.

Why is this so important right now?

I've been trying to finish a journal article for literally two years now that draws connections between martial training and the kind of violent "political" participation perpetrated by white supremacists in 2017 like James Alex Fields Jr. and, more recently, Kyle Rittenhouse.

It's the hardest thing I've ever tried to write.

How is it that the villains from my favorite 1980's action movies don't just exist in the confines of my TV? How is it that they can rise to power, command militias, direct the violent force of political extremist groups, and LITERALLY get away with murder...

Before I get distracted by my own rage, what I want to say is this: if you are an educator and/or a teacher of martial arts and you are somehow condoning or defending this kind of violent behavior, I think its time you pick another job. Be more like Mr. Miyagi and help people see the ways they can work toward actionable change in the world. Instead of finding ways to divide us, learn to tend to the bonsai tree, learn to paint the fence, learn to use your strength and platform constructively for a better tomorrow.

I hope I can get these thoughts down more intelligibly soon but it seems like every day just provides 10 more reasons to be furious.

So, instead, I'll share some goodness with you all before I go.

Did you catch last week's episode of Good Black Friday? If not, be sure to check it out. Like, share, and subscribe if you want to help support the mission of the future Rhetorical Roundhouse Network.

That's going to do it for this week--apologies if that was all a bit scattered.

As I tried to say, I think Cobra Kai is fantastic. The show provides a believable, likable, and sympathetic antihero who is a product of trauma instigated by 1980’s macho martial culture in America. The move in the second season to escalate violence and then comment on the ethical responsibility of martial artists to teach restraint is hugely important. I hope you all watch, enjoy all the fun throwbacks to the original series, but also use it as a starting point for discussion about violence and martial education.

As always, thank you for stopping by.


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