Growing Thicker Skin: A Review of “Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to Martial Arts”

Recently, People magazine featured a piece on Professor Irshad Manji.  Manji, according to her Wikipedia entry, is an “author, educator, and advocate of a reformist interpretation of Islam” who currently resides in Canada.

Professor Manji is rare among her kind (educators) in that she calls for her colleagues to teach their students to refrain from being offensive, yes, but, at least as importantly, to refrain from being so easily offended. 

“Teaching young people how not to be offended is to equip them to embrace people as complex individuals and not just as mascots of this or that tribe,” Manji remarks.  Elaborating, she reminds us that since people “grow by engaging those with whom we disagree,” in taking offense, we enter into a “reactive mode” and “miss opportunities to ask” others “why they believe what they do.”

Manji, though deserving of much praise for speaking to a subject of such critical significance as this, does, however, commit a few missteps.

First, she insists upon framing her position in terms of the lingua franca of our Politically Correct Zeitgeist when Manji peddles it as “the price of diversity.” Against the State: An ... Rockwell Jr., Llewelly... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 UTC - Details)

In and of itself, there is nothing inherently untrue about this. Yet “diversity” has become a talismanic PC buzzword.  In affirming “diversity,” Manji reinforces the very PC culture that is the ultimate cause of the very problem—the readiness, indeed, the eagerness, to take offense—that she attempts to solve.

And this brings us to the second flaw in her analysis: It is hardly just children that need to be taught to grow thicker skin.  Children, being children, are naturally sensitive, hyper-sensitive, in fact.  They are, by definition, immature.  They most certainly do need to be taught to be less vulnerable to taking offense, but who can be expected to teach them when so many of the adults in their lives—especially those adults in the field of education—seem to specialize in proliferating grievances.

The readiness to take offense, a function of the immaturity that we expect to find in children, the men and women of this hyper-sensitive, Politically Correct generation have reinforced.

Third, Manji, interestingly enough, quotes Bruce Lee in defense of her thesis.  Lee, probably the most famous of martial artists to have ever lived, memorably implored his students to become “like water.”  Lee was drawing upon an ancient Taoist tradition within which water, insofar as it adapts effortlessly to its surroundings, figures as the prime illustration of the Tao, the Way of nature, the universe, reality.

There is no resistance within water, but it can unfailingly be counted upon to accommodate and, by way of this accommodation, ultimately prevail over all obstacles.

Since kids, too, need to be taught how to adapt and learn, Manji’s recommendation is that their teachers instruct them in the way of a kind of “moral martial arts.”

“I’d go to school for that,” she concludes.

To repeat, Professor Manji is richly deserving of no small amount of praise for her efforts in this regard.  Yet the “moral martial arts” that she proposes as the antidote to a culture of grievance is already offered in dojos around the country.  To put it another way, “moral martial arts” is a term that is meaningless by reason of redundancy, for training in the martial arts is an intrinsically, preeminently moral activity.

It is part of an education in virtue.

Both the young and the not-so-young alike can immunize themselves against being easily offended by practicing the martial arts.

Just ask Peter Liciaga.

Liciaga is a self-defense, martial arts educator and a personal development coach and speaker.  With nearly 50 years of experience in the martial arts, Liciaga is a sixth-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, the same art of which Chuck Norris, Steve McQueen, and Michael Jai White are among the most famous contemporary practitioners.

For the last two decades, this native of a Bronx housing project, a Puerto Rican who spent much of his turbulent youth in a street gang before embarking upon a career in theater, in dance, that would take him to Europe and even Hollywood, has been imparting his passion and skill in the martial arts to the men, women, and children who have enrolled in Dinoto Karate Center in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.

Master Liciaga, you see, is my master, and Dinoto Karate Center (DKC) is the school at which I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from him.

Hot off the presses is Master Liciaga’s first book, Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to Martial Arts.  Huston Smith, a preeminent scholar of the world’s religions, once said of the Tao Te Ching, a slim text that for well over two millennia has served as the sacred scripture, so to speak, of Taoism, that it is a book that could be read in the span of a single sitting or that of a lifetime.

The same can be said of Liciaga’s latest work.  Black Belt Strong is written in prose that is as accessible as its style is engaging, for it is self-evident to the reader that the insights that Liciaga supplies to parents, far from being the abstract clichés and feel-good sentimentalisms that are the stuff of the proverbial Chinese cookie, are hard-earned pearls of wisdom born of grueling experience: The author of Black Belt Strong seamlessly blends the personal and the professional dimensions of his life, universal truths and particular illustrations of these truths, into one tight little text.

While martial or physical prowess for purposes of self-defense is obviously essential to the martial arts, Professor Manji is representative of the average person in thinking that it pertains solely to the physical.  This is a profound misunderstanding, as Master Liciaga, echoing the thought of martial arts masters from throughout the generations, emphatically and repeatedly stresses.  “Martial arts is not just about fighting,” Liciaga writes.  “Martial arts is about focus, self-discipline, self-control, personal growth and empowerment.”  It consists, fundamentally, in knowing “what is right and what is wrong.”

This veteran martial artist and teacher is emphatic: True martial artists “avoid fights,” for they “do not want to hurt anything or anyone.”

The martial arts constitute a mode of human existence in that the arts are designed to cultivate the virtues of character and even intellect, the excellences of head and heart, no less than those of the body.

The martial arts, as Master Liciaga has taught me and countless others, reaffirm something that Western philosophy has largely forgotten, despite having been informed for almost 2,000 years by Christianity (a worldview that, with its unique doctrine of the Incarnation of God, endorses to a greater extent than any other the goodness of matter):

The human person is a psycho-somatic unity, a spiritual being who doesn’t inhabit a body, but who is a body (though not just a body).

In learning how to move and discipline our bodies, we discipline our minds—and vice versa.

“On the mats” at Dinoto Karate Center, Master Liciaga, along with Masters Michael and Erika Dinoto, is changing lives, the lives of children, definitely, but as well those of women and men (like yours truly).  It is my hope that while Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to Martial Arts is Master Liciaga’s first book, it is far from his last.

Irshad Manji and anyone who is concerned with relieving the next generation of the intolerable burden of being perpetually offended will be well served by reading Master Liciaga’s work (and/or, for that matter, visiting his daily podcasts that he posts on his Facebook page and Youtube channel).

After all, it is no mean feat for anyone, of any age, to remain forever sensitive to insults, perceived or imaginary, when Peter Liciaga is constantly calling them, as he writes in his book, “to always be the peace” and “the still amidst the storm.”

Reprinted with the author’s permission.