Early on New Years Day 2013, two high-profile competitors from the Lloyd Irvin Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu team – Matthew Maldonado and Nicholas Shultz – raped a drunk teammate in a Washington D.C. parking lot. The assault was captured on video and hit the BJJ world like a firestorm. About a week later, another story resurfaced: a gang rape case from 1989 involving a Lloyd E. Irvin Jr. Things got ugly. A debate sprung up about whether a “rape culture” exists in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Tribalism reared its (sometimes) nasty head in a localized exhibition of a species-wide phenomenon.
The famously vocal Lloyd Irvin remained almost silent for three weeks while he was brutalized on social media, forums, and message boards. On January 22, 2013, Gracie Mag’s Luca Atalla asked the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community to cool their jets and make sure that the accused was, in fact, the same Lloyd Irvin. Shortly after, Lloyd issued his official statement.
It’s a common martial arts tenet that the best defense is a strong offense. A number of Lloyd Irvin associates adopted this mindset and began attacking the victim of the 1989 attack, a vivid example being the statement allegedly made on January 14, 2013 by Lloyd Irvin black belt Phil Proctor on the Total Protection Interactive forum. Lloyd’s confidence, drive, and aggressive communication strategy have earned him his fair share of supporters and detractors and, protected by the anonymity of the Internet, both groups lit up the BJJ message boards. It was obvious that many had picked a side before seeing the facts. Tribalism in action.
Ryan Hall on the Problem with Tribalism in the Martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Communities
On January 18, 2013, Ryan Hall, owner of 50/50 BJJ and former Team Lloyd Irvin competition star, released his Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community in response to the Team Lloyd Irvin situation. Among concepts like hero worship and cult behaviour in the martial arts, Hall’s letter further developed the sentiments expressed during his August 15, 2011 interview with Erin Herle of Budo Videos:
“I didn’t join a gang when I started this sport. Anyone who treats someone else differently because they happened to sign up and pursue a sport (professionally or otherwise) at a facility other than their own–likely because of proximity to their house or job–should probably take a moment to reassess their priorities.”
At 22 pages, Ryan Hall’s Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community is lengthy, thoughtful, honest, and one of its key messages extends well beyond the martial arts world: blind tribalism is rarely a good thing.
Tribalism is Natural Human Behaviour
Tribalism is nothing new, it’s ingrained in the human psyche. And it isn’t a bad thing. Google “find your tribe” a you’ll find a wealth of positivity, such as Dr. Lissa Rankin’s Psychology Today article, “The Health Benefits of Finding Your Tribe.” A personal example: in 2001 I moved 4500 kms across Canada from Toronto, Ontario to Vancouver, BC. Being a lifelong skateboarder, “finding my tribe” was a matter of taking up residence at Hastings Skatepark and not being a kook. Within a couple of years I had a larger social circle than I’d managed to build in seven years of living in Toronto.
By providing a sense of belonging – sometimes even closer to an extended family - tribalism has been a positive force in the lives of countless people. But tribalism gets into shaky territory when members’ actions are guided by loyalty to the tribe rather than by rational thought or morality. In his autobiography, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angel Motorcycle Club, Sonny Barger discusses the “One on all, all on one” motto of the Hell’s Angels.
“a person hits your brother he’s gonna have fifty of us on his neck. We stick up for our own, Right or wrong. Think about it. If your own brother is getting his ass kicked, do you give a damn if he is in the wrong or not? Fuck it if he’s wrong, fuck it if he’s right, you’re going to jump in for him. If he’s kicking ass, cool. But as soon as he gets hit, then fuck all, fair fight.”
A few more books that explore the topic of tribalism in the United States:
- The Black Hand: The Bloody Rise and Redemption of “Boxer” Enriquez, a Mexican Mob Killer by Chris Blatchford
- Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur.
- This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang by Samuel Logan
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Hailey
Religious and Ethnic Tribalism
Without a doubt, the most deadly types of tribalism involve religion, an obvious example being the conflict in the Middle East. In his article “The Distant Executioner” in Vanity Fair, William Langeweische interviews a US military sniper about the role religion plays during his missions in Afghanistan and Iraq:
Sniper: “I believe there are bad people, and God put people here to shoot those people, to let other people live peaceful lives… I know that God has been with me actively in battle.”
Langewiesche: “You’ve been fighting Muslims who believe the same thing.”
Sniper: “It’s a conundrum. But Jesus was resurrected after three days, and you can visit Muhammad’s grave.”
On the other side of the lines, Islamic fundamentalism of the type taught in many of Pakistan’s madrassas leads to a similar unquestioning mindset. In her June 15, 2011 article for Reuters, “Pakistan’s female madrassas breed radicalism”, Rebecca Conway of Reuters interviews a Pakistani student:
Asked about the killing of a governor earlier this year because he opposed the country’s controversial blasphemy law, Varda, without hesitation, said Salman Taseer’s murder by his own bodyguard was the right thing to do.
“If people … call themselves Muslims and they are members of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, then they should not be criticizing this law,” she said.
“I am sorry to say this, but this is what he deserved.”
Religion has been a positive force in many lives, and I take pride in the fact that I can walk into my home gym, Dynamic MMA, on any given night and find a very cool group of Christian, Sikh, Muslim, atheist, Jewish, agnostic, etc. teammates learning and training Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay Thai together. But as human history has taught us, when one religion teaches (rationally or not) its followers that those “other” religions are evil, those followers often don’t question; they just start killing.
Of course this sort of tribalism isn’t limited to religion, manufactured hatred between ethnic groups has also had horrific consequences around the world. Recommended viewing / reading:
- Hotel Rwanda
- Darfur Now
- A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
- The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society , No 11) by Michæl A. Sells.
Tribalism in Sports
We’ve gone a bit far afield here, so to bring things in while maintaining some continuity let’s look at tribal behaviour in a sport that’s akin to a religion in the United States – American football.
How about the case of the Steubenville, Ohio high school football team members who drugged and gang raped a teenager, took photos during the assault, and then joked about it on a video that was subsequently found and released by “hacktivist” group Anonymous. What happened when that story hit the news? Many Steubenville residents were convinced that a coverup was going on with the intention of protecting the football team. Defend the tribe, at all costs.
Take a look at the Penn State student riot on Nov. 10, 2011. Why were the students so angry and destroying TV network broadcasting vans? Because Penn State had just fired their beloved football coach Joe Paterno, a school legend who had led the team to 37 NCAA bowl appearances (and 18 wins) over 46 years. But why was he fired? Because he had covered up for Jerry Sandusky, a pedophile who had sexually abused a reported eight boys over a 15-year period. Just like we heard from Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger above, forget right and wrong, protect the tribe.
And why stop on this side of the pond? Take a look at some photos of the tribal phenomenon of soccer (football) riots in Europe, or watch some video footage of the senseless destruction (with an appropriate soundtrack by The Blitz):
“Someone’s Gonna Die” by The Blitz
This is where the good times went
With his brains lying on the pavement
With a broken bottle in his hand
And another in his back
Do you feel alright?
Oi! Oi! Oi!
Someone’s gonna die tonight
Oi! Oi! Oi!
Do you feel alright?
Oi! Oi! Oi!
The boys are out tonight
Was it something that he said?
Or his football scarf now stained red
Or the broken bottle in his hand
You will never understand.
Be Loyal to Your Tribe. But Don’t Be Blind
It’s natural to want to be part of a tribe. And it’s also natural to defend your tribe if you feel that they’re under attack. But when faced with a delicate situation, think carefully before acting. Don’t sacrifice rationality for tribe loyalty. Do your research and confirm facts no matter who they come from, because when the only version of reality you see is the one coming through a tribal filter you’ve crossed into the grey zone between a tribe and a cult.
- Armas, Genaro C. “Penn State Trustees Fire Paterno, Students Riot.” Associated Press. November 10, 2011. http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/45233483/ns/sports-college_football/
- Conway, Rebecca. “Pakistan’s female madrassas breed radicalism.” Reuters. June 15, 2011. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/15/us-pakistan-women-idUSTRE75E27T20110615
- Herle, Erin. “Ryan Hall on Training with Everyone”. Budo Videos. August 15, 2011. http://www.budovideos.com/online/bjj-news/ryan-hall-on-training-with-everyone/?utm_campaign=gaffiliates&utm_medium=cpa&utm_source=gan
- Langeweische, William. “The Distant Executioner.” Vanity Fair. February 2010. http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2010/02/sniper-201002
- Noble, Andrea. “Surveillance cameras captured rape in D.C. parking garage.” The Washington Times. January 7, 2013. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jan/7/dc-womans-memory-new-years-sexual-assault-hazy/
- Zimmerman, Kent. Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. HarperCollins Publishers. 2000.