The Ethics of Muay Thai Propagation: Changing What We Love
above, a nearly 2 hour discussion on the spread of Muay Thai
This video is an unscripted, free-form discussion between myself and Timothy Micias who is writing his thesis on the problems involved in the western appropriation of Muay Thai. How do we affect and change a foreign thing, when we make it “ours”. He is using the sociologist Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” as his guide (you can watch this short video below to get a good grasp of where habitus fits in Bourdieu’s conceptual constellation). This is a discussion that grows out of the lack of academic discourse of the sport, with very little written in English about these issues. You can see a handful of academic articles on Muay Thai here. We are walking a line between employing academic ideas (which not everyone will be familiar with), and expressing our everyday values (which may find widespread agreement). Timothy is also approaching Muay Thai through the social critique of Orientalization, uncovering the tendency to devalue native, colonized peoples or cultures. I knew when he contacted Sylvie and me we would share values and ideas in a general sense, but we really didn’t know how much. This discussion is just the two of us feeling our way through the common ground we might have. We recorded the discussion because these are the kinds of talks we should be having in a broader sense, for those of us who love and have a passion for Muay Thai. As we actively love, consume and propagate this marvelous art and sport, and also inevitably appropriate it, we should have a careful eye to toward preserving the thing which we love, and the conditions which produce it. This, both Timothy and I seem to agree, is what could be called an ecology of Muay Thai. Ecology as a word and concept stems from the Ancient Greek oikos, which is the “home” or house, but even more specifically hearth, the burning fire pit that was the center of Ancient Greek living. Ecologies of every kind are a study and respect for the communal living space of the hearth, the caring for the fire that heats, cooks and organizes all the life that surrounds that hearth, and all the practices that that fire implies. An ecology of Muay Thai is a Muay Thai with a set of practices that seeks to maintain the hearth, the home of it, while still benefiting from the spread of those practices and values. We in the west are always walking a line between embracing something non-western, and disturbing or disrupting the thing we embrace. If we just keep the discussion of that line going I believe we can make much more ethical, and therefore much more valuable choices, in the things we care about, preserving the essence of what draws us to them in the first place.
Note: In the recorded discussion above you will see the entire Muay Thai Library session of Sirimongkol and Muay Lertrit master General Tunwakom. You can watch the full session as a patron here. In the Library the session is accompanied by Sylvie’s commentary, here it plays as a window in the corner of our discussion, silently. This session is referenced in the discussion towards the end. Sirimongkol, Fighter of the Year in 1972, no longer is with us, and this documentation is likely the last and most detailed archive of his Muay and life story in English.
you can understand Bourdien’s framework through the 2 minute video above; this broad concept base is an effective tool in thinking about what it is that produces the Muay Thai that we value, and about what it is that must be preserved if that Muay Thai is to persist.
Some things that I perceive as impacting the fabric of Muay Thai (none of these are “bad”, but they are altering):
- The internationalization of rules (IFMA) in the pursuit of Olympic inclusion. (I’m in favor of this process, but a line is being walked.)
- The shortening of fights to 3 “action” rounds, distorting the traditional narrative structure of scoring
- Kickboxing like “what does the most damage” emphasis, as found in MMA inspired inclusions
- Quick demo encapsulation videos (or highlights), memeing techniques across social networks – abstracting techniques from contexts
- A fundamental change in how “aggression” is scored, and therefore viewed and experienced
- The market pressure that changes Thai kaimuay pedagogies (Thais for Thais) into adventure tourism gym experience (Thais for westerners).
- The “civilizing” pressure to pad-up, and/or age restrict Thais from fighting in youth.
- The minimization of clinch and knee-fighting in all adaptive hybrid rule sets.
It’s also important to remember, market pressures and ambitions are not entirely or even in many instances predominantly western pressures/ambitions. Muay Thai has been and continues to be shaped by market pressures within the country as well, and much of what we identify as “traditional” or Golden Age Muay Thai evolved specifically through those market pressures. The Golden Age of Muay Thai for instance came about through the huge economic boom of the 1990s, which brought an enormous talent pool of fighters, an also a workforce (consumers) from rural Thailand, into Bangkok. The great flowering of Golden Age Muay Thai would never have been without those market pressures. So, as we take measure of the ethics our own own impact on Muay Thai, it is complexified by how it connects up to Thai-origin trends and hopes, many of them necessarily commercial. Muay Thai within the country of Thailand faces acute market difficulties as its core audience has been aging out, as well as attempting to adjust itself from lower-class associations. In terms of analogy: in many ways Muay Thai is positioned somewhere between western pictures of auto racing or tractor pull (“redneck”, lower class), and golf (an old man sport). Many of the adjustments Thailand’s Muay Thai is going through are shifts away from these social pictures, attempting to appeal to younger, more affluent audiences, while still preserving the deeper ideological weight of what Muay Thai has held for Thailand as a whole. Muay Thai is changing rapidly, in country, and the question that we should all be thinking about is: In this change, what is most important to preserve? Muay Thai has faced other crises in the past. In the 1920s British Boxing put powerful normative pressures on Muay Thai drastically altering it under colonialist impulses, an impact that had lasting effect throughout the decades that followed, and in the 1960s it faced – what was experienced then as a cultural theft – as the Japanese attempted to copy the art and sport, stripping it of everything Thai, giving birth to what has become known as “Kickboxing” (and all the variations that flowed from that, including Dutch Kickboxing) that to this day exert pressures on the sport. 100 years ago, a crisis. 50 years ago, a crisis. The sport has remained beautiful throughout, but that doesn’t mean that today’s modern day difficult questions of appropriation don’t pose possible catastrophic dangers to the sport, as legends, great krus and all the practices and aesthetics that created them, threaten to extinguish, and with them the passing of an enormous loss of knowledge, by like the loss of a Library, an Alexandria, or of an entire ecosystem, a rain forest of rich fighting knowledge and acumen. That ultimately is what this discussion is about. Personally, I do not hold that any one deviation away from traditional Muay Thai is wrong or even ethically problematic. It is rather that we should try to be aware of when and how we alter the fabric of Muay Thai, so that we do so more consciously; and when we do change some things we also attempt to preserve other aspects of that living tradition, affirming and strengthening its roots. If we take, we seek to also replenish. Reaching for and changing aspects with one hand, actively preserving with the other. There will never be a perfect balance, but even contemplating and valuing a sense of balance will do wonders for the thing we love.
my articles and works cited in the discussion:
Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Bourdieu influenced “habitus” study of the pedagogy of boxing)
the slow motion of Yodkhunon’s elbows, which Timothy references as evidence of a “soaked in” technique, above
In the service of these ideas is the Muay Thai Library – Preserve The Legacy project, which has been seeking to record and preserve the Muay and the men of still existing Thai techniques and personages. You can support the project here, and browse Table of Contents of its over 60 recorded hours archived here.
You can read more of my A Husband’s Point of View articles here.