Year of the Contextualist

The biggest problem some people have with tactics is absolutes, and it’s not really that they have a problem with absolutes, it’s that they have a problem with accepting the fact that absolutes don’t exist. Maybe in another world absolutes thrive, but in the world of tactics, absolutes are not only wrong, they are the song of the Siren.

What is missing in most – if not all – tactical discussions is context. The single most important factor of all. Context. Webster’s defines context as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed”. Or, as is often the case, the things which people most like to leave out. I’m an unabashed contextualist: I love it. I crave it. I thrive in the world of context because context is where abstract ideas are brought to life. Context is where experience and knowledge meet to show their wisdom. Context is marrow. And, alarmingly, most often ignored.

Context, my world, is the enemy of the Absolutist. Absolutists are hard “yes and no” yeses and noes types. Absolutists argue the merits of when to use a light on a gun while contextualists talk about the utility of it. Absolutists decry using anything other than a licensed tourniquet as a tourniquet while contextualists realize the merit of it. Absolutists, by definition, believe in a “ value or principle that is regarded as universally valid or that may be viewed without relation to other things”. Absolutists exist within a vacuum of their own ideas. You’ll find most absolutists in and around chat rooms and discussion groups and loading tables, eager to share their absolute beliefs and absolute opinions. Absolutists, typically, have had an experience but didn’t gain any relevant knowledge or have a little bit – or a lot – of knowledge but no relevant experience. Absolutists are missing the key ingredient to nurturing their experience and knowledge into wisdom: context.

Those of you that have attended the Killhouse and our live-fire range know all about contextualism, mostly through how I answer your questions: I make you describe to me the circumstances surrounding your question and, through your process of verbalizing the question you will, most often, find your answer. In a true example of the guided discovery learning method I function as the person taking you across the river. You, now recognizing the context, have answered your own question. And that is what I want this next year to be for you: the Year of Context. The year of answering your own questions, not listening to absolutists. A year of pushing boundaries, not sitting at the edge of a flat earth.

Everybody knows President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech Citizenship in a Republic that, in part, says “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better”. It has been included in speeches and ceremonies and eulogies and even printed on posters in locker rooms and team rooms and ready rooms around the world. The true beauty of those words comes from the context: Roosevelt believed in learning by doing. Standing at the dais at what he called “the most famous university of medieval Europe” his most prescient line, to me, came just a few lines later, in front of the crowded Paris Amphitheater, in a world that was being introduced to the airplane and was four years away from a Great World War, Roosevelt spoke condemnation of today’s Absolutist: “Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. “

Let’s do a little word substitution game. For each time you see the word Contextualist and Absolutist replace it with professional and amateur. Now read it again.

2017 is here. The Year of the Contextualist is upon us. It is your year. So get up, split the ropes, and come into the arena. It’s time to quell and ride.