Posted May 21, 2014 by Sydnie Jones in Editorials

Update and Response to the Dean Lister Piece


I didn’t anticipate such a wide and vocal response to my editorial on the Dean Lister video. But because there were so many questions,  I’m posting this to address a few comments and clarify a few things.

First, the piece was not an attack on Dean Lister. I referred to it as the Dean Lister piece for brevity’s sake, and it’s centered on something he did that was posted to the internet, but the piece is about how a pre-existing culture manifests in the grappling/jiu jitsu community (and, by extension, martial arts and mixed martial arts) and how it reads to outsiders. The culture in reference is not one of misogyny, and not even necessarily one of sexism; it’s a culture borne of a long-time boys club that has, largely, not been tasked with considering how its actions, conduct, and words, especially the most innocently-intended, can affect women in/interested in the sport, and how they can reflect on the martial arts world in general. The status quo is changing, certainly, but there’s still plenty of progress remaining. So, while it was certainly a criticism of something Dean Lister did and his decisions surrounding it, it was not an attempt to turn him into a villain. I would’ve had to assume far more malign intent to be willing to portray him that way, and the prank doesn’t rise to that level of malice.

The piece was also not to suggest the prank was a sexual assault, and I said as much within it: “But this isn’t about turning a “prank” into a sexual assault charge…” Nor was it to suggest that Lister is sexist or misogynist. When I cited the examples from the Fightland interview and the December Facebook post, it wasn’t as evidence that Lister hates women. It was to illustrate what appeared to be a historical pattern of applying generalizations to women that resulted in their dehumanization and made it easier to disregard any dissenting viewpoints from them. Even this doesn’t necessarily indicate deep-seated sexism.

Paired with those comments were many people saying I’d misrepresented the video, cast the prank in a negative light, made it sound worse than it was, and that the piece was shitty journalism. If that’s how you interpreted it, you might want to give it another read. To start, it wasn’t journalism at all; it was an editorial and clearly labeled as such.

Additionally, the claims of misrepresentation are unfounded. My description of the video is fairly straightforward; indeed, I consciously avoided inflammatory words. The title of the piece is “Prominent grappling instructor has student pantomime hand job in front of class, but it’s Dean Lister so NBD.” I consciously chose not to write, ‘Prominent grappling instructor forces student to pantomime handjob in front of class,’ which is still a true statement. I consciously chose not to write, ‘She slaps him on the back and cries ‘no,” although her vocalization could reasonably be called a cry. I described the video in some of the simplest terms possible, and I said Rebecca ‘looks embarrassed,’ and ‘appeared uncomfortable.’ These are also not stretches to say, but they’re still not claims that she was embarrassed or uncomfortable.

The issue is that when you pare the video down to strictly a play-by-play, it doesn’t reflect well on martial arts, grappling, their gym, or Dean Lister. It’s also clear that it was intended to be a prank. That’s all well and good, but ‘Prominent grappling instructor has student pantomime hand job in front of class’ is still 100% true, and that’s the issue.

This is why Rebecca’s response is not the only thing that matters about the prank and the video. Her response, from the comments:
Everyone, I am the student from Millers Martial Arts. This is a terrible mistake and just a poor example of poor journalism. I have not been ‘violated’ in any way. This was only an internal joke between us three. After all I approved the film to be posted in social medias. I am so sorry that Dean has been put in a bad spot, and I expect a public apology to all of us involved; Dean, my coach Jeff Miller and my self. Dean is an outstanding coach, and I look forward to train with him again.

To be clear, I never wrote that she was ‘violated,’ nor did I ever call her a victim, as at least one person in the comments suggested. And I wouldn’t have, because a) I’m in no position to proclaim her violated, b) that’s not an incident that screams ‘violation’ to me, and c) thus, I wouldn’t think of her as a victim. However, if she had said she wasn’t okay with the prank, and did feel violated and like a victim, I wouldn’t argue with her. The point is, I’m not in a position to determine that, and that’s not what I was doing with the piece.

She also says it was a joke between ‘us three,’ which is not entirely accurate. Directly, it was also between everyone at that seminar, and indirectly, it was between everyone who saw the video, which was at 24000+ views the last time I saw the count, several hours before it was taken down, and, again, that’s the issue. It was not limited to a small group of people who understood the prank’s intentions and all witnesses knew all participants very well, and so, its political effects extend beyond them.

So Lister’s intentions, the instructor’s intentions, and Rebecca’s reaction do not, unfortunately, dictate how a prank like that, that’s recorded and uploaded to the internet, affect people’s perception of grappling/jiu jitsu and martial arts. One of my friends, who has attended two jiu jitsu classes with me, said she would be reticent to train with  Lister, having seen the video. If a singular well-intentioned prank can negate the draw of the potential benefits of training with someone as accomplished and skilled as Lister, then its effects are not limited solely to those directly involved. Also, presenting martial arts as an environment wherein women do not have 100% say in what happens to them is not good; there’s already such an imbalance that making clear women will be safe there is vital. And ‘safe’ means different things to different people.

I do regret, however, that because so many people thought it was a simple case of Rebecca’s response nullifying all of my arguments, there may have then been pressure on Rebecca to ‘make it right.’ That’s a lot of pressure, to single-handedly restore the integrity and reputation – at least, potentially, among readers of the piece – of your school, instructor, and Dean Lister.

But that wasn’t Rebecca’s responsibility, nor was she the sole person who could do that. The only people responsible for how the school, the instructor, and Dean Lister looked are the instructor and Dean Lister.

Speaking of Lister, he was very active in the comments. Despite the multiple ad hominem attacks on me and others who agreed with the piece, I don’t really dislike him. I understand that he felt attacked and, as one might guess, his response was to fight back, very aggressively. Lister sounded to me like he was angry and frustrated at what he felt was a misrepresentation of him. I understand that response, too.

But what I didn’t see any of was a sense of entitlement about the act of pulling the prank or having that type of interaction with women due to his position and accomplishments. When he referenced those, that never read to me like he was suggesting it was carte blanche to do what he wanted in training/seminars. It seemed like he was suggesting his accomplishments should mitigate  criticisms of his actions. Based on some of his comments, it seems like he understands that because of his prominence and visibility, he’s under more scrutiny than most, and that people look to him as a representative of grappling and martial arts.

He also never expressed a sense of entitlement in the comments to/about women, and indeed, did seem concerned that Rebecca felt okay afterward. That’s vital. Based solely on his comments, regardless of what was directed at me, I don’t dislike Lister and I don’t think he’s misogynistic. I anticipate there might be heated responses to some things I write, so even if they’re personal, I don’t really take them all that personally.

So, hopefully, this helps clarify things, and more importantly, successfully illustrates the potentially deleterious effects actions, however innocently intended, can have, and what that means for the communities one represents. People can continue to say it’s making a big deal out of nothing, but the simple truth is that the video was already alienating people. I seriously doubt Lister actually wants to alienate people – especially women, as he seems conscious of trying to treat his students equally – so one of the only things that remains is acknowledging that that’s an effect that was happening. It doesn’t entail an admission of sexism or misogyny – just the understanding that our intentions don’t necessarily translate to their reception.

Thanks for reading.

Edit: Since there seemed to be some backlash to one sentence in particular, I figured I should address it here. This sentence:
So, yeah, I guess when you’re convinced women are money-hungry gold diggers and/or trophies you get when you’re famous because you deserve it, women probably don’t have a voice about the things you do to them.

was interpreted as, basically, character assassination. I can understand how it could read that way. However, that was presented as a possibility, not an absolute. It may not read as that straightforward, but that’s a stylistic choice, and one sentence out of many that were all under the header of ‘brainstorming.’

Then it was followed up directly with:

At the very least, this was ill-considered on the part of Dean Lister, who is a semi-public figure and has an image to maintain.


So within that paragraph, which is just those two sentences, I cover the possibility that it could’ve been something as benign as a lack of forethought or as sinister as sexism/misogyny. I don’t claim to know which it is (although, in this response, obviously I’ve articulated my opinion on it). This isn’t backpedaling. If I were truly convinced that someone was sexist and misogynistic, I would have no problem specifically saying so. As it stands now, I generally point out actions/words that either are sexist/misogynistic or appear to be, and explain why they’re problematic, regardless of intent. A handful of examples doesn’t necessarily a sexist or misogynist make. As I’ve said before, it’s possible to say and do sexist things, and it makes the action sexist, not necessarily the person.

Sydnie Jones