Oct 26 2011

Lies that seem true

Written by  Luis Renato Vieira “Carioquinha” 
Translation by Shayna McHugh

Source: Capoeira da Bahia

Violence is a characteristic trace of contemporary society. It is manifested in different forms in daily life: in television, in movies, in video games, in various sports, in politics, and in the various spheres of human behavior. In global terms, the cost of wars is the item that most consumes the budgets of the various countries of the world. This scenario is aggravated even more in countries that are marked by social inequalities, such as Brazil. Violence, then, comes to be part of our daily lives, and people are obliged to live with it in different forms.

Capoeira, being a fighting style, is particularly subject to influence from the environment of aggressiveness present in our society. It is fitting to reflect on the problem and understand in what way a significant part of the practitioners of the Brazilian art-fight intends to justify attitudes that often, although aiming to find support in capoeira’s traditions, injure the most elementary ethical principles that should direct our social lives.

Without a doubt, we must analyze the common arguments used by those who imagine that they have the power of deciding the standards on which capoeira is supported, or should be supported. In these brief commentaries, we intend to detail some points of discussions that, in the name of capoeira’s traditions, end up transforming the art into a violent and anti-pedagogical practice.

Despite being people who do not know the Brazilian art-fight’s history of conflicts and resistance, the supposed caretakers of this tradition have elaborated an extensive argument to justify the introduction of techniques foreign to capoeira and to evolve it in a deeply destructive spirit.

We believe it possible to expose the deceiving character of this argument, thus contributing (although within the strict limit of those capoeiristas open to reflection) to avoiding capoeira’s continuation in this paradoxical trajectory of technical progress and ethical regression. Finally, while society is in the era of the computer, many capoeiristas are still found in the era of the straight razor.

Therefore, we propose to enumerate some sophisms that are in the basis of certain conceptions of capoeira promoted by various groups of practitioners. Sophisms are false forms of reasoning that appear to be true, and this is where their capacity to produce false concepts resides. We know that a half-truth is worse than a lie, exactly because its half truth lends it an appearance of correctness. So let’s go directly to the subject at hand.


Capoeira was created by the slaves in the fight for liberation; it was straightaway an essentially violent fight, since the slaves could not hold back in their effort to obtain liberty. Therefore, violence is an aspect without which capoeira loses its identity.

This is perhaps the most cited argument by those who intend to make capoeira into a species of “complete martial art,” involving everything from traumatic blows with the feet and hands to throws, twists, and ground fighting, randomly hitting all the parts of the adversary’s body, without any type of protection.

The first sophism is a good example of our earlier explanation: part of a true fact and a false conclusion. The fact that the fight for liberty imposed on the slaves an extreme aggressiveness, in the form of resistance to an oppressor system, is an indisputable truth. It is because man’s greatest good – that is, liberty (without which, one may question if life is worth living) – was involved. However, the mistake appears to be in transporting this fact to present times and imagining that, because of this historical reality, capoeira could never be practiced with other bases, more adequate to our times, which no longer require the fight for physical freedom, but instead a good ability to react critically to the processes of homogenization that continue to make society uniform and imprison human minds.

It is clear that, being a fighting style, capoeira must work the aggressiveness of its practitioners, aiming to reach an elevated level of physical preparation in the movements. However, because capoeira is also an institutionalized sporting practice, it is necessary that respect for the physical and moral safety of its practitioners be a priority. For that, it is necessary, in some cases, to establish rules and limits, without which capoeira comes to be confused with free-fighting, which is a type of competition and not a sporting style.


Capoeira until very recent times was a fight practiced exclusively by individuals of the marginalized classes, who did not have the use of appropriate spaces for the development of their cultural manifestations. Thus capoeira was born and developed in the streets. Therefore, the street is a place that should be used for its practice in modern times, according to the traditions of capoeira.

Yet again we can see the appeal to traditions used to justify all sorts of attitudes. Also, something new – we have a line of reasoning that does not consider the historical change in our society, and considers even less the transformation of capoeira’s role in this same society. It is true that capoeira is the fruit of the heroic resistance of the marginalized segments of Brazilian society. That is where the art was born and developed until the 1930s, when Mestre Bimba inserted it in the middle and upper social layers. Without a doubt the street was – and continues being – a true “cultural space” for the classes oppressed by an exclusive society. However, it is necessary to perceive that the social transformations and the changes that occurred in capoeira itself command a reinterpretation of its practice in the streets.

Initially, it is appropriate to observe that only in very few situations is capoeira still practiced in the streets because of the lack of a more appropriate space. Besides this, since one of the principle banners of today’s capoeiristas consists in retaking capoeira from its condition of marginality to elevate it to the plane of sport and recognized/respected cultural tradition, one must fight so that the institutions continue to offernecessary conditions for capoeira to conquer more dignified cultural spaces in its history of resistance. A more detailed analysis of this problem would also oblige us to detail the fact that capoeira, as a space of cultural production, has significantly changed its role in Brazilian society in the last few decades. We refer, mainly, to the phenomenon of violence that, as we know, assumes completely different forms from the malandragem of the old days.


Improvisation, spontaneity, and the lack of rigid rules are integral parts of Brazilian culture. Therefore, we should not impose rules on capoeira.

Translator’s note: The statement of the “third sophism” is actually missing from the text on Dr. Decânio’s website! Thus, I read the commentary on it and made an educated guess as to what the third sophism was.Yet again, we have a statement that does not consider the current insertion of capoeira in Brazilian society. After all, from the moment that capoeiristas intend to live with more or less formalized institutions in society – that is, teaching and practicing the martial art inclubs, schools, universities, or associations of whatever type – one must recognize as necessary the rules of conduct and co-existence that are valid in these institutions.

Beyond this, the appeal to the statement that Brazilian culture has “malandragem” as a characteristic is deeply questionable, insofar as the construction of a truly democratic society involves surpassing of certain traces that supposedly identify the national culture.

In other words, when we state that in Brazil things work with the base of improvisation – recognizing as a great quality our supposed ability to improvise and cheat the rules – we can be defending certain attitudes that disrespect the most elementary human rights. In the case of a fight, for example, the freedom to cheat rules or propose that rules do not exist can mean putting lives at risk.


The capoeirista, being a fighter, must not, for any reason, refuse to play with another capoeirista when in a roda or other event, since proceeding thus he would act cowardly and would injure the principles of capoeira itself, as a fight characterized by its power of combat.

As in the other sophisms, we have yet another statement that does not perceive the new determinations to which capoeira is subject. It does not make sense to require that the capoeirista today aim to be guided by a type of “warrior ethic,” since, more and more, capoeira must coexist with a wide universe of other activities present in the life of the practitioner. Would there be any sense in imposing on today’s practitioners of karate or another martial art a code of conduct similar to that of the ancient Oriental samurais, without adaptations to the modern world? It is clear that the answer is no, and thus the capoeirista of today cannot be associated with the figure of the slave who battled for his freedom.

Thus, the capoeira player must have the good sense to require that the option of practicing capoeira as a martial art that enriches his life – and not as a desperate combat in which his life is put in danger – is respected. Finally, the greatest liberation that capoeira can allow us in today’s world is to free us from the castrations that society imposes on us daily. The liberation that the modern times require should not break the shackles that pin our legs or arms, but those that impede our thoughts in the course of development of creative abilities and of the expression of our true identities.

The slave, when he fled to the quilombos, or had to kill in order to obtain his liberty, was acting driven by a life-or-death instinct, of preservation of his greatest good: freedom. As great as his sufferings were, that slave was (as all men who fight for freedom are) the embodiment of the fight for survival. His blows were for equality compared to the liberty
that the master enjoyed.

Some capoeiristas of today, when they transcend the principles of our art-fight and basic ethical values, are motivated by what type of instincts? Is the pursuit of liberty behind his often violent attitudes? To the contrary of liberty, there is an attempt to dominate the other, to deny him freedom of movement, to physically and morally injure him. That attitude drives capoeira to destruction and also produces the self-destruction of the individual that practices it. That capoeira, if it comes to predominate over the other, will mean the failure of a project that began in Africa, when the black man was imprisoned and already began to think about strategies of liberation.