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The Day My Politics Changed

What Headbutting a Homophobe on a Night Bus Taught Me About Political Violence

I didn't feel as righteous as you might think.

by James Butler
08 March 2016, 1:15pm

US anarchist-queer project Bash Back! on the march in Milwarke in 2008 (Photo via)

Crack! Between the instant you commit to a headbutt and the meeting of skull and face, there's a moment, stretched out by adrenaline, which seems to go on forever. Am I doing this right? Fuck, what if it goes wrong? Talk about a gap between theory and practice. Crunch! I feel his hand loosen from round my neck. I take the opportunity, slamming my palms on the bus door until it opens, and run. My ears are ringing; if they shout after me, I don't hear it. It's not until I get home, legs hollow and shaking from the hormonal punch of flight-or-fight, that I notice my own nose has bled down through my stubble.

How did that happen? I'd been reading on a bus home after a party, and some guys had gotten on the bus as we passed near the City. It looked like they'd been out from work, all in suits, ties presumably stuffed in a pocket. One of them took a look at me – and if this has ever happened to you, you'll know that look, a flick up-and-down, disgusted, the assay of the playground predator – and called me a faggot. God help me, I wish I'd had a snappy reply to hand. But like a reflex, I told him to fuck off. That's how I ended up being held up against a window by the throat as he repeated the word, again. And again. I hate that word. I can still see the wetness at the edge of his mouth as he repeated it.

No one intervened. The driver didn't stop the bus. Both these facts would gall me later. But the only thing that distinguishes this from common-or-garden homophobia is its ending: people do suddenly find whatever's out the window of deep interest when something like this happens. It's less common for the queer to win. When I posted about it on social media the next morning, between kind messages of sympathy and solidarity there was the occasional comment celebrating that this homophobe had got his just deserts. I agreed. After all, I'd long held that modern Pride tended to forget it began in a desperate riot; violent responses to homophobia are just self-defence. My favourite image in the movie Remembering Stonewall is a man's recollection of a drag queen sitting on a riot-suited cop, just hammering the hell out of him with her shoe. I thought – I still think – we could do with more of that spirit. Many of my friends, of course, felt the same. Stories of resistance are good medicine.

So why did I feel like shit?

Well, because it's London, and because for God's sake can't we be done with this already, can't we just junk this stupid suburban prejudice once and for all, can't I just sit on a bus and read? And how did he clock me? Is it that I'd crossed my legs too queerly? A lack of rigidity in the wrists? It's that hair flick, isn't it? If you ever wonder why there are so many queer people in theatre, it's because of this: our survival in a hostile world has so often depended on intense attention to our every gesture and all of its possible meanings. Don't glance too long. Don't mince. Careful with the voice. And once every so often there'll be someone to call you a faggot, to remind you, just when you might have relaxed – we're watching.

There's a strain of radical queer politics – associated with groups like Bash Back! – which says I should have been feeling pretty powerful, as if violence had purged me of fear or somehow freed me from any mark left by past homophobia. It's true I occasionally felt that way: suddenly strong, as if I could headbutt every homophobe, and yes, I hope it hurt. The adrenal high is an addictive one, better too if it's combined with righteousness. But more often that strength felt brittle, as if it concealed a deeper helplessness, white-hot rage which had found no satisfaction in its exercise of power. Inside that rage I felt very small; I thought constantly of how casually he'd spat out that word, that look. I'd never felt less free.

There's an allure to this kind of violence, against an obvious wrong. It's seductive. It can show you how close to the surface it lurks in our society, and bring you face-to-face with your own violent impulses. You might begin feel, as I did, headbutting was not enough. One of the permeating effects of violence is that you begin to see everything in its terms: all human relations are boiled down to it, you see it in everything, every word, every action. This is not a new insight: the tragedians of ancient Greece knew it, so did Freud. It can open the way to a kind of messianic nihilism, or belief that violence can inaugurate a better world. Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents, like parts of Max Weber's work, speaks of something different: a chastened recognition of deep wells of violence and a hope that, however unjust, however compromised, the liberal state might restrain those impulses. In this view, society's laws, its schools, its courts and its prisons exist to tame something otherwise irreparably violent in human beings.

I don't think that will do, but I understand that belief a bit better now. I still think the state is criss-crossed by lines of violence, and the threat of violence, largely unacknowledged. I still deplore the habit of writing the violent, uncomfortable moments out of political history – because they're inextricable from moments of major political change. But I am less convinced of general claims that violence can set you free, less convinced it's the whole story. I am more sceptical about claims that the causes of violence are reducible to a single category – private property, a lack of love, whatever – and can therefore be easily eliminated at its root. Most of all, I find myself thinking about "the political" – that is, that category of things we might decide, collectively, to change, and which has often promised an end to violence, or a way of resolving things beyond violence. The 20th century greatly expanded that category: we still have some way to go.

I don't regret what I did – I'd do it again – but it also sparked in me a bonfire of pieties, forced me to look more closely, more uncomfortably, at the relation between violence and politics. I don't know where that will end up, but I think it's a little closer to the truth.

@piercepenniless

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