09 October 2012

Fat activism, bashing back and non-violence

I went to a talk last week by a guy who edited an anthology about Bash Back and was on tour to promote his work. Bash Back is or was a movement based in the US, instigated by anti-assimilationist anarchist queers. It's not a fat thing, but like many aspects of identity politics, there are overlaps. Bash Back used a variety of tactics, including violent direct action against people and property. I understand it as a public statement by brutalised people of defiance, aggression, and refusing to take any more shit.

I did not warm to the guy who spoke. He was just getting into the stride of a self-aggrandising monologue after an hour and a half. I found him arrogant and patronising, a big baby, and wondered if he had any idea about political cultures in the UK, or thought that people here needed educating and inspiring by US activists. He made no mention of historical violent counter-cultural struggle in Europe, such as The Red Army Faction, The Angry Brigade, or radical groups like The Weather Underground or even The Symbionese Liberation Army in the US, which look like blueprints for Bash Back, and ended very badly for the protagonists. Not even a mention of the IRA.

Added to this, I was angry at his racist dismissal of non-violent resistance, his sneering mention of Ghandi, whom he equated with the passive and politically useless caricature of the candlelight vigil (my partner remarked, later on, "Well, you know, that Gandhi stuff worked for India" ie, it had the power to destroy colonialism).

As if that wasn't enough, I was also appalled by his excitement about vigilante mob responses to violence, particularly an episode where Bash Back queers torched a lesbian business because they disagreed with their politics. He said a few times that violence by queer people against assimilationist gay people is as queer as it gets. He conceptualised queer as a hierarchy of radicalism, with him and his pals at the top. But distinctions between radical and assimilationist are not always straightforward; what about Angela Mason, who was associated with The Angry Brigade, and who went on to chair the UK's primo assimilationist lesbian and gay rights organisation for many years?

I could go on complaining about him, but I won't, suffice to say that it was tragic to see baby queers and people who should know better in the audience laughing and going along with him. I felt sorry for the person who was touring with him, who was waiting for their turn to show and tell, who must have to listen to this stuff night after night.

The guy's talk was a test of endurance, but it did prompt me to think more deeply about a few of my own attitudes to political violence in relation to fat activism and my queer anarchist background. These are not always as straightforward as being 'pro' or 'anti' violence. I admire The Black Panthers, for example, and have some understanding of the context in which they bore arms, but I am flatly, completely against gun ownership and believe there is no place for them in everyday life except at the shooting range.

Here are a few more thoughts:

Fantasising about violence is understandable, it's a rare person who hasn't daydreamed about mowing down their enemies, but it is not alright if it spills into non-consensual material reality.

Violence against people is never alright, attacking property where nobody is hurt is more complicated and depends on many factors. Defacing billboards does not strike me as particularly problematic, for example, especially if you can make something more thought provoking out of them, though it's probably annoying for the person that is responsible for putting them up. But burning down someone's house because they did something heinous, as the guy claimed Bash back did? Forget it!

Adding violence to an already violent situation does not end violence, it escalates it. The people who suffer most when violence is brought into the equation are those who are already at the bottom of the pile. Has violence ever made you anything but afraid, full of rage, helpless, devastated, vengeful? I think it's a fantasy too that people ever learn a good lesson through violence, that is, the lesson that the people behind the violence want you to learn. I once went to a school where children were punished by ritualised beatings dished out by the headmaster. If you're crass enough to think this is sexy, you don't deserve to be reading my blog. What this did was create and teach a totalitarian culture of terror and snitching, but it's also one of the things that made me an anarchist, and determined to use my power to abolish systems and cultures like those at that school.

Where people are brutalised and emotions run high, violence, and symbolic violence, appear to offer a simple way out. I see this in knee-jerk responses to fat hate, for example, which construct an enemy in order to dehumanise it. But freedom sought at someone else's expense is not freedom at all, and I am really sick of this kind of aggression in the movement. The problem is that peace-building is hard work. It is a long-term commitment to mind-bending struggle and slog, it requires vision and hope. Seeing your enemy as people like you is a tough call, as is building dialogue, understanding and compromise. This is the work that comes from valuing the equality and validity of all beings, of seeking an ethical use of power. It's a while since I've thought about peace in this way, and I'm surprised that I feel so strongly about it – maybe I haven't been brutalised enough! But in reflecting on power and identity politics, I feel redetermined to invest in more imaginative, complex, and altruistic responses to violence within fat activism.


Anonymous said...

I don't think its right or okay for anyone to dictate to anyone what tactics any one group should use.

Violence and non-violence is a false dichotomy and one that I am personally quite sick of. I will use the tactics that will most effective bring about the results I want. Is it violent to fight back against a violent force? What gives you the right to dictate the morality of my actions? Who are you to say what is most effective for my community?

Look, Ghandi did his shit and it was cool but there was an armed resistance going on at the same time. I am guessing that that presenter sneered about Ghandi because of the disposition of white liberals and proponents of non-violence to fethisize him with elaborately no knowledge of the context.

*Has violence ever made you anything but afraid, full of rage, helpless, devastated, vengeful?*

Wat. I don't even. Violence by the oppressors- yea its creates those feelings. "Violence"* towards the oppressors- I feel strong, free powerful, I feel change happening beneath my feet. You don't get to dictate peoples experiences to them.

*I don't actually believe that an oppressed class can commit violence against an oppressive force. I fully believe any act taken against an oppressor is self-defense.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I agree, I don't think it's right for anyone to dictate tactics either. These are my thoughts about my tactics, written on my blog, which s a repository for my opinion. Regular readers will know that dictating tactics is not my style.

What gives me the right to dictate the morality of your actions? Well, you can do as you choose, but I don't agree with violence, although I don't get too sad when I see a stone bounce off the top of a policeman's helmet, so there are degrees. Also, maybe we are part of the same communities, what then?

What bothers me about your comment are the absolutes you present. What happens when there are grey areas between oppressor and oppressed? And who decides who's doing the oppressing and being oppressed?

I don't feel strong and powerful when I'm doing something violent, unless it's with someone who's consented to that violence. Mostly I feel like a powerless dick who doesn't know any better.