I nearly started off 2012 in:
1. the hospital, or
2. a jail cell.
Option 1 is definitely more likely. It’s a sobering realization, but now that I think on it, I doubt I could have subdued the guy. I know my friends would have intervened, but possibly not before serious damage occurred.
You see it at every boxing weigh-in. It’s a ritualized encounter. Young men have the script for it printed in their cultural DNA.
Even in boots, I was a good three inches shorter, staring up into his shiny, unblinking eyes, our flared noses nearly touching. (This was extremely dumb on my part. It meant my spine was arched a tiny bit back. With my feet square, an uppercut would have sent me into the wall.)
As he growled dire threats into my face, I could have paused, tented my fingers, and said “sir, that’s a criminal code violation carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. I suggest you lawyer up.” Instead I grinned and started yapping back like I learned to do on ice rinks, baseball diamonds, soccer fields.
I’d been drinking, and I wasn’t going to back down. (Again, astoundingly stupid.) Our alcoholic breath mingled as we breathed hard through our mouths, oxygenating muscles in preparation to contract explosively, smash bones and cartilage, tear limbs out of sockets. My heart was pumping adrenaline to my fingertips like nitrous oxide to an engine.
It’s an amazing feeling. I imagine some people get addicted to it. It’s real in a way that is:
1. Rare in our gentle society, and
2. Very difficult to simulate or train for.
I think that’s exactly why this kind of primitive stand-off is so important to process and learn from when it happens in real life. We consume a lot of violent entertainment and we speak all the time in combat metaphors, but I suspect most of us are quite detached, day-to-day, from the feeling I’m trying to describe.
It’s simultaneously frightening and intimate. I mean, some people don’t even make eye contact when they’re having sex. In this case, blink or look away and you conceivably might die. Other people have described it as like being underwater. You literally can’t hear your friends trying to talk you down. You can’t spare the mental bandwidth.
I remember him grabbing the flesh of my chin and ears, twisting, pinching, pulling me close, tickling my face with his beard as he goaded me, called me a puppy, told me how many little boys like me he’d humiliated and broken. It was very colourful.
He slapped me in the face. I laughed, but my peripheral vision was on red alert, watching for that lightning moment of commitment. He slapped me again, a little harder. The sound was like a starter’s pistol to my lizard brain, but something else kept my hands at my sides. I know that game. If I take the white chess pieces – if I commit first – my odds drop through the floor.
Something weird happened the next morning. I was crossing Robson street in downtown Vancouver. It’s the most placid, tourist-friendly retail strip in the city. I was still in my post-apocalyptic costume from the night before. Mohawk haircut. Desert camo. Cowboy boots. Some doofus in a champagne-coloured sedan advanced too far into the intersection, got caught by the red light, then tried to back up into the crosswalk. The voice that came out of me was not my own. “You fucking idiot,” I snarled. Without thinking, I had pivoted and cocked my foot to kick his car. I blinked, lowered my boot and kept walking.
I saw an article from the Telegraph later on Facebook. This UK newspaper was highlighting the fact that December 23 was the second-busiest day in American history for firearms purchases. The FBI’s background check program saw its busiest day ever in November, the day after Thanksgiving. In other words, some combination of factors has Americans spooked, and they are arming themselves. Giving weapons to family members as Christmas presents.
A chilling, if facile, realization. Under subtly different circumstances, I could have been shot the other night. Or the next morning, if I’d kicked that car. Never mind Detroit or Baltimore, my friends and I in Vancouver know people who have been murdered or maimed by gunfire. Lee Matasi was a couple years ahead of me at Templeton High School. I went to his memorial at Leeside after he was pistol-whipped and shot, execution-style, by a stranger outside a bar. A random confrontation between young men.
What bothers me even more is knowing that with a tiny cultural adjustment, I also could have pulled a weapon. We all like to think we wouldn’t, or that guns only exist in a world parallel to our own. I remember admonishing my friend at a New Year’s party a few years ago after he showed up with a 9mm Beretta tucked in his waistband. “It’s not loaded,” he protested. “That’s even stupider,” I said. “If you’re gonna flash a gun, it better have bullets in it. You think the other guy is going to be bluffing?”
I stopped carrying a knife years ago. Too many of my friends got stabbed. I’m not that kind of guy, I tell myself. It’s safer not to have a weapon, I say. And I believe that more than ever. New Year’s Eve was an important reminder. I suppose he knew when he slapped my face that I wasn’t going to do anything about it. But I was angry. Secretly, disturbingly, angry. It roils my stomach even now – a combination of shame, confusion, and worry.
I have no issue with the guy himself. Our friends brokered a handshake and I went to another party. I found out the next day why he was so hostile and I apologized. It made a lot more sense once I had some context. No, I’m upset because I think of myself as having control over who I am and how I act, and most of the time I do. But in that moment, the lure of the clash itself was more powerful than my ability to resist it. It intrigued me. I could have walked away, but I didn’t. This is ironic, given that I was running my mouth about the Ki Aikido concept of “blending” a week ago.
All the bad stuff Yoda talks about was only a few drinks down after all. It’s a problem.
Losing the “fight”
Scan any newspaper and you will see a headline about a “fight,” a “battle,” or a “war,” be it “brewing” or already “unleashed”. In debates, we talk of “knockout punches” and “wiping the floor” with opponents. A lot of my politically engaged friends like to talk tough about “taking down” or “taking out” the enemy – which they tend to define as roughly 40% of their family members and fellow citizens. “We have to beat them!” Really? You think you have the stomach?
I guess this doesn’t surprise me so much coming from my right-wing friends. It fits with a mindset that accepts a system of economic competition upheld by militarism.
But I think all this talk of fighting is a serious liability for progressives. A deadly trap. Very smart people have been saying the same thing for generations. If we accept these terms and engage in conflict, we have no hope of the systemic change we yearn for. If we agree to fight, we’ve already lost. Even if I had won the other night I would have lost. Lost peace of mind, lost trust and respect, lost the chance to be friends.
All this flaky feel-good crap people have been putting on bumper stickers for years seems increasingly important. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Gandhi and Dr. King are only two of the most famous proponents of this now very clichéd principle – that the personal is political, and all change starts with the individual.
New Year’s eve was a good reminder for me. There is a direct connection between how we react to confrontation as individuals and how useful we can be to projects of nonviolent social change. I’d be a hypocrite today to tell someone not to go looking for a fight. I’d be a hypocrite just like the marcher who tussles with police because “they started it”. Or the organizer who gets angry when people question and challenge their leadership. Or the occupier who hates dumbass entitled yuppie sheep.
Judy Rebick had the temerity, in a wonderful piece published on rabble.ca last July, to suggest that progressives need to take a time out and work on some personal issues. This paragraph, among others, has stuck with me:
“In addition to the sadness about the state of society and of nature, almost all of us whatever oppression we might have experienced for social or economic reasons suffer from some kind of deep personal wounds. And if we don’t face that sadness, that pain, we will inflict it on ourselves and others in a way that is hurtful. Much of the dysfunction on the Left comes not from political differences which can be creative and productive but from people acting out this pain. We become part of the problem instead of the part of the solution.”
New Year’s evolution
This doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to point out, criticize, and protest against injustice, cruelty, greed, and short-sightedness. But we have to do it without blindly mimicking the behaviour patterns that perpetuate the stuff we’re objecting to.
That means we have to save enough time and energy this year to turn inward and address the toxic effects of this culture on our poor, overloaded ape biology. In my case that means trying not to be a jackass at parties, for starters.
I’m inspired in this regard by another thought from Martin Luther King, Jr:
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
Happy New Year.