Conflict Is Not Abuse: A Conversation with Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman will speak about her new book Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair at a special Vancouver Writers Fest Incite event tomorrow, Thursday, January 19 at 7:30pm (CBC Studio 700 – FREE). More information here.  

Megan Jones: In your book, Conflict Is Not Abuse, you discuss the essential difference between conflict and abuse. We may think this distinction would be straightforward, but, as you point out in your book, we often confuse one for the other—and the impacts can be devastating for nations, communities and even interpersonal relationships. How do you define conflict and abuse? What is the difference?

Sarah Schulman: That’s a really big question that takes much of the book to answer—but just to simplify: I define conflict as power struggle, and abuse as power over. So abuse is an event that is occurring that is imposed on a person that they are not participating in, not creating and cannot stop. And conflict is when two parties participate (it doesn’t have to be equally) in escalation. Each party does have some power in that scenario.

MJ: You also discuss in your book how inflated accusations of harm are often used to avoid accountability. Could you provide an example of this?

SS: We see this in everything from the intimate to the geopolitical.

Today’s example would be Donald Trump, who every day is telling us how victimized he is, especially when confronted with the truth. Whenever an individual or media venue describes him accurately he positions it as though he’s being victimized. On the other hand, if you look at the constituency that elected him, which is partially made up of an actually oppressed group – working class and poor white people – they have been manipulated into blaming the wrong party for their problems, blaming immigrants, instead of the one percent of white people who globalized their jobs [ie. Donald Trump]. There we see that something like racist identification, this time on whiteness, keeps them from seeing the truth and from identifying by class, in which case they would not be able to be manipulated into scapegoating poor people.

MJ: Tell me more about the intimate. What’s an examples of how this occurs in our every day lives, intimate moments with each other?

SS: In the intimate we see people very casually use words now like harassed, abused, stalked… It’s very common for people to say oh, my boyfriend was abusive, he harassed me. You know, these are real things: when your ex-husband is sitting in front of your house with a gun in a car, that’s being stalked. But sometimes people that word because they don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation, can’t take responsibility for their role in conflict or don’t want to face things about themselves for which they would have to be self-critical and create change.  We are seeing an evolved sense of meaning in how we use this language.

MJ: Do you think that this language is used equally by people in positions of power (such as Donald Trump) and by people in positions of vulnerability?

SS: One of the big revelations of my book is that people who are raised with supremacy ideology about themselves—and who feel very entitled—are often outraged, threatened and attacked when someone opposes them, questions them or asks them to question themselves. And they describe that simple opposition as an attack or threat.

Similarly, people who have experienced severe trauma and are not in recovery can often have the same reaction.  Whereas the entitled person feels he has the right to never be questioned, the traumatized person, sometimes, you know—we feel so fragile that when there’s something that we have to interrogate ourselves about it feels as though we’re being attacked when actually we’re not. We are just facing normative opposition, which other people have the right to do.

MJ: Why is do you think it’s difficult for people to face conflict and engage in self-criticismeven if it’s not rigorous self-criticism?

SS: I think we have very distorted concepts of loyalty. In the global sense, you can see this in terms of this period of heightened nationalism and certainly white supremacy is rampant around the world—we have a sense of group loyalty that if we’re loyal to our group we uphold each other no matter the ethics of the action.

We also see a distorted concept of loyalty in intimate groups, in families, cliques and communities. For example, one person might break up with their girlfriend, and expect their friends to be mean to their girlfriend. But in fact that’s the opposite of loyalty—real friendship and real loyalty and love means helping people negotiate and helping people be self-critical. The problem now is that we have a very high bar that must be reached to be eligible for compassion. We may live in a world where people who actually are accountable and do take responsibility for their part in creating a problem don’t get the support and love they need. Everybody deserves support and love, no matter where they’re at, and everybody should be eligible for compassion. We have this standard that you need to be a pure victim, be completely innocent, or else you can’t get support.

MJ: During such a difficult time for many, your book provides a vision of hope and restorative action. What would you suggest as a strategy for surviving these times?

SS: I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to be awful, this upcoming period. People are going to suffer unnecessarily, and that’s just the fact of the situation that we’re in. The strategy for survival is to lower the bar for what you demand of other people, to treat others with kindness and compassion, to build relationships and reinforce existing organizations.

Be flexible! I think it’s time to forget about the micro-critique and petty differences.

Coalition is essential.

SARAH SCHULMAN is a fiction writer, essayist, and playwright, and the author of eighteen books, including the novels The Cosmopolitans, Rat Bohemia, and Empathy, and the non-fiction books The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination and Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. Her latest non-fiction book is Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Her many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (Playwriting), a Fulbright Fellowship (Judaic Studies), and the Kessler Award for Lifetime Contribution to LGBT Studies. She is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York College of Staten Island.