In Conversation With Sarah Schulman: “They’re Being Taught That Control Is Freedom”

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair landed in my mailbox last winter, sent by the publisher, and I promptly shelved it, asserting that the last thing I needed in my life was somebody telling me that any abuse I’d personally experienced in my relationships or community was merely conflict. But Autostraddle readers kept recommending it, so in March, I picked it up. And couldn’t put it down.

Conflict Is Not Abuse is the 18th book published by lesbian activist Sarah Schulman — a novelist, playwright, AIDS historian and, currently, a distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the College of Staten Island. She is the co-founder of MIX: NY LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival, the US Coordinator of the first LGBT Delegation to Palestine, and the Co-Director of the ACT UP Oral History Project, having joined the organization in 1987 and been one of many lesbians who took on political, activist and care-taking work at the height of the AIDS crisis. In 1992, she was one of five co-founders of the legendary direct action organization Lesbian Avengers, responsible for planning the US’s first Dyke March, which took place in Washington DC in April 1993. Her published books include the novels After Delores (1989), Rat Bohemia (1993) and The Cosmopolitans (2016); non-fiction works Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012) and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (2012). Her novel People in Trouble (1990) was the uncredited inspiration for the musical RENT, a situation she chronicles in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (1998). Awards under her belt include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Kessler Prize for Sustained Contribution to LGBT Studies, a Stonewall Book Award and multiple Lambda nominations.

Conflict Is Not Abuse is a discussion of how inflated accusations of harm are used to avoid accountability, and she traces this phenomenon as it applies from interpersonal relationships to global politics. For the latter, she looks specifically at HIV criminalization in Canada and the occupation of Palestine. The book opens with the example of the police officers who saw Michael Brown and Eric Garner as “threatening” when they were doing literally nothing, and how any kind of difference, resistance or anxiety can be seen as an attack when it’s not. The book has generated heaps of conversation online and off, is blurbed by bell hooks and Claudia Rankine, is the winner of the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Non-Fiction and a nominee for a Lambda Literary Award.

Of course, it was the interpersonal and local community focused sections at the front that really drew me in, because I am basic like that. Her investigation of shunning and group dynamics, especially within groups heavily populated by those who’ve experienced personal trauma or inherited generational trauma, is particularly interesting from the perspective of a queer community organizer.

I became, quite quickly, obsessed. I sent copies to ten of my friends, and we eagerly texted each other snapshots of our favorite passages. Everybody connected to it (or didn’t) in their own way, based on our relative experiences with shunning, with re-examining the degrees to which we allow past trauma to impair present relationships and interrogating how the overstatement of harm has squashed so much potentially enlightening online discourse and torn so many queer communities apart.

See, since approximately early November, I’ve been questioning everything. How my friends and I treat each other, how my workplace operates, and most of all, how us queer feminist progressives handle ourselves. How do we communicate with each other, with our enemies, and with our potential allies? This has meant confronting material that used to scare me — because it seemed like too much, ’cause I was scared of what it’d make me have to confront within myself and what it would bring into focus about my work. It feels like we’ve hit a wall with callout culture and language policing and problematic-fave-destroying where we’re forced to acknowledge that a lot of how we do things just isn’t working. We’re not achieving consensus or winning politically, either.

Critical response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive or at least invigorated. The main line of criticism that’s come out against this book speaks to my initial reservation: my fear that Schulman would re-frame legitimate abuse as conflict. My read accounted for this discrepancy — I simply assumed experiences that I knew were straightforward abuse were not the types of experiences Schulman was asking us to re-name. But perhaps my own specific background enables this type of comfortable disassociation because the only people who’ve ever denied abuse I’ve experienced have been the me and the abuser — my friends, family and psychiatric professionals have generally been the ones to name it, not the ones to discredit it. (The police didn’t believe me either, but unfortunately that’s exactly what I expected from them, so.) That also has given me room to interrogate my own role in abusive situations without feeling like I have to accept shame or blame, too. Furthermore, the book itself does not seem to speak to abuse within families or parent-child relationships, which I believe exist on a different paradigm altogether.

This interview took place in March, but I’ve been mulling over this introduction ever since, as her ideas have continued percolating. I’ve doubled down on some and reconsidered others. For example, this book and Sarah’s other work and related materials have already profoundly impacted how I approach queer community-building here and at A-Camp. Namely, we’ve committed to deliberately pivoting away from punitive justice towards a more restorative model. We’ve pushed back against demands for further unilaterally-enforced rules and regulations as the best methods of ensuring safe and productive communities, and confronted how we ourselves demand state-level regulations when we should know, by now, to take uneven and biased enforcement into consideration before making such demands. Yes, often predators and abusers are simply that, and must be removed from a group to ensure group health, or required to seek professional psychological help in order to return. But we have an obligation to engage and de-escalate and restore, not to punish, whenever possible — and it’s possible a lot more often than we think. Often we are all clumsy animals, making hurtful mistakes, full of room for improvement. Moving forward in Trump’s America, it’s never been more important that we harness the empathy and understanding I’ve found very unique to queer women’s communities in order to build our own care-taking networks and institutions. We have to figure out how to take care of each other better. Nobody else will.

Engaging with Conflict Is Not Abuse jump-started a kind of re-entry, for me, into the world of ideas and theory, and to remembering the importance of engaging intellectually with broad-level interrogations of how we talk and operate. Even the process of considering and ultimately landing on disagreeing with an idea of Schulman’s strengthened my own understanding of my own convictions. On the internet, there’s not much room for nuance. Within social justice communities, there’s this sense that there are bad guys and good guys, and we’re the good guys, and it’s our job to inform the entirety of “good guys” the Right Way To Think and Act. Reading Schulman and other authors since has been enlightening ’cause there are, even within the queer feminist left, so many different approaches to things, and we should be able to engage with them and consider them and even disagree vehemently about them without resorting to shunning, lashing-out, taking material out of context and wielding it like a weapon, name-calling, massive overstatements of harm and projecting our anger at the world onto each other because well, underneath all that is a lot of love.

If you’ve not read Conflict Is Not Abuse but want some sense of it before reading this interview, I highly recommend reading this transcript of Schulman’s recent conversation with trans writer Morgan M Page on “Queer Suicidality, Conflict and Repair,” in which book-related concepts enter the conversation midway. But do read the book, it changed my life. Also, reading People in Trouble and then Stagestruck and thus finding out the real story behind RENT totally ruined my life, but that’s another article for another day, so.

This interview took place on the phone on March 21, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Riese: First of all, thanks for talking to me and thank you for this book — and for the six or seven books of yours I’ve now read in total, actually. I’ve bought Conflict Is Not Abuse now for about 15 people I work with, and as a fellow feminist Jewish lesbian writer who works in queer community building, it really articulated and brought into focus a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time —

Sarah: That’s great!

Riese: I know from reading other interviews that you’ve been surprised that most people wanted to talk about callout culture, which wasn’t your intention when writing the book, so I’m gonna try not to be too predictable in that regard.

One of the things that resonated with me from Conflict Is Not Abuse was your indictment of text-based communication as insufficient for true conflict resolution, which you talk about in terms of text and email. How do you see those kinds of conversations playing out in spaces like Facebook and post comments, and how does performativity fit in when these conversations are happening in public? What do you think the benefits and drawbacks are to having those kinds of conversations on social media?

Sarah: Well, the advantage of Facebook is that there’s a record. So like, if I say “the sky is blue!” and the other person says HOW COULD YOU SAY THAT THE SKY IS GREEN?!!!, I can actually show them that I said it was blue. So that’s a big advantage. But I think that there’s nothing better than actually talking to somebody, getting their affect, being able to go back and forth. It’s just a more sharing experience and it’s deeper and it’s more humanizing.

Riese: Do you think that when someone is having an argument on social media or on a website of some kind that the fact that they’re sort of being observed and watched by other people plays into how they handle conflict?

Sarah: No, weirdly.

Riese: Ha! I totally do, so that’s interesting.

Sarah: I think that people act like they’re not being observed.

Riese: So, you don’t think that people sometimes call people out because they think it makes them look a certain way?

Sarah: That may be… but if the other person was actually right in front of them and there were other people there as well, they might be a little more flexible. As you know, I ground the solution in other people, so that if somebody is escalating when they have an opportunity to make peace, hopefully the other people around them will help them negotiate and let them know that they’re not serving themselves or that they’re causing division. When the other people don’t do that — when they egg them on or they’re standing by passively — I call that “the negative group.” It’s a group that’s constructed through negative bonds.

Riese: What makes you choose sometimes to talk about things on Facebook as opposed to when you’re in front of people? Is it just the convenience?

Sarah: For example, today somebody posted that they were upset that mentors and teachers of theirs were favoring trans men over trans women. So I said, “Why don’t you just contact that person and ask them if you can talk to them?” And they were like, “No no no I could never do that.” I can understand that there’s a frustration that gets expressed by putting something on Facebook, but if it’s a way to avoid the responsibility of actually talking to someone, then it’s not necessarily a positive action.

Riese: I think some would argue that the trans woman in question shouldn’t have to do this work herself — that simply surviving consumes all the emotional energy she has and she might not have it in her to advocate against her own oppression, especially if in the past those conversations have been more disheartening than productive, or if she’s worried that speaking out could negatively impact these relationships she needs in order to progress academically? And obviously also time is a finite resource. How do we decide which of these conflicts are worth the time and emotional energy? Does venting, in and of itself, ever serve a purpose?

Sarah: In this case, the teachers were already supportive of trans men, but over-emphasizing them in relation to trans women, so it seemed to be a question of expanding their understandings. If the authority figure was hostile or negative it might be a different story. Also, the speaker described the people as “mentors” and that implies an intimate and positive relationship. It would be awful to give up on someone that we have shared with and learned from without first trying to speak to them directly.

Riese: Where do you think the instinct comes from to sort of vent instead of address something?

Sarah: Sara Ahmed talks about this in The Promise of Happiness, the one where she comes up with the idea of the feminist killjoy. She talks about how there’s this idea in entitled societies that people have the right to always be comfortable. But that’s actually not a right, because the only way you can always be comfortable is at other people’s expense. And that actually, we have a responsibility to be uncomfortable. The expectation that one should always be comfortable is an expectation of supremacy. It’s unreasonable, and it’s overly entitled.

Sometimes people don’t want to talk to other people because they would be uncomfortable, because they might have to rethink things about themselves or change, but it’s for the general good to rethink things and change. So I think that that’s not an appropriate expectation.

Riese: Do you think that when people are asking for safe space, criticizing its lack, or telling people how to make one, that what they’re getting at is a space that’s 100% comfortable?

Sarah: You’d have to look at the specifics. You can’t really generalize.

Riese: Okay, well, what do you think qualifies as a “safe space”? And is that something that we should really be looking for?

Sarah: It really depends on the situation. I mean, safety from violence, of course, is a completely desirable and necessary thing. But safety from criticism or safety from truth or safety from having to look at yourself? Those are negative desires that I think are detrimental and divisive.

Riese: With Autostraddle, we’ve started to experience this phenomenon where people that we don’t know reach out to us to let us know that someone who writes for us or works for us is a “known abuser” or was allegedly emotionally abusive in a past relationship. They demand that we remove the person from Autostraddle, that we don’t let them write anymore, that we eliminate them from our group, and if we don’t do that they’ll say that we don’t really care about safe spaces or queer community, or that we are complicit in abuse. We’re commanded to enact these extreme punishments against accused people who are being accused, again, by people we don’t know, and ordered that we should do so without interrogating any of their claims. Usually we don’t even know the accused person — like we’ve never met them in person. And it feels like this is part of a larger trend in queer and feminist circles —

Sarah: It’s even larger than that. This is a phenomenon that exists in the intimate as well as in the broader social and even in the geopolitical. It’s like when a government tells people to denounce people who are HIV+ under HIV criminalization or when the Israeli government builds a wall to keep out Palestinians. This wholesale group exclusion of a person based on an accusation that they are somehow dangerous without any opportunity for that person to describe why they think this charge is happening or how they are experiencing it, or for anyone to look at the order of events that produced this accusation or the history of the person accusing — I mean, this is the definition of injustice. I’m amazed at how often I’m asked to hurt people, you know? People are constantly saying, “why are you talking to her, why did you invite him, why are you working with them,” they want people to be hurt. This past fall in Montreal, I co-hosted a community town hall on trans and queer suicidality with Morgan Page, who is a trans woman writer from Montreal. One of the things that kept coming up is that when people are shunned by their cliques and by their families, they feel like killing themselves. [ED NOTE: You can read the transcript of that panel here.]

Riese: Right.

Sarah: It’s the most cruel — it’s so cruel! And it produces no positive outcome. If you think through that action, you end up with what we have now, which is mass incarceration. This idea of removing people instead of trying to resolve conflict.

Riese: One thing that sort of struck me about it when you look at how often people end up being shunned with minimal evidence because they belong to a demographic group that we think “had it coming” all along, which can even be the less oppressed group in certain social justice circles — was thinking about on the flipside, how the mass incarceration of black men has been enabled by things like the Three Strikes rule where judges and juries are often putting someone in jail not because they can prove what they did, or that what they did should be rectified with incarceration, but because a racist jury or judge figures, “well, even if they didn’t do this, they’ll probably do SOMETHING wrong, let’s get them off the streets.” Which is… terrifying.

Sarah: And also first of all did they actually do this specific thing and if they did do it, why? I mean, most crime is caused by poverty, except white-collar crime which is caused by greed. So when someone says so-and-so did something, so if they did do it, what were the actions that led to it? That always has to be understood, and in order for that to be understood, people must communicate.

Riese: How do you think it works within communities? I mean, all of our writers who’ve been accused of abuse have been trans or Black or both, which is unsurprising. I think subconsciously, or not, a lot of people who consider themselves very politically aware still end up feeling more comfortable levying accusations against those with less institutional power.

Sarah: In my book I cite the National Anti-Violence hotline 2013 report where they found that when the police were called for same-sex domestic abuse, over half of the time the police arrested the wrong person. Because when people are the same gender, instead of trying to figure out if it was conflict or abuse, they would arrest the person who was of color, or who was not a mother, or was butch, or was not a citizen, or was HIV-positive. With these stigmas there’s an assumption that a person is dangerous, but actually it’s most likely that that person is endangered.

Riese: When I read that statistic I immediately sent it to my editors and was like, “see, we were right to be wary of acting on those accusations!” The State has this tendency not to believe victims of abuse or assault, and many liberal feminists have decided to remedy this by believing every victim without hearing both sides or asking additional questions, and if we’re not believing these accusations at face value, we’re participating in rape culture. When really the best remedy is to listen to both sides with an open mind, which the State doesn’t do.

Sarah: Right. But of course some people do lie, but there are also other reasons for people to inflate charges and one of the things that I point to is that where we are now is that our entire focus is on figuring out who is the perpetrator so that they can be punished. But if our focus is on trying to understand what happened, which I think is the healthy and appropriate focus, then people would not be encouraged to escalate charges. Right now the standard is that you are only eligible for compassion if you are a pure victim. If you in any way participate in creating a conflict you are no longer eligible for compassion. But every person should be eligible for compassion.

Riese: Yes, exactly — people think they won’t be heard or given compassion unless they can label their experience “abuse,” and they’re not wrong.

Sarah: We’re making it impossible for people to look at their own participation in creating conflict.


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Profile gravatar of Riese

Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City and mellowed out in California before returning to Michigan for reasons that are unclear to her now — she is currently plotting her return to the West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2393 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. 5

    Thank you so much for giving us this window onto your conversation, Riese- the things you talked about are incredibly important, and about half a dozen things from my own life just clicked into place in my head. I’ve always found progressive circles’ lack of discussion of grey areas frustrating- like you, I experienced things which might have been labeled assault, and there was no room to talk about the fact that, drunkenness and my later regret aside, they didn’t feel like that. There was almost no room to talk about them at all, in that context, so I’ve largely pushed them down in an attempt to avoid the issue altogether.

    This article was so enormously helpful, and I feel like I need to read this book posthaste. Thank you so much again!

  2. 9

    Please talk for at least ten more hours! Ultimately, this was just a really incredible read. So many interesting thought points. I’ve always felt that there are necessary and unnecessary discomforts, and while I believe wholeheartedly in the designation of safe spaces and have high expectations for my social groups to be affirming, tolerant, and considerate, i am frequently disappointed by demands for comfort in times of conflict.

    If I’d never been afforded the space to make mistakes and have those mistakes called out as they were, I genuinely feel like I’d have a real lack of understanding on why those mistakes caused harm, how my actions affect others, and how I can navigate resolving issues and taking accountability for things about myself that have been inherently problematic. I further also think it only agrees to a hostile group mentality, and encourages elitism within communities. While I think it’s a slippery slope re: when a felt violation should or shouldn’t be labeled as abuse, I do think there’s something to be said about a need to read the context of situations, and how and why we feel violated when we feel violated. That feeling is valid, it’s important, and it’s important to have care around it — but I think a part of that care is in assessing and processing what it is that happened in its entirety, in search of an authentic resolution.

    …and blah blah blah. This was great. I’m obsessed. Thank you, thank you.

  3. 5

    I devoured the whole interview. Fascinating conversation. Thank you for transcribing and sharing it! There were so many ideas/concepts/life-changing things touched upon or dissected here, that I’m going to be processing this for some time. This book has been on “my list” to read ever since your original article about it, and about foisting it upon your co-workers. And the discussion has helped somewhat to clarify some things in my mind about how things can be “good” or “healthy” but also “taken too far” or really end up being harnessed out of their intended context to cause more harm to the populations they ostensibly were meant to protect.

    Also really appreciated the AS context bits.

  4. 3

    I would read 10,000 more words of this! This was a great article and interview. When I finished the book I had so many questions and highlighted passages and things to talk about but none of my friends have read the book, so I’m really glad for this.

  5. 3

    This is a riveting subject, plaudits for your questions as well as Sarah Schulman’s answers. I wish the transcript would have been the size of an encyclopedia. I can’t wait to read the book.

    I have some reserves about treating the (US or other) government as a coherent entity, as a monolith, but otherwise gee what a lucid and powerful description of the state’s takeover of services for victims of violence.

  6. 5

    With Autostraddle, we’ve started to experience this phenomenon where people that we don’t know reach out to us to let us know that someone who writes for us or works for us is a “known abuser” or was allegedly emotionally abusive in a past relationship. They demand that we remove the person from Autostraddle, that we don’t let them write anymore, that we eliminate them from our group, and if we don’t do that they’ll say that we don’t really care about safe spaces or queer community, or that we are complicit in abuse. We’re commanded to enact these extreme punishments against accused people who are being accused, again, by people we don’t know, and ordered that we should do so without interrogating any of their claims. Usually we don’t even know the accused person — like we’ve never met them in person.

    OH MY GOD THIS HAPPENED TO ME. And I don’t even work for AS, in any way. A woman I went on <10 dates with just took against me and started telling everyone we knew that I abused her. (I didn't. This is not the place for specifics, but I didn't, and I've discussed every possible detail with therapists, friends, everyone, for years, and, I just didn't abuse her. She also has a known history of doing this.)

    Including, she knew I was a fan of AS and she emailed Riese trying to get me kicked out of my local AS group (I know cuz she CC'd me) and it was horrible and awful and I thought my whole community would turn against me and I wanted to die.

    I'm really sorry for everyone else this has happened to, but weirdly I'm glad it's not just me.

    Also thanks Riese for the way you handled that situation, as far as I know, you let it defuse by just not responding (or at least you didn't respond to me), and I've always appreciated that.

    • 4

      oh wow i’d totally forgotten about this but i remember now! you’re welcome, and i’m sorry that this happened to you. that was a REALLY special case because I was like “wow, you are asking us to intervene in your private facebook group and local meet-up community???” we are not qualified to mitigate your interpersonal conflicts, we have no jurisdiction over any of this! and even if the accusations had been true, i don’t think her proposed solution would be considered productive by any means. anyhow, i hope things have settled down for you, nobody should have to deal with that kind of thing.

      • 3

        Thank you <3 This incident really fucked me up at the time, and totally exploded my group of friends, and I can't say that the fear has completely gone away, but things are much, much better now.

        And J.L. is not my real name–I'm actually an A+ member who's a fairly regular commenter. Which just goes to show how scared the accusation and the shunning still make me, years later, even though it's fairly demonstrably untrue 😩

  7. 6

    I recently left a queer Facebook group for a comedy podcast I like because some members started a Google Docs sheet to keep track of all the problematic things one of the hosts does. I love that these online spaces provide a place for marginalized people to voice their frustrations, but sometimes it feels like there’s no room to mess up or disagree.

    Looking forward to reading this book, as well as People in Trouble and Stagestruck. This was a cool interview, thanks Riese!

  8. 6

    I just spent an hour and a half reading this article and the talk transcript – thank you for a ton of stuff to think about! I don’t feel nearly clever enough to grasp all of what was being said, but it really makes me want to try, you know

  9. 5

    I decided to comment for the first time just to say thank you for posting this. I think this is an important conversation in our community for all the reasons people have mentioned. I would only like to add that this sort of thinking and marginalizing creates an impossible situation where we expect everyone to be perfect. What we should instead expect is that if someone makes a mistake they grow and learn and become better. Safe places are important as well as protecting victims and preventing abuse but none of those goals are achieved by jumping to conclusions, preventing conflict resolution and ignoring the fact that people are flawed. Sometimes there are good and bad people. But other times there are just a lot of confused, hurt, vulnerable, flawed human beings in gray muddy waters. And while those situations can surely cause a world of pain, it helps no one to pretend those waters were crystal clear.

  10. 3

    Thank you Riese for opening Schulman’s ideas up for discussion in an AS-specific context. This was a great conversation to read and I would certainly read 10,000 more words of it. These are nuanced issues that our community should absolutely be discussing and working out with ourselves. I think especially the point you both have made that sometimes the actions taken to try to protect people do nothing to actually address the problem merits a lot of pondering.

    Next stop: Schulman’s book.

  11. 8

    This immediately took me back to that time as a freshman in college at Evergreen in 2001 when the lesbian vice president (or perhaps the title was different–regardless, she was in leadership) pulled me aside at my first meeting to ask me how I identify (“I’m not sure. Bisexual, I think,” I told her.) and that I’d have to pick a side if I wanted to be welcome in the Queer Alliance. After all, they wanted to create a safe space for trans people. (The implication, of course, being that as a maybe bisexual, I was somehow inherently dangerous to trans people.) She went on to say that well, actually, I couldn’t identify as an ally and still be part of the club either. It was lesbian or nothing. It was lesbian or dangerous.

    They proceeded to shun me for the duration of my time at Evergreen, which made my social life pretty difficult. Pretty much none of the women on campus would talk to me, and while I eventually made friends, it was with other locals, other shunned people, all of us somehow ‘dangerous’ for being bisexual, or fat, or lower class, or disabled, or people of color, or god forbid multiple of these.

    It took me years to even begin to put words to this experience.

  12. 2

    I’m really looking forward to reading Schulman’s book. Several of my goodreads kin have read it recently, and they’ve posted intriguing reviews as well. Excellent interview, also. It seems like the book really addresses a lot of what I’ve been questioning/contemplating in regards to social media and group dynamics over the past couple of years.

    • 1

      This quote “People should be overjoyed to learn that they are contributing to a problem! Because if they understand how they are contributing to a problem, they have the power to resolve it” truly exemplifies the approach I’ve tried to take within communities over the past several years. Or what I’ve aspired to, at the very least. I’ve found a kind of freedom in that, since it grants me, or I grant myself, a path forward.

  13. 3

    What a great interview! I have been avoiding reading this book because I know I will probably really like parts of it and really dislike other parts and I don’t want to deal with that. The way this frames it makes me kind of excited to have more complicated feelings though, which seems like part of the point!

    One thing that is strange and interesting to me, although I might be wrong b/c I haven’t read her books, is that Schulman seems to kind of have the idea that like “OF COURSE there are some people who just really are real abusers, WE ALL know THAT!” and i just am not sure that is true? Like, the mandate to believe survivors no matter what seems to obviously be partly a reaction to the fact that we mostly DON’T all know and believe that some people are abusers. Like she is ready to just say “yes obviously” and move on to more interesting questions and seems less interested and more vague about like, how to deal with actual clear situations of abuse? Riese seems to be trying to get at this somewhat. I don’t know what I’m asking exactly, I guess I will have to read the book. I wish the interview was longer!

    • 3

      Yes! I loved reading this, but I think the biggest hole in this discussion has been the unwillingness to examine why liberal culture has swung the pendulum so far in the direction of a blind-acceptance of victims, or a willingness to use shunning or similar punishment tactics at the drop of a hat.

      If we want to make a real change towards honest, challenging, and fruitful discussion we need to talk about the way that such discussions can be abused(no pun intended) to oppress minority groups.

      We can’t ignore the fact that the rights and dignities of minorities, alongside people like abuse survivors, is in large part NOT ACTUALLY TAKEN AS GRANTED. That we have had to fight and claw our way to those rights and dignities. And that there are people who will use our desire for more open and less black-and-white discussions as an entry point for hate, and a way to try and regress the progress we have made.

      As a trans lesbian, the biggest concern I have over Sarah’s ideas in our community has nothing to do with her or them. The biggest concern I have is that people will just swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, and that people who don’t understand or don’t want me in the community will take advantage of their newfound ‘freedom’ to stomp me right back down because “open honest discussion.” That in the end I will increasingly be unable to simply feel comfortable in the community because basic acceptance of who I am is not guaranteed.

      Minorities are, well, minorities. The disenfranchised are, well, disenfranchised. The playing field isn’t level here, and left to a more open environment a lot of groups will get their rights and dignities trampled on almost by default as a result of that. The black-and-white, “shun and call-out if your views are even slightly questionable,” tone that has come to define some strands of liberalism, I think, arose in the first place to fix that and even out the playing field. Obviously it has gone too far in some ways. But how do we pull it back, without giving people like TERFs or racists a blank check to promote hate and discrimination in the name of ‘open discussion’?

      In other words, how do we remain steadfastly opposed to the oppression of any group, and make everyone feel welcome on a fundamental and basic level, while also allowing an open, honest, and challenging discussion?

      This is the biggest challenge we face, I think.

      • 3

        Yeah! This is a lot of what I was trying to get at. I wonder if the book addresses this more?? Also the thing that Schulman mentions a couple of times about like, it’s better to just call someone up, it’s better to ask the accused person why whatever it is is happening – it just seems like she is not thinking about the type of situations that I am thinking about? Like yes, there are friend/social groups where I could see that, ideally, happening. And I REALLY really like the idea of AS and other online places taking a more restorative and less black and white approach. But at the same time it sort of assumes the good intentions and willingness to engage honestly of everyone involved? Or something? Which makes less sense to me in certain contexts, especially ones where like you said there is not already a somewhat level playing field. So right, how do we do both, have a less reactionary and more nuanced approach but also take seriously protecting those most vulnerable.

        • 1

          I think ‘calling someone up’ really has to occur on a case by case basis, and we have to be aware that dialogue doesn’t take place on an even playing field. Part of this comes down to what someone is accused of. I don’t think Schulman wants to call Bill Cosby for his side of the story. She has a bunch of stories of lesbians doing nasty things to each other in community settings. Riese’s example of people making abuse claims seems to call for the dialogue approach, especially when accusations are made over the internet. Abuse certainly occurs in queer communities but there also appear to be people who throw out that label to settle scores or to turn ‘she was a shitty girlfriend’ into ‘she was a monster’.

  14. 2

    Thank you so much for sharing this, especially for linking to “Queer Suicidality, Conflict and Repair”. I read the whole thing and really absorbed it all, as (like so many of us) I have too many suicidal friends, and it often seems inevitable that I’ll slowly lose them one by one.

  15. 6

    This was a really thought provoking article, thank you for it! I particularly appreciated the discussion of how the overuse of the term ‘abuse’ tends to tie into the idea that you are only eligible for compassion if you are a “pure” victim. That overuse actually does a lot to feed into larger cultural tendencies to require survivors of abuse to perfectly fit a narrative, or else be blamed for their own abuse.

    I do, however, have one isssue which I’m not sure was fully addressed here and I would love to see more robustly discussed: While I am largely in agreement with both women here, how do we address the misuse of this discussion we’re having?

    How do we delineate at what point open, functional, and challenging dialogue becomes a tool for discrimination and oppression? When do we say enough is enough, and that a particular ideology an individual is espousing is harmful and toxic to the community?

    I think we need to more fully examine *WHY* the pendulum has swung so far in our community towards this black-and-white viewpoint, and to address those issues in how we will find a more moderate position.

    From where I’m sitting, I think the biggest issue the black-and-white ‘you’re with us or against us, there is no room for discussion’ culture was meant to address is the way that groups pushing hateful and discriminatory ideas tend to take advantage of people’s openness to disagreement and discussion. Give them a foot, and they’ll take a mile.

    We can see this in the wider culture already in the way that the conservative world has pushed back against SJWs and Safe-Spaces so hard that they are demanding a sort of hyper-tolerance for their own bigotries. Think of the sort of person who sees Trump’s behavior and thinks “THANK GOD! Someone finally had the balls to say it, after we’ve all been shut up and oppressed by those special snowflakes!” The sort of person who mistakes the unacceptability of hateful words and actions, as oppression.

    More specific to our community, how do we handle people who simply will not come to an understanding? This article was nerve-wracking to get through as a trans lesbian, because I was very much expecting to see the points made as a defense of TERFs. This is exactly the dialogue that usually brings them out of the woodwork, complaining about how unfairly maligned they have been and how it disgusting that they have to accept us as a part of the wider wlw community or become pariahs.

    How do we open up discussion, then, and rely less on shunning and other punishment tactics, when there are groups whose only motivating reason to stop stomping on various minorities is PRECISELY THOSE PUNISHMENTS? When these are people whom you can’t simply ‘agree to disagree’ with, because to do so is to legitimize their views and accept a culture where my status as a full member of the community cannot be assumed?

    I’m concerned that, if we don’t have very serious discussions on how to distinguish hate and discrimination from disagreement, and how to deal with one versus the other, we will see the pendulum swing too far in the other direction again; towards communities where exclusionists such as TERFs take root in the name of free-speech and open discussion, but whose actions do little more than act as yet another institution against minority groups.

    • 2

      yes, these are tough questions and valid concerns. i guess what I’ve come to about this is that there are no blanket answers to any of these questions — each situation is its own beast, to be tackled by whichever group comes upon it. if the pendulum has swung far enough in the opposite direction that we’re seeing accusations of abuse over-applied, then i feel it stands to reason that those who are over-applying it should also be capable of applying reason and compassion to adequately assess situations as they arise in pursuit of the same goals the over-application had — which is, as you say, to even out the playing field for groups and people who are often not listened to or believed. if we aren’t able to do that then we better learn how real fast. more often than not, it’s poc and trans people who end up being shunned or kicked out of groups over these types of accusations, and i think part of sarah’s work, at least, is to rectify that. (also, sarah schulman’s work with/for trans folks is extensive enough that i don’t think any self-respecting TERF would ever pick up this book or any of her books)

      i have been reading people writing about this book extensively for the past several months and fwiw, have not come across anybody using it in the way you describe? which isn’t to say that’s not happening, but.

  16. 5

    This is fantastic and reminded me of how much I appreciate the critical thinking going on behind the scenes at Autostraddle. I don’t think Schulman’s argument is above critique (or that she would claim it is), but it does speak to a general discomfort I have with punitive tendencies within queer and radical communities and loose definitions of abuse. I remember being really mystified by a conversation I had with someone a while back who claimed that infidelity is abusive. Having been really hurt by an ex who cheated, I think that’s really hyperbolic and would never describe my experience that way. It seems like a wide range of negative/hurtful experiences are often distilled into a nebulous concept of abuse that isn’t fair or accurate and can harm others when they result in widespread shaming or community excommunication.

    I fear that we defer to trauma without considering that it can be twisted. Schulman’s example of Israeli right wing nationalism shows how past trauma is used to justify present violence. I also keep thinking back to the development of TERF ideology among cis women who had actually been traumatized by cis men’s violence. Taking essentialist ideas about biology and identity for granted, they translated their trauma into a movement that has done immeasurable harm to trans women, all in the name of protection from patriarchal violence.

    • 4

      this is a really good example that i hadn’t thought of, and it’s so true —> “I also keep thinking back to the development of TERF ideology among cis women who had actually been traumatized by cis men’s violence. Taking essentialist ideas about biology and identity for granted, they translated their trauma into a movement that has done immeasurable harm to trans women, all in the name of protection from patriarchal violence.”

  17. 4

    Following this conversation with lots of interest – at times like this I really miss being able to afford new books/having access to an academic library :/

  18. 7

    Great interview so far. I haven’t read this all the way through yet but I want to comment while my thoughts are still fresh.

    Call out culture in particular is something that I’ve always been intrigued by. I see it for the most part taking place on tumblr, but I’ve also seen a few cases on twitter and facebook as well. It seems to me that call outs often stem from one of two places: previous trauma/victimization, or the need for validation.

    Example 1: a few months ago (more or less, I think – time is fake and I’m bad at it), a twitter user called out Cameron Esposito for (essentially, I’m paraphrasing) allowing a stand-up featured in her podcast to make a joke about trans people (or perhaps the person used the t-slur, something to that effect). Anyway, the assertion being that Cameron Esposito was being an insensitive a person and shitty ally for allowing such as thing. The tweet was very accusatory in nature – they wrote something like “wow, Cameron just raised all this money for Trans Lifeline, and then she goes and lets this person shit on trans people on her podcast?” Cameron responded, asking the person to please give her the time stamp of the joke so that she could ask her producer(s) to edit it out of the show. She then explained that she and Rhea are often in the back during the sets, chatting with the other comics, and that they were not aware that such a joke had been made. In my view, this twitter user jumping to the conclusion that Cameron (& Rhea, I’d guess) were being complicit in transphobia is likely due to trauma. When people have been victimized in the past, they often begin to assume the worst in people because that’s how they keep themselves safe. It’s pretty basic as defense mechanisms go.

    Example 2: I have a friend on facebook who, fairly frequently, will post screencaps of “problematic” comments made in the groups she’s a member of and pick them apart, explaining why this person is a shitty human. In this case, it seems very clear to me that what she is looking for is validation. It’ very much like, “Look at this person saying ugly things. I feel the opposite of what this bad person feels, therefore I am good a good person.” She makes no attempt to begin a meaningful dialogue with the person in question – she’s posting screencaps, and often it seems as though the “bad person” is someone she doesn’t know personally. It all seems very masturbatory, with many of her friends chiming in so that they can all pat each other on the back for being so unlike this awful person they’re talking about.

    Similarly, I also have a lot of feelings re: “toxic” becoming a buzzword (I’m thinking this is largely a tumblr thing, but I might be wrong) and having lost much of its meaning. It seems like you can no longer ask people to think critically about their views or why they feel a certain way without being labeled as toxic. “Oh, you don’t take everything I say at face value? You’re toxic. GTFO.”

  19. 2

    Thank you for the interview and thoughtful conversation. I haven’t read Schulman’s book yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

    I’m working through a lot of childhood trauma in therapy and I’m curious how it could relate. I’ve learned about a behavior called “offending from the victim postion” which was a concept I felt a ton of resistance to at first, but now recognize within myself and my family and definitely the world around me. I wonder if it’s what this book is about. I understand people’s concerns that people who have experienced or are currently experiencing actual abuse may be silenced or not heard properly. But I’ve learned in the last couple of years that I have a lot of trauma to work through and my initial instinct to blame other people for the pain I experience is the last thing that’s going to actually help me. The healing of the trauma is the only thing that can.

    I know I’ve been on both sides of the equation, being blamed for others’ pain I didn’t create and accusing others of causing my own. It feels like a really complicated thing when I look beyond my own personal experience that only touches me and those close to me and I’m the one doing the healing, towards a broader community of people bumping into each other’s trauma and triggers and reacting out of that place unaware within themselves it’s even happening. I feel like the only thing that could ultimately solve the issue is better programs and systems in place for people to learn about and heal their trauma because without that the cycle just tends to repeat itself.

  20. 3

    Working with young teens gives me a very easy way to simplify the idea that “conflict is not abuse”. Young teens, after learning about what bullying is, will come forward and say that they are being “bullied” when it is not the case that they are being bullied. Often a friend does not like them anymore, or they are being teased, or a rude game between friends went to far. This happens multiple times per school year to multiple kids.

    I think S. Schulman is applying this problem to adult situations. We can always explain to a kid that not all actions are bullying (abuse) and I think she is asking us to apply it to adult life as well.

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