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.]
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.