Conflict Is Not Abuse Megan Milks

Harm, overreaction, cruelty: Sarah Schulman’s book examines the new victimology and a cultural moment defined by escalation.

Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, by Sarah Schulman, Arsenal Pulp Press, 299 pages, $19.95

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About a year ago I was at a queer dance party with a group of friends. A woman we didn’t know joined us on the floor, and seemed particularly attracted to my friend K. The next day, K expressed regret at not asking for her number, and I suggested they go through the invite list on Facebook to find her and ask her out. 

K followed my advice and sent a friendly Facebook message saying (I paraphrase) hey, you’re supercute, want to get together sometime? In response, the woman called K a stalker, claimed K had violated the dance party’s safe-space policy, and told them never to contact her again. 

K was hurt. I was sheepish: sorry, friend. 

Had my suggestion been unethical? We decided no. Why should contacting someone through public channels be a violation of safe space? Why should a benign expression of queer attraction in the context of a queer event be threatening? Couldn’t this person simply have said no, not interested? Her response seemed unfair and needlessly hurtful. I put it forth here as an example of what Sarah Schulman would call an overstatement of harm. 

In Conflict Is Not Abuse, her sixteenth book, Schulman examines situations like this, in which a normative conflict—such as uneven desire—prompts an overreaction that results in pain, division, and, potentially, crisis. She brings together a wide range of contexts, building from the interpersonal, with sections on the dangerous flirt and bullying, to the geopolitical, with a final chapter that analyzes the 2014 Gaza war as a case study in the behavior patterns she describes throughout the book. 

If you’ve read any of her other work, you’ll know Schulman to be a fiercely ethical chronicler of human experience, a novelist, playwright, and social critic as bighearted as she is fearless. Schulman writes from a humanist standpoint devoted to capital-T “Truth” and the possibility of change, and this book might be viewed as a culmination of her long, rich history of ideas thus far. In many ways extending the arguments of her earlier Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), Schulman returns to the problem of shunning, here tracing its roots to overstatements of harm supported by bad friend groups (which can include the family). Conflict Is Not Abuse constellates a range of issues—from intimate partner conflict to call-out culture to police violence and incremental genocide—to describe a cultural moment defined by escalation. 

Schulman’s starting point is that normative conflict is too often mistaken for abuse, and that these false accusations of harm are often used to justify cruelty. Perhaps her most persuasive early example is police overreaction. The police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, for instance, encountered normative, nonthreatening resistance to their power and “saw threat gross enough to justify murder”; they “saw abuse.” More controversially, she relates these instances of police escalation to the behavior patterns of recovering victims of trauma. Because of the cruelty they have experienced in the past, she observes, victims in recovery may feel threatened despite the absence of threat, and respond by shunning, blaming, and/or projecting. (“Victim” is Schulman’s term. I tend to use “survivor,” but defer to Schulman’s choice in the context of her arguments.) Making a historical link to the antiviolence movement, Schulman suggests that what she calls “the new victimology” is a distortion of that movement’s goals. 

Schulman goes on to identify two patterns of behavior that she sees as closely related, naming them Supremacist behavior and Traumatized behavior. Those responding to conflict from a Supremacist position, she explains, “will not tolerate any opposition,” and so refuse knowledge. The Traumatized are similarly challenged by opposition, their “fragile selves” unable to bear it. Both seek control, Schulman writes, “in order to feel comfortable.” 

This language is where things get somewhat sticky and, well, uncomfortable, for me. Equating the reluctance to repeat traumatic experiences with a need “to feel comfortable” is awfully trivializing. Victims are not asking for pillows and slouch pants. If they were . . . maybe they should get them?

Returning to my own example: Though hurt by this person’s overstatement of harm, K understood. If this person felt she could not simply say no, not interested, it may be that in the past she has said no and still been threatened. Schulman would likely argue that, regardless, in the present situation, this person was seeing danger where there was none. But: How is one to know if a person or situation is or will become threatening? 

This is where the community comes into play. According to Schulman, it is the responsibility of the community to recognize overreaction and intervene. Whereas a bad friend group would reflect back the Traumatized person’s fears, contributing to escalation (i.e., “What a creep—report them to the party organizers! Stay away!”), a good friend group would intervene (i.e., “This message seems friendly and nonthreatening to me”). But this suggests that there is one correct interpretation of a situation with many unknowns and variables, and that the person in question is open to hearing it. (Try saying “Your reality is wrong” to someone who’s been told repeatedly by an abusive partner that their reality is wrong. See how that goes.)

There is much to wrangle with here, and there is much more to say. Schulman’s ultimate argument is this: “The person being triggered is suffering, but they often make other people suffer as well. . . . Although the triggered person may be made narcissistic and self-involved by the enormity of their pain, both parties are in fact equally important.” This critical stance against the reproduction of harm by victims in recovery is an essential contribution to the discourse on trauma. However, I’m frustrated by Schulman’s neglect of disability and accommodation as a framework for considering trauma (especially PTSD); and I’m nettled by her disdain for the trigger warning, which seems like one obvious, if imperfect, community-based tool for preventing the same manic flight reactions she wants us to prevent. (Schulman views the trigger warning as another symptom of the new victimology.) 

Throughout, Schulman insists on the importance of talking and listening in not only conflict resolution, but virtually every human interaction. In her introduction, she invites us to encounter Conflict Is Not Abuse as a dialogic text: “This is not a book to be agreed with, an exhibition of evidence or display of proof. It is instead designed for engaged and dynamic interactive collective thinking.” On these grounds, she succeeds. I talked to the book while reading it; I have been talking about it with everyone I know. 

Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories, winner of the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Fiction and a Lambda Literary Award finalist, as well as three chapbooks, most recently The Feels, an exploration of fan fiction and affect. Milks is fiction editor at The Account, and editor of the books The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, 2011–2013 and Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives

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