Book Review: Conflict Is Not Abuse, by Sarah Schulman

I’ve noticed more and more over the last decade that less and less people want to use the phone. I cannot help but draw a correlation between this observation and the ubiquitous rise of digital communication. Email? Sure. Text? Yup. And what’s wrong with this, you might ask? On paper it would objectively appear that text-based communication (particularly including social media) is superior at transferring information without error, if only us pesky humans didn’t make mistakes. And this last part is key: we are not objective, we balance the objective world with our much less easily measurable experiential (or personal) reality; this second reality is informed by our experiences, which are diverse and sometimes punctuated by trauma or loss. When we talk to someone on the phone we are leaving ourselves prone — to fallibility (stammering, going off on a tangent), or having our hesitations read as something we may not otherwise wish to reveal.

I was thinking about these things (and many others) when I began reading Sarah Schulman’s powerful book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. The problem with nearly all forms of digital communication and social media (with the exception of apps like Skype, etc) is that there is no actual dialogue — we aren’t allowed to have the sort of vulnerable conversations that speaking in-person or on the phone forces us into. And, in one of the book’s more important diagnoses, Schulman recognizes this as a key ingredient in the escalation of violence. Instead we are only allowed to trade unidirectional statements, leaving nuance and human connection by the wayside. So, when we have a disagreement with someone via text it becomes easy to pile on them, to vilify them. We can’t see them and there is no way for them to interject. On a social media platform like Twitter, this sort of conflict easily escalates into directing the wrath of groups upon an individual.

The title of Schulman’s book is part of its central thrust: the word abuse is quite specific — to take power away from an individual or individuals through a form of violence — and has been used not only by those who are not in abusive situations (but caught in an inflated sense of victimization) but — most destructively — by abusers themselves. Getting back to social media, one does not need to look far in order to see how the word abuse is bandied about. Schulman contends that we too often conflate conflict with abuse, perhaps not wanting to acknowledge the sorts of human complexity that would compel us to face our opponent rather than call them an abuser, shun them, direct the wrath of the community upon them, or even call the police. Central to Schulman’s thesis is the importance of person-to-person conversation as a means to address conflict and de-escalate false claims of abuse before they grow into destructive force.

This is not a book for those on the left or right looking for comforting opinions. Schulman believes that taking responsibility — personal and community — is the cornerstone to a society which has grown to utilize the state (in the form of the police) to do its bidding for them. This includes those who call the police in domestic disputes. This stance is sure to rankle some, however the force with which Schulman makes her point is engrossing: that we have outsourced our responsibility as a community — and this includes feminist and LGBTQ+ communities — to the state to solve our problems; that we have forgotten how to organize and prioritize community involvement (and this can include one’s home or one’s neighbourhood, as well as one’s country as is revealed later) in dealing with conflict, that the state, driven by commercial interests, has no inherent interest in de-escalation. How practically realistic this is as the scale of conflict increases is a question that goes unaddressed.

Schulman is also not averse to critically dismantling feel-good buzzwords such as safe spaces (which, she insists, you can’t have without inevitably sacrificing someone else’s rights – a position I tend to agree with), or criticizing reductive slogans like “believe women”. Life is complex. No can, sometimes, mean yes. Conflict is inherent in human relations. These are truths that blunt-force measures seeking protection cannot change.

There are moments where it might feel that the author is trying to stretch her argument (which she admittedly posits as a conversation rather than a pronouncement) into areas that feel more a convenient showcase for her experience and passion rather than furthering or sharpening her point. I found the section devoted to HIV criminalization in Canada — this is a terrible country to be HIV-Positive, by the way — to be hugely informative, for which this reader is thankful, and it feels somewhat tangential. Schulman ends her book by using the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict (beginning with the murder of three students in 2014) as a model for how actual falsely-flagged abuse works (albeit on a global scale), how the abuser can assume the form of victim in order to elicit sympathy. While not the cornerstone of her book, it lands convincingly, despite it becoming a flurry of selective Facebook and Twitter posts — it eventually feel like 40+ pages of filler, which does a disservice to the cohesiveness of this particularly charged example. In both of these sections, while Schulman draws the politics and outrage of these situations back into her thesis, when I think about it now I wonder whether they are so highly politicized as to move (what is for me) the more compelling interpersonal aspect of her argument further from our attention. And yet, it is possible to appreciate the scope.

As a therapist, I was uncomfortable by her targeting, in one chapter, of those individuals who fall into the DSM diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This behaviour is a model for what’s wrong with what Schulman refers to as commonality between the tendencies of both supremacists and victims of trauma, namely to insist on accommodations and to point the finger of blame, and shun without a desire to negotiate. While it might be a successful metaphor, I can’t help but feel that she’s unnecessarily throwing a very wide and diverse group of people (note: there are a lot of very functional people who happen to have the symptoms of BPD) under the bus. This isn’t helped in her offering a neurobiological explanation of BPD — suggesting that there’s no choice in the matter, suckers — only to talk in a later paragraph about how difficult fighting the stigma is. Awkward.

This all said, and despite the controversy it will stir in certain communities, I found myself reflecting deeply on the idea of community responsibility and the importance of person-to-person communication in resolving conflict, not to mention a welcome respite from the sort of suffocating online rhetoric that (trigger warning) would suggest that interpersonal conflict is verboten. Schulman demonstrates in many ways that conflict can actually be an opportunity for clearer understanding, and I cannot imagine a time more in need of this type of perspective.

Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (ISBN 978-1551526430), is published by Arsenal Pulp Press, and is available online or at an independent bookstore near you.

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