What We’re Reading: Sarah Schulman’s “Conflict is Not Abuse”

Spotlighting the ways we mischaracterize harm and avoid accountability, so we can build stronger, more authentic relationships

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We’re back in the Rebbie Book Nook, and this week I’m revisiting Sarah Schulman’s somehow both super intuitive and super confronting book, “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair”, which just had its fourth publication birthday. It’s a text I’ve returned to several times in the year and a half or so since I grabbed my copy, to sort of brush up on the way to most constructively frame and navigate conflicts with the people I care about.

I first came across the title on Matt D’Elia’s podcast (which I’ve linked below – and you’re welcome! Spoiler: It’s probably the most replayed episode in my entire listening career), and made it about seven minutes into his interview with Schulman before her book was in my e-cart. She’s a playwright, novelist, queer rights activist, academic and luminary of the American avant-garde, and not to fan-girl too hard… But I found myself hanging on Every. Single. Word.

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“My thesis is that at many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve.”
– Sarah Schulman –

I was in the middle of a fight with one of my closest friends at that time; a fight that, I felt, had come absolutely out of the blue, gotten blown vastly out of proportion in no time flat, and that I was really struggling to make heads or tails of. There was a full communication breakdown, followed by an “I need some time” from her, without any word about how long “some time” might last. It ended up being about three months, and the silence was brutal.

I’ll spare y’all the details of what led to the fight, though you’d be safe to assume it involved a dude with lame behavior, and me being tired of seeing my friend mistreated. And having barely hinted at my frustration with him, what I couldn’t understand was how she would push me away – and for several months, no less. I was absolutely cut off, totally put into “friendship time-out” as punishment for something I didn’t know I’d done – and, more importantly, couldn’t guess how to make up for.

So this is the headspace I was in when Sarah Schulman first popped into my headphones. And that same sense of relief at having my confusion acknowledged and answered has hit me every time I’ve reached for the book or listened to the interview since. I’m telling you: The word “transformative” is not to be used lightly, but it’s the only word for “Conflict Is Not Abuse”. It will change everything about the way you understand, knuckle through and grow from the normative conflicts that we’re all 100% bound to encounter as we move through the world – both as an individual, and within our communities. Passages like this helped me to understand what might be going on inside my friend’s head during those silent months, whether she knew it or not – but also to recognize defensive, damaging patterns within myself that needed to change:

“The real question is: Why would a person rather have an enemy than a conversation? Why would they rather see themselves as harassed and transgressed instead of have a conversation that could reveal them as an equal participant in creating conflict? There should be a relief in discovering that one is not being persecuted, but actually, in the way we have misconstrued these responsibilities, sadly the relief is in confirming that one has been “victimized.” It comes with the relieving abdication of responsibility.”
– Sarah Schulman –

The Cut’s Molly Fischer gets right to the heart of the matter by extracting the following: “The book’s central insight is that people experiencing the inevitable discomfort of human misunderstanding often overstate the harm that has been done to them — they describe themselves as victims rather than as participants in a shared situation. And overstating harm itself can cause harm, whether it leads to social shunning or physical violence.” (Emphasis mine, because *obviously*)

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Just as important to unpack as the how conflict gets framed as abuse is the why, or the understanding of how this framing functions. We’re living in a time where a claim of victimhood carries with it a significant amount of social capital; a phenomena that Schulman reflects on in the book, detailing an experience of having discovered a student was “obsessed with her” and had created an online blog devoted to that cause.

When she presented this discovery to her colleagues, they rallied around her and characterized his behavior as “stalking” – a term Schulman takes seriously, and would not have applied herself. However, she was aware that the sympathy and attention she received at being cast in this “victim” light – something which troubled her greatly, and gave birth to a number of realizations about the motivations behind some people’s tendency to overstate harm in order to reap the social benefits of being a “victim” – including the “justification” for harmful behavior in return.

“This tendency to overstate harm, and to use it as an excuse for punitive behaviour, is at work, Schulman thinks, at all levels in our contemporary world, from the shunning that takes place in friendships and romances gone sour to the genocides and pogroms that occur on the geopolitical stage,” says Olivia Laing on NewStatesman.com.

Schulman, as a scholar, is always solution-oriented in her thinking, and presents a number of ways forward from this paradigm, including a redefining of “safe spaces” from places where nothing bad will happen, to places where we’re able to develop the skills to acknowledge and handle reality. “Resilience” is one of her main recommendations; learning how to sit in the discomfort of normative conflict with the people who care about you, with whom your growth, vulnerability and failings are safe – rather than responding as though “abuse” has occurred, negating the role you may have played in escalating the situation, and creating further harm through punitive behavior. This call for resilience has stayed with me ever since I first read “Conflict Is Not Abuse”, and has no doubt benefited me (and whoever I’ve been working through conflict with). And in case we’re tempted to limit the implications for this internal work to ourselves and our communities, I’ll leave you with a reminder from the author herself about the far-reaching significance of our duty to persevere through conflict and onward to repair:

If a person cannot solve a conflict with a friend, how can they possibly contribute to larger efforts for peace? If we refuse to speak to a friend because we project our anxieties onto an email they wrote, how are we going to welcome refugees, immigrants, and the homeless into our communities? The values required for social repair are the same values required for personal repair.
– Sarah Schulman –

Get a taste of what I’m talking about by listening to Sarah Schulman’s interview with Matt D’Elia right here, and see you back at the shelf soon!

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