Fighting Words

Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair BY Sarah Schulman. Arsenal Pulp Press. Paperback, 288 pages. $19.

The cover of Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair

The cover of Sarah Schulman's new book shows a pretty sunset. Its title hovers in white letters over pink and blue clouds like a benign choir of aircraft. Schulman clearly intends to parachute her book into the debate over how people should respond to and resolve conflict. She is the author of ten novels, many plays (produced and unproduced), and five previous works of nonfiction, including influential, often combative books like The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012), Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (2012), about queer solidarity and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Now a professor of English at CUNY's College of Staten Island, she here examines disputes on campus, in our homes, and on the global stage.

Much of the book consists of case studies: Schulman discusses romantic relationships, the criminalization of HIV, the situation in Israel and Palestine. Her analysis centers on what she calls "overreaction," which can happen in all sorts of contexts. "From the most intimate relationship between two people, to the power of the police, to the crushing reality of occupation," she writes, one party will often display "distorted thinking" and reframe the other's justifiable anger as aggression, imagining himself as a victim of abuse and thus excusing in advance any disproportionate or violent response of his own. Such people are eager "to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve." (Donald Trump, incidentally, strikes me as a diamond of the genre: the Overreactor in Chief.)

This observation allows Schulman to suggest parallels between people and behaviors we wouldn't normally expect to have much in common. A white and/or male supremacist, for instance, cannot tolerate dissent, so he may overreact violently if questioned. But then there are people who've been genuinely traumatized (victims of prior abuse, say): They may also find it difficult to tolerate conflict. A traumatized person, Schulman argues, whose fragility supposedly renders her less accountable to the rest of the community, can end up mirroring the behavior of a supremacist. She may make wild, unwarranted claims of harassment. She may, in a college classroom, refuse to discuss certain topics or engage with certain ideas—thus exerting control to shut down the conversation. In the end, Schulman suggests, crying "abuse" when in fact there is only an ordinary, legitimate conflict will tend to strengthen oppressors, who can co-opt this heightened rhetoric for their own purposes.

Schulman emphasizes this point even in the most intimate examples she gives. Halfway through the book, she describes a couple, "Mary" and "Beth," who have been treating each other with disrespect for years. During a particularly intense argument, Beth throws something at Mary, breaking a bone. A few weeks later, Mary files a complaint with the police, and Beth is arrested. On the face of it, this situation seems murky at best. Yet Schulman's interpretation is very stark. According to her, this is an instance of inappropriate escalation. By alerting the authorities, Mary is bringing the state into what should have remained a private conflict.

In the next chapter, Schulman extends her argument against calling the police—or, as she frames it, involving the state—by describing how the law targets HIV-positive people in Canada, where it is criminal assault not to disclose your HIV status to sexual partners, even if you are using condoms. Schulman's evidence here is sound, and she deftly shows how harmful it is to criminalize HIV-positive individuals, redefining the basic functioning of their bodies as abusive acts and contributing to a stigma that leaves many people too frightened to seek treatment. Again, for Schulman, if someone calls the cops on a lover who is HIV-positive, that's an escalation from conflict to abuse, and therefore wrong.

And if it's wrong to use state machinery against those who hurt or upset us in private, it's worse still when the state itself makes similar moves to justify its extreme actions. Schulman sees Israel's rhetoric in particular as analogous to that of a person claiming victimhood inappropriately. She revisits the infamous 2014 episode in which, after three Israeli teenagers were killed by Hamas operatives, the Israeli government escalated the conflict, resulting in more than two thousand deaths. They exploited the killings to justify an enormous overreaction—a war.

Maria Lassnig, Zärtlichkeit (Tenderness), 2004, oil on canvas, 80 3/4 × 59". © Maria Lassnig Foundation.
Maria Lassnig, Zärtlichkeit (Tenderness), 2004, oil on canvas, 80 3/4 × 59". © Maria Lassnig Foundation.

What's most ambitious and exhilarating about Schulman's book is also what's most difficult about it: the extraordinary differences of scale involved in placing these various case studies side by side. Schulman takes her central distinction between conflict and abuse from a talk given by the social worker Catherine Hodes on the subject in 2014. Between any two people, Hodes argued, there can be no such thing as mutual abuse. Abuse can only take place when one person has power overthe other. All other violence results from "power struggle," which is conflict. But Hodes was specifically discussing intimate-partner abuse. By comparison, Schulman's range of reference is vast.

Schulman takes pains in her introduction to explain that "this is not a book to be agreed with," meaning that she is not setting out to make a watertight academic argument. A hybrid method, both impressionistic and analytical, has served her well in the past. The Gentrification of the Mind, for instance,combines a memoir of the downtown queer scene with a more traditional social analysis of the changing Lower East Side.Schulman, an early member of ACT UP, is known primarily as a writer and activist, and she approaches academic work as something of an outsider: Having earned tenure through the now-extinct custom of publication equivalency, she naturally doesn't write like someone who is thinking about peer review. Schulman notes in the introduction that she does not believe in sticking with "one, long, slow idea." Rather, she pursues "many new ideas at once." So she might well disagree with my assertion that she extends the same argument from one chapter to the next. Rather than making a strong connection between the behavior of traumatized people and the oppression of the state, she would argue, she is merely observing two things that share certain qualities. In demonstrating that the way Canada polices HIV-positive people has something in common with knee-jerk claims of abuse and harassment on college campuses, she does not intend to compare the two situations—only to show that scapegoating works the same way at all levels. Yet this is not how readers' minds work. We often cannot avoid seeing a direct comparison. In proceeding by anecdote and analogy, she does, simply by dint of her argument's shape, risk equating Mary (who calls the police over a broken bone) with the State of Israel.

Much of Schulman's book is characteristically innovative. She offers a new framework for thinking about safe spaces and trigger warnings, and herautomatic suspicion of institutional and state power is, in most contexts, valuable. Yet Schulman's disapproval of the injured lover who seeks protection from the police goes too far for me. Perhaps I am overreacting. Perhaps I cannot help but sympathize with, and reinforce the problematic thinking of, Mary and other overreactors. Still, if there is one major flaw in her book, it's that Schulman never explains how to tell who is who. Who has more power in a given situation? Whose anger is legitimate? Throughout Conflict Is Not Abuse, Schulman refers to "bad groups" and "bullies" who facilitate unfair treatment of one person by another. She tends to make black-and-white distinctions between who is right and wrong, or what love does and does not look like, without giving the reader any real tools to tell the difference. She uses words like good, bad, and true as if their meaning and application were universal and self-evident. In my experience, the main intellectual challenge facing someone who thinks they may be in an abusive relationship is precisely this: how to figure out who is doing what to whom. Yes, he punched me, an abused person may say to him- or herself, but didn't I provoke him by doing X or Y? More powerful than the desire to call the police may be the temptation to tell yourself, This is only a fight. It's not abuse. Schulman reserves special censure for anyone who avoids conflict or refuses to engage with others. She exhorts us to abandon our assumptions and resist binary notions of victim and victimizer—and she's right to do so. However, no one is immune to such binaries, and when Schulman falls prey to her own, it makes an important book feel a lot more difficult to swallow.

Jo Livingstone is staff culture writer at the New Republic.