Conflict Is Not Abuse: why do we have a tendency to overstate harm?

Sarah Schulman's book concludes that learning from conflict can be done, though this may mean redefining safe spaces.

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What made NYPD officers put Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold on a Staten Island pavement and wrestle him to the ground, even after he told them “I can’t breathe” 11 times? According to Sarah Schulman, an inability to assess threat – and a fatal, horrifying overreaction to the presence of a peaceable black body. “Nothing happened, but these people with power saw abuse.”

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.

A playwright, novelist, lesbian rights activist, academic and luminary of the American avant-garde, Schulman, in the past few years, has observed a pervasive shift in how the word “abuse” is being deployed: not to bring the violent to justice, but to shut down dissent and evade the work of negotiation and repair. Normal human conflict is being reframed as something dangerous, thereby justifying acts of cruelty and exclusion; at the same time, real abuse goes unchallenged and unreported.

Schulman begins her convincing analysis in the apparently anodyne arena of the personal, observing: “The values required for social repair are the same values required for personal repair . . . Confusing being mortal with being threatened can occur in any realm.” The era of social media has ushered in a new etiquette for handling disappointment or disagreement. Instead of talking, it is now acceptable to ghost, defriend or block communication when confronted with uncomfortable feelings such as anger, anxiety or frustration.

This refusal to do the basic work of social continuity has effects that go far beyond the original relationship. It contributes to a communal lack of skill at handling conflict, weathering the experience of being confronted with contrary opinions, needs and desires. Worse, it leads to punitive behaviour, such as shunning and demonisation, which often overtake entire social groups.

As to how the process escalates, take the example of HIV criminalisation in Canada, that supposedly most liberal of nations. Rather than viewing those infected with HIV as being in need of support and care, the Canadian state has reframed them as dangerous predators, subject to criminal charges and lengthy imprisonment if they have even safe sex without disclosing their status. This aggressive stigmatisation hardly reduces the spread of Aids, because it also dissuades people from being tested in the first place. It endangers the vulnerable to preserve the privileged.

Why does this happen? Why do people overstate the harm they are experiencing, and deny the harm they are doing? Schulman suspects there are two very different reasons for this, which manifest in notably similar ways. Supremacy culture works by refusing to acknowledge the humanity and needs of other people, erupting into rage when faced with dissent of any kind. But people who have experienced trauma are likewise prone to being triggered when confronted with situations of conflict, as painful feelings from the past are reignited, leading to outsized reactions of blame.

That this process afflicts countries just as easily as it does individuals is illustrated in a harrowing chapter on Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, which Schulman (who is both Jewish and a Palestinian activist) analyses in terms of the habit, pervasive among previously traumatised people, of perceiving a threat when there is conflict and responding with excessive, oppressive force.

Interspersed with this discussion is a dense re-creation of her social media feed from the time, featuring heated commentary on both sides. The same malign forces of blame and hatred are palpably at work, and yet Schulman demonstrates that even a Facebook comment thread can be transformed by a steadfast refusal to cut off communication, to the profit of all parties.

Like The Gentrification of the Mind, her 2012 account of the cultural and social after-effects of the Aids crisis, this book might best be described as a manifesto for change, diagnosing a systemic wrong and proposing radical solutions. The polemic won’t be to all tastes but what makes Schulman so valuable as a critic is her eminent practicality.

Describing how male supremacists function, she writes: “He acts as though other people should follow his orders, and when they refuse he punishes, bullies, shuns, makes false accusations, organises group exclusion, distorts narratives, and may threaten and use the law or even violence.”

Conflict Is Not Abuse was first published in the US in October 2016, a month before the presidential election, and yet it grasps precisely the culture now in power, with its poisonous rhetoric of “bad hombres” and fake massacres, its ICE raids and border walls. Not surprisingly, it has become something of a cult hit in America, spawning workshops and discussion groups.

As an activist, Schulman believes that problems have solutions. It is possible, she argues, to do things differently, not least by acknowledging the existence of other people. Learning from conflict can be done, though it may require redefining what a safe space means: not somewhere where nothing bad will happen, but a place in which you can develop the skills to acknowledge and handle reality. 

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Lonely City” (Canongate)

Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair
Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press, 302pp, $19.95/£16.99​

This article appears in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special