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Toward a Better Understanding of the Difference Between Conflict and Harassment

There’s a big difference between a power struggle and real abuse, novelist Sarah Schulman argues — and nations and individuals could avoid a lot of pain and trauma by better distinguishing the two.

By Marcie Bianco


In novelist Sarah Schulman’s new non-fiction book, she argues that conflating conflict and abuse has cultivated an epidemic of “overstating harm.” (Photo: Arsenal Pulp Press)

When it comes to engaging with others on social media, most Americans don’t give non-likeminded individuals a chance. Most Americans have unfriended someone on Facebook, and a 2012 Pew report found that 18 percent of social media users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone due to political material they’ve posted online. This is understandable; it’s easier to hide a person with opposing political viewpoint’s posts than to do the hard work of reading and getting worked up about them.

But in her timely new non-fiction book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, released this month, novelist and LGBT rights activist Sarah Schulman argues this kind of digital curation impedes social and political reconciliation. By shunning others on social media, online users “take a back seat” to issues that require collaboration and even argumentation. According to Schulman, unfriending is emblematic of a larger contemporary and cultural problem: The epidemic of nations and individuals that consolidate “conflict” and “abuse.”

Schulman argues that conflating conflict — which she defines as a power struggle — and abuse — when one actor wields power over another — has cultivated an epidemic of “overstating harm.” Individuals’ and groups’ tendencies to inflate slights against them leads to tragedy on a personal and global scale , she argues—when thinkers don’t differentiate productive political strife and personal attacks, they foreclose possibilities of resolution and social progress.

Conflict Is Not Abuse asks readers to engage with, rather than shy away from, contentious social issues — from the definition of sexual harassment to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. One of the book’s most significant and controversial revelations is that no matter which position one takes in conflict, as a crusader for a cause or as a victim, the consequences of misreading conflict as abuse and foreclosing pathways to repair are shared by all.

“Everything I have written throughout my life has been about who has the power,” Schulman explains at twilight one evening in early September, in the sparsely furnished living room of her apartment in New York City’s East Village.

It’s a theme that runs through two of Schulman’s previous non-fiction books, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009) and The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012), which also advocated for more active community membership and interventions in conflict. “Intervention,” a term Schulman has employed variously throughout her non-fiction writings, is key to her overall vision of a shift in collective mindset from passive witness to advocate: It is “the only moral response to another person being group-bullied, or another group of people being shunned, excluded, incarcerated, or occupied,” she writes in Conflict Is Not Abuse.

In Conflict Is Not Abuse, Schulman particularlyadvocates for intervention in groups characterized either by “supremacy ideology” (those who believe they are innately, morally superior to others) or by trauma (those who achieve the status of victims in their society). Schulman takes care to separate traumatized groups from those in power, but she argues that the two have something in common: Both dissuade members of that group from questioning their own accountability in conflict, and cloak violence and oppression in the language of moral righteousness.

Bullies often feel like victims, according to Schulman. “Bullies often conceptualize themselves as being under attack when they are the ones originating the pain,” she writes. Straight people claiming the institution of marriage is threatened by the potential of LGBT people marrying, for instance, would apply, as she writes in Ties That Bind. Schulman argues that ultimately “supremacy produces trauma” — the bullying group’s lack of accountability creates those same feelings in its victims.

“Bullies often conceptualize themselves as being under attack when they are the ones originating the pain.”

But she also points to the ways that groups that states deem “victims” can perpetuate the painful consequences of the conflation of conflict and abuse. Take the creation of the racist myth of the black male sexual aggressor, which, as director Ava DuVernay shows in her new documentary, 13th, was used by white people to justify decades of lynchings, and murders, and the mass incarceration of black men. Or, take America post-9/11, when George W. Bush-era anti-terrorist rhetoric was linked to a rise in hate crimes against Muslims in America in the press. By basing their fears of potential threats on political constructions, generalizations about “terror,” or depictions based in pop culture rather than on actual experience, people who feel like victims can unintentionally create further means of oppression.

Schulman attributes a rise in “victim identity” to the state and federal acquisition of non-profit and grassroots organizations. She cites the demise of CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) as kryptonite for service-oriented organizations born out of the feminist anti-violence movement of the 1960s, for example, that later had their budgets cut by the Reagan administration in the ’80s when they joined the federal government. These organizations often recognize only those who appear ethically pure, Schulman writes, which puts some — especially women — at risk. Western criminal justice systems still often take the sides of male sexual abusers — just note the 2014 case in which a Canadian judge criticized a rape victim for not “just keep[ing her] knees together” —which makes accountability particularly perilous for women.

So, how can those whom the state deems “victims” effectively help to repair conflict without putting themselves at great risk? Schulman proposes an end to labels like “victim” and “abuser” in order to not “reinforce distorted thinking or justifications of punishment and victimology.” Instead, she continues, groups and individuals should discover a “relief in discovering that one is not being persecuted.” She suggests groups take action together, put social pressure on individuals to act ethically, and encourage them to attempt to reach an agreement with the other parties. Coming to a consensus about what everyone’s point of view is, and being able to articulate those points of views, she writes, should be the objective of this group pressure, not necessarily peace and agreement.

If that seems like a big task to take on, individuals can start by remaining “friends” online with people politically opposed to them, and fully understanding their positions even if they don’t align with their own. “Something that makes you uncomfortable is not harassment” or abuse, Schulman says. She stopped unfriending and blocking people because, she says, “it takes more time to avoid people than it takes to just answer them … withholding creates anxiety and acknowledgment creates resolution.”

In the conclusion to her book, Schulman does not mince words: When we don’t refuse cruelty, “ultimately we stand for nothing.” Just like negotiation on the part of those in conflict, intervention in cruelty is an ethical obligation of citizens of the world, whether it occurs on the battlefield or on a Facebook feed. To intervene when there is conflict amounts to the simplest human act, Schulman asserts, because “nothing disrupts dehumanization more quickly than inviting someone over, looking into their eyes, hearing their voice, and listening.”