MH discusses the difference between abuse and conflict, Canadian attitudes to HIV and the treatment of refugees, arguing for a transformation in attitudes towards difference.

Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) 299 pp.

The trajectory from oppressed to oppressor is hardly unmapped territory. But somehow, the not so discrete charm of scapegoating whenever the expression of one’s difference is perceived as a threat seems to elude most interpretations, especially when it comes to group supremacy formations. The need to be listened to no matter what and the genuine pleasure of bigotry seem as high as ever and lay the ground for any justifiable behavior and response to abuse to be framed as an act of aggression that requires even more aggression in return.

Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair deals with exactly this: the instrumentalization of difference as the reason to shun and punish, ultimately by using repressive means bearing the logo of the state. Its assertion is simple yet cuts like a brand-new razorblade: we need to understand the difference between power over (abuse) and power struggle (conflict). Schulman argues that once a person understands difference in others as a personal discomfort and mistakes this feeling of discomfort for abuse, the compulsory transition to getting the recipient of difference punished requires external intervention from one’s community, family, group, etc. in order to be stopped before becoming real abuse, most often than not sanctioned by the state.


She starts her argument where most of these things occur in the first place: in one’s personal markup coupled with one’s refusal to be self-critical and accountable.  It’s the “gentrified mind”, already defined by Schulman in her previous work, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012) as the mind that refuses to change and which experiences anything different as menacing, or even abusive. It’s also the kind of mind that mistakes anxiety for real danger and acts extremely as a result. The book confronts the uncomfortable reality that Supremacy Ideology (best illustrated by white people’s need to subjugate and diminish others and translated into racialized mass incarceration and police brutality, for example) can easily be bred and fed by one’s most intimate relationships.

From having bullies as parents to the need to dress-up your suffering in order to design a proper victim deserving of other people’s compassion, from so-called empowering messages that present women as the bearers of ultimate truth to conflating normative conflict with actual abuse and constructing false accusations as it is often the case with Traumatized Behavior, the escalation fueled by victimization between conflicted people can actually be prevented through a constant negotiation of differences, a negotiation that does not require the use of the repressive state apparatus.

Schulman tracks the current reality of the state functioning as the ultimate authority even in the most personal kinds of relationships back in the switch of radical anti-violence movements of the 60s and 70s. During this time, state intervention in such cases developed from grass-roots organizations to professionalized, bureaucratic state agencies, mainly as a direct result of increasingly diminished funding. The initial messages of these anti-violence movements were radicalized by their very contexts: racism, patriarchy (as in white male supremacy and not only), incrimination of same-sex relationships and poverty were among the main targets of such movements. But once the locus changed from these to cooperation and integration with the state and its police system, everything was reduced to the dichotomy of victim and perpetrator, without leaving any room for necessary, often illuminating nuances that would reveal conflicted people instead.

In such a climate, actual violence became a spectrum brimming with unresolved anxieties from one’s past, metaphors and revenge scenarios – basically, anyone could claim to be a victim of abuse just to get “even”, bully or shun, a pattern especially fueled by the droning sound of the “blaming the victim” rhetoric and its vocal opponents. And somewhere along the way, the mediator of violence became the police, namely the very epitome of US class system, racism and patriarchy.

“Once people are given the right to punish or to threat punishment by the state, they are no longer required to interrogate themselves and can fall back on convenient dehumanized views of the people they want to hurt. This is what Supremacy Ideology does: it provides the empowered with delusions of superiority, as the ideology itself masquerades as reality.”

Especially enlightening (at least for this reviewer) is Schulman’s chapter dedicated to the current HIV criminalization in the country that everyone seems to adore, Canada, where the official paradigm around AIDS has been remodeled into being virally suppressed or unsuppressed instead of the former binary of being HIV positive or negative. By having switched to this criminalizing pattern, HIV positive people who refuse to disclose their status to their sexual partners can be convicted even if the sex was “safe” and no infection occurred. The route to seeking revenge on a former partner by using the penal system of the state is thus open for use anytime that escalation between sexual partners occurs. Of course, no one is eager to be self-critical or held accountable for playing a part in the conflict in the first place, so this breeds a dangerous environment. The Canadian HIV criminalization also bears the specific marks of homonationalism identifying itself with the state power of punishment in a quest for “respectability”, for a clean (as in HIV negative), straight-friendly gayness that also implies getting married and staying monogamous.

Ultimately, Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair does not emphasize something new in terms of the radical refusal to use state intermediaries as a way of solving conflict. This kind of refusal has already found its various expressions in many anti-authoritarian practices, ranging from the past refusal of colonized people to talk to the authorities perceived as enforcing the rules of the colonizer to the present practices of restorative justice, refugee squats or POC community accountability as a way to avoid police brutality.

What Schulman does do is propose a radical understanding of how unsolved anxieties can easily generate escalation ending in shunning and violence and how something that only seems to be abuse is in fact normative conflict that should be addressed instead of being punished. By questioning the relation between supremacy and trauma and engaging critically with the current concept of what gets to be labeled as “abuse”, she advances the collective commitment to using dialogue and critical (self) understanding in a steady negotiation where each part can be held accountable and responsible to address conflict before it escalates into actual violence – a commitment that can also curtail the current state control and the violence it already inflicts.

 “Progressive people do not shun, and in fact they intervene when group shunning is being organized. Finally, ultimately, when groups bond over shunning or hurting or blaming another person, it is the state’s power that is enhanced. Because the state doesn’t want to understand causes, because the state doesn’t want things to get better, it doesn’t want people to understand each other. State apparatuses are there to maintain the power of those in control and punish those who contest that power; that is what bad families do, and that is what bad friends do. And nothing disrupts dehumanization more quickly than inviting someone over, looking into their eyes, hearing their voice, and listening.”

MH is a staff writer for Drunken Boat with work featured in Full Stopminor literature[s]3:AM, among other publications. 

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