Let's pretend you're a well-respected, white, female professor at a state university and you've just discovered that one of your promising students, a young guy from a minority community, has been confessing his love for you on his blog, describing exactly what he likes and doesn't like about your body and your habits.
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Is this guy "stalking" you? Is he "harassing" you?
What do you do about it? Do you report him to the school's judiciary, knowing that he may not receive fair treatment? What do you think your friends would tell you to do? If they all told you to report him to the administration, would that make you feel more inclined to do so?
Distinguished professor, prolific novelist, Guggenheim-fellowship-winning playwright, and lesbian activist Sarah Schulman addresses that scenario and many other complexities of power and action in her latest book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, which was published in October 2016 by Arsenal. On January 17, she'll read from Conflict at the Central Library. Local writer and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore will join her onstage for a discussion.
In Conflict, Schulman takes the radical position that people in conflict should communicate openly, honestly, in-person, or at least on the phone. That's what Schulman did with the student in her class who was writing love notes about her, and it worked. Adjustments were made, and both lives returned more or less to normal.
Though that communication strategy sounds like the most common-sense solution to nearly every human problem, Schulman provides tons of examples where confusing "conflict" with "abuse" stymies communication between people, institutions, and states—and prevents necessary resolution.
According to Schulman, conflating conflict and abuse encourages people to embrace the rhetoric of victimhood. Once a person perceives themselves as a victim of abuse, rather than a human being dealing with an uncomfortable and complex situation, they have overreacted and thus have escalated the situation. Now that the situation is escalated, the "victim" then uses their self-subordinated position to justify cruel actions. Once a person or group has been labeled an abuser, it's "okay" to scapegoat them and shun them, which, as Schulman says more than once in this book, "never, ever" helps.
Conflict is an "undisciplined" academic book, as Schulman calls it, which means she grounds this one thesis in several different fields of study without adhering to evidence standards common to those fields. That's not to say there's no hard research here—there's plenty—but the book reads more like a really well-informed piece of popular psychology than a straight-up monograph. Which is good. Schulman's sure, calm stream of logical arguments goes down easier than an eight-page literary review in a sociology paper.
This "undisciplined" mode gives Schulman the freedom to explore the way conflict mistaken for abuse connects Hot Topics such as "trigger warnings" with Topics That Should Arguably Be Hotter such as Canada's criminalization of HIV, as well as Topics That Are Reheating, such as the occupation of Palestine.
Schulman's position on those last two points is easy medicine for most progressives. Forcing people with HIV to disclose their status under threat of incarceration, as Canada does, encourages partners to use the state as a kind of ultimate revenge tool. Benjamin Netanyahu and the West Bank/Gaza settlers exploit the inherited trauma of the Holocaust in order to justify the mass murder of Palestinians.
Her thoughts on trigger warnings, however, might cause the "safe spaces" crowd to balk. Basically, she's wary of trigger warnings because they permit people with unprocessed trauma to blame present company for past violations at the expense of knowledge building that might actually prevent future violations. Conflict is to abuse as pain is to suffering—sometimes the former is necessary to prevent the latter.
In all of these cases, Schulman believes, the problems can be solved if all parties involved just keep calm and talk it out. If they can't, then "accountable" witnesses to the conflict—friends, family, members of the community, other nations—must intervene and arbitrate. This resolution cannot happen over text, via e-mail, or through social media, all of which mask the thousand nuances of voice and tone, allowing both parties to hide from each other's essential humanity.
Though that last idea sounds fluffy, for me it speaks to why Schulman's book is so refreshing, not only in form but in content: She insists on the importance of precision in language and communication. Without this precision, people cannot share even provisional realities, and peace becomes impossible.