Book Review: Conflict is Not Abuse

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Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman, 356 pgs, Arsenal Pulp Press,, $19.95

Schulman’s impressive new work hinges on a central contradiction of contemporary political/intimate life: identity politics promises to make good on the pain of oppression to deliver justice, but claims of injury are also readily used to protect privileged interests. From the assault on affirmative action as “reverse discrimination,” to the reactionary insistence that “Blue Lives Matter,” this privileged gesture of reversal and overstatement is everywhere. On university campuses, rape culture apologists operate under the banner of “men’s rights,” and the rhetoric of “safety” is hijacked by privileged students to demand an impossible commodity: education without discomfort. But is it even possible to experience politics, learning, or any kind of relationship, for that matter, without conflict, without ambivalence?

Central to the brilliance of Schulman’s intervention is that she answers that question with a resounding “no.” She provides a helpful differentiation between ordinary conflict, in which political or intimate actors struggle over power, and scenarios of abuse, in which a particular actor holds and exercises power over another. In scenes ranging from gentrification in New York to colonization in the West Bank, Schulman argues, privileged (and traumatized) people who are faced faced with ordinary conflict are forced to to confront uncomfortable aspects of themselves, often responding by projecting abuse onto the marginalized. This conceptual schema is most helpfully illustrated in the book’s early chapters on the too-easy recourse to state intervention and incarceration in scenes of domestic violence, the harrowing criminalization of HIV nondisclosure in Canada, and the last chapter on Israel’s deadly 2014 Operation Protective Edge, which killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.

The book’s middle section examines the dynamics of interpersonal conflict within marginalized communities, and Schulman makes prolific and brave use of examples, often drawing from her own intimate and social circles. Yet I found myself wondering whether the same careful analysis she provides of HIV criminalization in Canada or the aggression of the Israeli Defense Force in Palestine maps on quite so easily to the dynamics of conflict at the intimate scale. Certainly, there is a resonance between the escalation of social conflict through gossip, shunning and social media, and escalation through calling police. But producing rigorous analysis of the privileged psyche in general is surely different than the impossible task of providing masterful, sure-footed analysis of one’s own intimate attachments.

Perhaps Schulman directs us to a productive tension. On the one hand, the queer-feminist insistence that the personal is political can help people to confront structural injustices in everyday life. On the other hand, both Freud and feminism would remind us that we don’t and can’t fully know ourselves and others, particularly those we are closest to, which might call for a measure of caution in the interpretation of intimate life. (David K. Seitz)