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Sarah Schulman on conflict and abuse within radical communities


In the December 2016 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Jarrett Earnest talks with queer writer and activist Sarah Schulman about her latest book, Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. She says that interpersonal and intra-community conflict—especially in the feminist and queer movements—has gone from being an accepted and necessary reality to something that’s deferred to outside authorities, like the police, or avoided via passive-aggressive social media activity. A strong community, suggests Schulman, is not one that avoids conflict, but one that anticipates and constructively resolves it. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Rail: One of the things I thought was the most important about Conflict is Not Abuse connects to our contemporary moment, where people displace conflict through various means. One is through media where you don’t have direct personal interaction, or by deffering to institutional structures that intervene, whether that is a school administration or on up to the state. How you see conflict working differently now than twenty years ago?

Schulman: In the book I give the history of the transformation of the feminist movement against male violence and I really try and show that it is post-Reagan where we start seeing the constant message that police should be the arbiters of human relationships. That began the bureaucratizing and professionalizing of social services so that they become part of the government, eliminating the grassroots sector the community was providing. You also get the emergence of corporate television shows like Law and Order showing us that there is one perpetrator who is evil, there is one victim who is innocent, and the answer is the police. It’s now been thirty-six years that we’ve been told that police are the appropriate arbiters of relationship conflict and that is not true—it’s true for abuse, perhaps, but for conflict it is absolutely not true.

Rail: I’m wondering if it’s more common to avoid having actual conflicts in person, which makes the conversation urgent and immediate. What does it mean, then, to disagree as human beings.

Schulman: We’ve conflated taking responsibility with having something be your fault. So, for example, if someone wants their partner to leave and they won’t, it now escalates to if you don’t do it right now then I’m calling the police, then they call the police. What if the community around those people, friends, neighbors, and families, instead said we’re going to come over and find out what’s going on. What would be revealed if they stayed? What do you think the problem is? What are the alternatives to calling the police? To me, that intervention is what loyalty really is. That means we allow people to say I overreacted without being punished.

Rail: How do you understand the construction of community in this context?

Schulman: It’s whatever groups you belong to. I’ve lived in this apartment building since 1979 and there are a few people I’ve lived with this entire time. We have seen each other through all kinds of shit—horrible breakups; overdoses—and there’s a sense of community that you live in. So that’s one kind of community. For some people it’s their family, or friends, or religious categories; a lot of us are in cliques; some of us have work colleagues. There are all kinds of witnesses to our lives.

Image of Sarah Schulman via Gay City News.


This brought to mind recent political behavior by any self-identified underprivileged group, where a person hijacks a moral platform, often with illogical or untrue statements, then tries to dominate other through making them feel guilt… but their real aim is personal status and power over others. When we try to dominate that is tyranny, not political activism.