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“Conflict is Not Abuse” provides clarity in anxious times

A conversation with Sarah Schulman and Darnell Moore



Sarah Schulman is a New York based novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, screenwriter and AIDS historian. (Photo courtesy HBO)

There is no turning away from the stark consequences of violence in the U.S. and abroad in our current moment.

Mass shootings, blatant (and subtle) forms of white supremacist terror, sexual abuse, erratic conflicts between nation states, unrepentant government backlash against undocumented immigrants, harm committed by law enforcement, economic pillaging of the poor, myriad forms of antagonism aimed at queer and trans people, and the willful mistreatment of girls and women are incessant, ever-evolving, horrors we are embattled by daily.

We feel the effects of such horrors. We sense in our bodies, in our homes, and within our communities their consequences. But we often lack the language and analyses that can move us beyond a shortsighted focus on the after effects of violence and into a place of clarity in which we might collectively find resolve.

Sarah Schulman, a novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, screenwriter and activist whose three decades of work has established her as a distinguished and sharp cultural producer and critic, has written a book that brings relief, in the form of careful examination, for our conflicted times.

Schulman’s “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair” is a thought map charting a course we might follow as we attempt to move from conflict to transformation. She argues, with impeccable clarity and insight, that “any pain that human beings can create, human beings can transcend.” To some, that line may read as too poetic, too quixotic, during times when so many vulnerable people in the U.S. face the real threat of imminent harm by the state or other people, but what is hope but a belief in the possibility of overcoming seeming impossibilities?

Having known, and admired, Sarah over the past several years, I’ve come to respect her perspectives, which are always ahead of the times. I was delighted to learn more about conflict and resolution by way of an interview. What follows is a condensed version of the dialogue we shared via email.

Darnell L. Moore is editor at large at CASSIUS and the author of the forthcoming, “No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America.”

DARNELL MOORE: Let me begin by asking you to comment on the most recent mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 19-year old Nicolas Cruz, who had been accused of physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend in the past and an alleged white supremacist, killed 17 people. Can you say a bit about mass shootings within the U.S., the root causes and consequences, and how the central argument in Conflict Is Not Abuse might help us to respond collectively?
SARAH SCHULMAN: The killer’s father died when he was 3. He was posting scary racist images of guns and hurting animals. Then his mother died 3 months ago. His girlfriend broke up with him and got a new boyfriend. He started telling people he wanted to shoot up the school. Some people described him in a way that points to biological issues. He got expelled. Why expel a messed up kid whose parents just died? What do we do with people who cannot handle immense pain and loss? Kick them to the curb and let them buy guns?

My friend Jeff Van Dyke pointed out to me that America’s two greatest exports are weapons and entertainment, and most of our entertainment glorifies weapons. It could be said that our commodified popular culture is one big ad for weapons. But on top of the obvious issue of guns and brutality culture, other important questions arise. We must find a way to deal with male offenders. Right now we either excuse them, or eject them via incarceration or exclusion or shunning. None of these options actually try to engage why they are abusive.

In my book I look at two different kinds of people who engage in abusive behavior: supremacists and the traumatized (while recognizing that both can live in the same body.) Some people are raised with a sense of superiority. They feel that they have the right to never be opposed or questioned, and certainly to never be asked to question themselves. If anyone resists their supremacy, they feel uncomfortable and falsely equate that with being under attack. They feel justified in escalating against others, treating others in ways that are not justified but feel reasonable because of the distorted thinking of entitlement. But sometimes when we are traumatized, it is so hard to just keep it together, that facing some kind of difference, or being in a situation where not everything can go our way, feels threatening. Any kind of further self-interrogation feels impossible, and so- similarly to the supremacist, the traumatized person may feel under attack when they are simply facing difference, and act out in ways that are terrible for other people.

In my book I cite the work of Edith Weigert, a mid-20th century German psychiatrist who describes treating people during the rise of the Nazi Party. She and her friend, another refugee psychiatrist Frieda Fromme-Reichman, talked about the wish to treat Nazis. How Nazis were people who could not separate anxiety from the need to act on it. Racism is an interior anxiety that people falsely blame on exterior experiences or other people. A fascist, a rapist, a school shooter, a brutal police officer, are people who feel compelled to act out their internal conflicts on other people. We need awareness, and responsible group relationships to help us separate anxiety and fear and grief from actions that destroy other people.

Rather than expelling Nikolas Cruz and selling him guns, which made him even more hurt, more alienated and more alone. We needed to surround him with community, with acknowledgement of his pain, with help in separating his painful feelings from destructive actions, to avoid this kind of disaster.

MOORE: “Conflict Is Not Abuse” could not have been written at a more appropriate time. It is also true that it could have been published a century ago, or published several decades from now should the world as we know still exists, and the argument you make would still be critical. Share a bit about the book’s timing and the ways it is in dialogue with so many of tremors shaking our world?
SCHULMAN: Well, I have been writing this book for many years. It started with my book “Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences” (New Press), in which I examined the homophobic family. How they bond with each other to blame and exclude the queer family member. They give each other pleasure, in their bond of supremacy, by claiming that it is the queer in the family who is the problem. But actually, the reality is, that the real problem is the homophobia of the family. They are rewarding each other in a negative group relationship.

This insight was something I applied with more complexity in my book “Israel/Palestine and the Queer International” (Duke Press) in which I applied it to myself as a Jew born 13 years after the end of the Holocaust to truly face how the Israeli State and its supporters use abuse tropes and victim language to justify the grotesque subordination of an other people, the Palestinians.
So by the time I came around to “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” I had already explored the negative group relationship, in which the people causing the pain describe themselves as victims, in both the family realm, and the geo-political realm. And I had a strong foundation for going deeper, into the kinds of group relationships, like couples, and cliques, and communities, in which terrible behavior is justified and used as a springboard for supremacy.

The book came out two weeks before Trump’s victory. And in many ways, he has proven my thesis. Every day he tells us what a victim he is, what a witch-hunt is attacking him, and how “sad” it is. At the same time his supporters take their own real pain, and project it—through distorted thinking—onto immigrants, who have contributed nothing towards their confusion and pain. The real blame should be placed onto the white 1% who are behind the globalization of industry that has eliminated the social role of many white working people. But this is obscured by scapegoating.

MOORE: I am always struck by your candor. You’re an honest writer who is not afraid to position yourself as a subject of analysis or critique. You do so in Conflict Is Not Abuse. I often say that so many of us are able to name the feet situated on our necks but are less willing to name the necks our feet are situated on. This is what you do in your work. Why is self-reflection, or self-reflexive analysis, vital for the end of the transformation—for the end of creating communities and relationships without harm?
SARAH: I have to, or else I would be absurd. My femaleness, my lesbian life, have subjected me to every level of denigration and exclusion, but my whiteness, and especially my Jewishness in the age of apartheid Israel, requires me to take responsibility for the de facto advantages and power. One thing I have learned is that it is necessary to negotiate, and in order to negotiate we have to communicate. When we apologize, we lose nothing. When we have terms for ending shunning, we enter into the realm of the sane.

MOORE: I really appreciated your take on the role of social media and the ways it can flatten dialogue or make dialogue difficult. You are active on social media, especially Facebook, what do you see as its benefits and negative effects?
SCHULMAN: If it were not for Facebook, I wouldn’t be able to hear from Palestine, and especially activist and queer Palestine everyday as I do now. If I were dependent on the New York Times and MSNBC, I would know nothing. Anything can be used for good or for evil: a hug, a book, a candle, a television set, a computer. It is not the tool that has inherent meaning, it is the person who is using it that brings its value.

MOORE: The #MeToo movement has elevated a much-needed dialogue on sexual assault, sexism, misogyny and male domination. What are your thoughts on the present public call outs and responses?
SCHULMAN: The pre-eminent event of the moment is that women are being heard for the first time, saying something that we have been saying for fifty years that has been met with derision and mockery. And this is the most significant happening. I hope this gets extended to a broader conversation about the meaning of the revelation that so many men with the power of selection, abuse that power. What does that mean about our social standards of what is good or beautiful? Secondarily, what I am seeing, is that corporate entities: entertainment industries, universities, companies, are firing, shunning, and even erasing people, not for ethical reasons, but because they fear legal liability. The people doing the firing are often behaving in the same manner as those they are eliminating. This may still help some victims, but it is not going to produce any real change. And there is corporate overreaction in some cases, in which people get crushed. We are also seeing a lot of confusion about what is actually wrong. Assault is one thing, and that executives go so far as to set up rape situations, or hire Mossad agents to harass actresses, reveals criminality at the helm of social institutions. But just because one person is uncomfortable does not necessarily mean that the other party has violated them. That is a grey zone that requires a lot more conversation. When I see people complaining “he invited me to his hotel room”—well, that is not a crime, nor should it be. We need more opportunities for connection and expressions of desire, not less. The solution is not more repression and punishment, but instead more freedom and options for everyone. If I am embarrassed by the potential for passion or sexuality or love between me and another person, that doesn’t mean that they are hurting me if they are bold enough to take the chance.

MOORE: Give us Sarah Shulman’s quick take on the current state of national political affairs.
SCHULMAN: We are in the middle of a national cataclysm and no one knows what is going to happen. But one thing I am sure about: we are never going back to the neo-liberal society that we lived in 14 months ago. There is no going back. We have to come out the other end of this terrifying moment, and we had better articulate our visions for what kind of society we want to live in when we get there.

MOORE: I was so moved by this line: Any pain that human beings can create human beings can transcend. That is a sermon—one that holds the potential to spur healing. It’s also hard to fully accept. As a black person, for example, as someone who is in this country per chattel slavery living through its many aftereffects, it is difficult for me to accept that the U.S. can transcend its violent racist heritage. But I also maintain hope in the possibility of a world that is not anti-black. What does transcendence look like?
SCHULMAN: We need moral group relationships in which loyalty and love are defined by encouraging each other to negotiate, to be self- critical, to help each other listen, communicate, and to change. Right now, the standard is that we have to be perfect to be eligible for compassion, but perfection is a delusion, and difference the shared reality of humanity.

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