“Conflict is not abuse” by Schulman (2016)

The title of this book, “Conflict is not Abuse. Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair” (Schulman, 2016), caught my eye in the office library. It looked like something I really wanted to read, but at the same time really did not. For most of the last year, I have pushed so hard to include microaggressions in our courses (– possibly overstating harm to make a point?), and generally work towards anti-discriminatory practices, and I felt like this book would probably prompt reflections that might actually change my thinking quite substantially. And who has time for that? Anyway, the book therefore sat on my desk for weeks when I was first too busy to read anything without immediate and obvious relevance to what I was supposed to be doing, and then, when I did have time to read, there were other books that didn’t scare me as much, like Rachel’s “Confident Assessment in Higher Education”, or “The Slow Professor”. But then some nice and sunny day, I was in a mindset where I was ready to “motivate personal growth by seeking discomfort”, picked up the book, and I am so glad I did!

First, this is a book that is quite unlike what I am used to reading. The author positions herself very explicitly “in the queer”. This makes the book very authentic and, because it is so explicit about personal experiences and emotions in many places, also easily relatable. The examples used to illustrate points do this very clearly. For example police in the US that end up murdering Black men: they did feel like they were experiencing some kind of threat even in a situation where there objectively was none, and where they were in the clear position of power. So how can a perception of a situation be so objectively wrong, and what can we do to perceive, or interpret, or reframe, situations more realistically?

The first little sticky note I put in to mark something that I definitely wanted to find again is on a page where Schulman discusses that feeling threatened is not the same as being in danger. Feeling in danger is basically a sign of being alive, and of being aware that this life will end at some point, though hopefully not right then and there. That something bad happened in a previous situation that some aspect of a current situation reminds us of also does not mean that the bad experience will repeat itself. And this leads into the next couple of sticky notes: The stories we tell ourselves are often quite wrong: Just because there once was someone we liked and shared interests with and opened up to and all was well until they betrayed us does not mean that this will happen every time, or that it is something about us that caused it. Just because we had an experience of harassment does not mean that just because someone “sees what is special about us” and wants to get to know us is, or will end up, in harassment. Yes, it might. But it also might not, and maybe the best option is not to go into the defensive right away, but rather find ways to have conversations in different ways and definitely keep communication an option: “Refusing to speak to someone without terms for repair is a strange, childish act of destruction in which nothing can be won”, neither for individuals nor whole nations in international conflicts. The terms for repair might never be reached, but if there isn’t even an option that raises the question “why would a person rather have an enemy than a conversation?”. The responsibility here is not just on the two people directly involved in the situation (or the one refusing to talk); also others can ask how they can help facilitate a conversation or what the worst thing is that could happen in the conversation. “Avoiding real communication produces long-lasting problems that can endure forever”. There is one example in the book where the author offered to discuss a conflict with the other party until the other party felt the conflict was resolved, and where the author helps establish “new parameters for the relationship” without punishing, invoking authority, withholding. Generous, or the standard we should strive for?

Another train of thought is about the habits of email and text conversations instead of talking to people, and how they lead to conflict that doesn’t need to be there. In a conversation, arguments can be clarified and develop as shared understanding is negotiated. In text conversations, what would be a really brief oral communication can get distorted and lead to conflict that is much harder to resolve, especially as really long texts, or series of short texts are often perceived as “too much”. And there are other “too much”s, like how often can we ask for a conversation (clarifying, or just in general), before it turns into harassment?

One problem that is identified is that often claims of abuse are made that are not actually substantiated. People lightly say that they feel as if they had been raped, just as a figure of speech. Often, what is perceived or reported as abuse is only about conflict (which, as pointed out in the title of the book, is not the same). Abuse is power over, while conflict is a power struggle. It is about being unsafe vs being uncomfortable. That a person feels bad does not necessarily mean that the other person is to blame.

And not recognizing the difference between conflict and abuse is something we get socialized into: It is often a lot easier to blame an outgroup than to admit shared responsibility for an outcome, and it solidifies the shared group experience to have that outside enemy. Being “a good friend” or a “good family member” is often taken to mean to be loyal to the point of supporting the other person’s claims and positions without offering critical questions that might help them modify their perception and approach. Not trying to understand the other person’s reason for acting in a certain way, and considering the consequences of false accusations, is not going to help resolve anything.

Recognizing conflict for being conflict rather than abuse “is a position that is filled with responsibility and opportunity”, for example for “lower[ing] the bar for what must have happened in a person’s life for their suffering to be acknowledged”. If we need to be abused in order to be eligible for compassion, this is a big problem and of course leads to claims of abuse, consciously or more likely unconsciously.

Another chapter is on the role of police in violence, and that somehow it has become the norm to accept the state in form of the police as “ultimate authority in our personal conflicts”. But of course the police are neither objective nor only “stop the violence”: often what they do — and what people call them to do, on purpose or unknowingly — is not about the root causes of violence and preventing it from happening, but rather about punishing it after the fact. Also we are very used to thinking about this dichotomy of good and bad, innocent and guilty, vitim and perpetrator, when in many cases the reality is a lot more nuanced and what we perceive as unprovoked aggression might a) not be unprovoked on our part, and b) colored by our own prior experiences (as it is put in the book: “calling the police on your partner, when it is your father who should have gone to jail”). In many cases, what is right and wrong is a matter of perception, and that is a huge problem, especially when it comes to false claims of abuse, that ultimately cause a lot of harm especially to those whose true reports will not be believed any more because someone else cried wolf too much.

Also, punishment after the fact will most likely not resolve or prevent any conflicts, so the advice common sense advice is to “think twice”, and for friends and family to support each other in slowing down, and thinking twice. There is always more than one way to react in any situation, and recognizing for example anxiety as a driving emotion — and then striving to not act out of that emotion — helps not further escalate situations. Similarly, recognizing that our brains get altered by experiences we have throughout our lives, and that we might act in certain ways due to biological reasons, not rational thought, might help us slow down and think again, and take responsibility for the outcomes of our actions.

The last couple of sticky notes all are on the topic of how to deal with factual abusers (where it is actual abuse, not “just” conflict), and the proposed idea is that “expelling a man who has committed a sexual assault from an elite private school simply unleashes him on the world of women who don’t go to elite private schools”. While that protects a very narrow group of people, it “launches an angry, disenfranchised, and stigmatized perpetrator into the world of women who don’t have deans and college councils to defend them”. So if we think about the bigger system, the responsible response would be to deal with him where there are resources to do so, rather than making him become someone else’s problem.

So now after having read the book, I am by no means done thinking about it. I have pushed back quite a lot against the notion that targets of microaggressions need to be taught how to toughen up, rather than fixing a system in which they are routinely targeted. And of course it is not an either-or: We can, and should, help people deal with the situation they are in — quite possibly abused and not just in conflict, or maybe in conflict that they perceive as abuse — while at the same time working towards fixing the system. And we should reflect about our own perception of abusive behavior towards us: Is it really this specific situation I am reacting to, or the memory of earlier experiences? Is it abuse that is happening — or is it conflict that we can help resolve? And we should ask others the same, obviously in a compassionate way. And we need to think about larger systems than just our own tiny bubble. And then think again.

Schulman, S. (2016). Conflict is not abuse: Overstating harm, community responsibility, and the duty of repair. arsenal pulp press.

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