Author and activist Sarah Schulman.
Sarah Schulman’s latest book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press), is a nonfiction call to shift the paradigm around how we communicate about conflict and difference. If the mantra for feminists used to be “the personal is political,” Schulman has added complexity to the concept by examining how interpersonal communication (and its inverse, refusal to communicate) affects community, which in turn affects understanding of oneself and one’s relationship to different communities. According to Schulman, all of this enhances the power of the state to build dysfunctional systems.
Schulman is a long-time queer activist and professor whose past nonfiction books and 11 novels have been deep explorations of issues like homophobia, queer identity, and politics. In Conflict Is Not Abuse, Schulman argues that when we avoid resolution and introspection, we contribute to disordered thinking and invest in maintaining unequal power dynamics at the community and governmental levels. She begins the book looking at the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police, the beating in an elevator of Janay Rice by NFL player Ray Rice, and the deaths of thousands of Palestinians in the summer of 2014 by the Israeli military.
All of these moments are examples, says Schulman, of normative conflict interpreted as abuse—the presumed threat from Black men who encounter police, the arguing partner, and the perceived terrorist intent of an occupied people. As Schulman writes, “From the most intimate relationships between two people, to the power of the police, to the crushing reality of occupation, these actors displayed distorted thinking in which justifiable behavior was understood as aggression.” Schulman’s bald language about consequence, her parade of examples and perspectives from her explorations of conflict, and her intelligence lay out a call to change that basically everyone should read.
I had the opportunity to talk to Schulman via phone between her book events in Chicago and San Francisco.
How did you come to envision this book? What made you start writing it?
I’ve been writing it all my life. All my books are about who really has the power. That’s been my motivation as a writer. This way of thinking started with Ties that Bind. I was looking at this group, the homophobic family, and they say that the queer family member needs to be removed, that they’re dangerous, that they’re a threat. But actually they’re not; it’s the homophobia of the family that’s the problem. And rather than being self-critical, the family projects their fear onto the queer person. So that’s when I started to understand the idea of the negative group and the negative loyalty system and how a bad group can single out an individual and make them the spectre, the object on which all evil is attached.
Then when I wrote Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, the theory expanded. I had been raised to support Israel for many reasons, including because my relatives lived there. And I realized—I think a lot of people who work on Israel/Palestine come to understand—that Israel was like one big bad family. It’s a negative loyalty system. It uses shunning to erase the experiences of Palestinians so that Israeli Jewish citizens don’t have to face the consequences of their actions. But I also have had the experience of writing that book from a very self-critical perspective. The book is a journey through making mistakes, being wrong, having false consciousness, which is really necessary to change. That was the first book I ever wrote from a supremacy position. I think both of those books really did the foundational work and allowed this new book to happen.
I particularly connected with how you worked to disarticulate identity from opinion and behavior, especially in a context of looking at how people in identity communities understand and respond to conflict. When you wrote that “This is a strikingly humane idea: that the collapse of Conflict and Abuse is partly the result of a punitive standard in which people are made desperate, yet ineligible, for compassion,” you highlighted the artificiality of how we ascribe the labels “victim” and “abuser” or “perpetrator” to people who are in conflict. How do you see this reparative work in the context of larger marginalized communities? Or put another way, how can activists retain hard fought gains around the violences they experience as a community but be willing to do this work with people who may be from a different identity community that institutionally has power over them?
You’re asking like five different questions there, Everett. What are you really asking?
Okay, right. I can think of many examples of when people who might be allies to each other because they’re not in the same identity group have a conflict between them, and what winds up getting communicated is who has privilege and who is oppressing whom, rather than—
Oh, when someone says it’s okay for me to lie about you, or something. This kind of thing happened to me recently. Someone said, “I have the right to lie about your book because you are a tenured professor.” That’s what you’re talking about?
Yes. When people shut down conversation or say something like, “You can’t criticize Caitlyn Jenner unless you’re a trans woman.”
That’s absurd, she’s a Republican. She supported Ted Cruz for president. This kind of thing is dehumanizing, the idea that people are not really complex, that they’re not allowed to make mistakes or have misunderstandings that they can’t negotiate. This is an authoritarian perspective even if it comes from below. I didn’t really go into this in the book. You know what I think the larger issue is here? My book is not about call-out culture. I may mention it in one sentence. But it’s been extrapolated to be about that because that’s what many younger people are concerned with now. It’s one of those weird zeitgeist things where I wrote this book about something else, about how letting personal anxieties interfere with our ability to negotiate enhances the power of the state. That’s what my book’s about. But every stop on this book tour has been entirely packed, standing-room only. And there are lots of people in their twenties, which is amazing. And I am finding that often their central focus is their personal relationships as the central arena of power, not the actual power of the state, it’s because they’re concerned about call-out culture. And they’re applying these ideas, which is great, but it’s not anything that I intended.
Well there is a lot in the book about how group shunning marks particular people as problematic. And I think you’re giving us an alternative way of communicating in the wake of those moments.
That’s amazing. I’m very happy about that. I didn’t make the connection myself when I was writing it. When I did the event in Toronto, there were maybe 120 people there, and it was great. One of the first questions was from an Asian trans woman who is a social service provider for young trans kids, and she said, “We really need this book because my kids are tearing each other apart.” This heightened attack mode has become a substitute, in my view, for politics. We have a generation in which fewer queer people have direct organizing experience and skills learned from being in activist political movements, and there is some confusion, I think, about what “politics” actually is. For example, taking people down by making false or unfounded accusations is not something that moves things forward in a progressive, transformational way. It is more about projected emotional catharsis than politics. Treating non-events, or perceived minor slights, or actual differences of opinion as crimes is not progressive. It is a punitive drive towards conformity and doesn’t produce positive change.
This came up again last night in Chicago, standing-room only, and people were asking “When you look at successful models of social change, what do you find?” As a historian of ACT-UP—because I’ve run the ACT-UP Oral History Project for 16 years now—one of the reasons the movement was successful was because it permitted difference. People were allowed to do different things, and have different understandings of the crisis, and have different strategies on how to respond based on who they were, and if people disagreed with each other, they most often didn’t try to stop each other from acting.
This kind of take-down thing, where you do these micro-critiques of people, this did not exist as a mode. So what [ACT-UP] produced was a real democracy in which you have simultaneity of action in all different arenas, and that’s what really helped ACT-UP be successful. This mode now is counterproductive to that. You cannot move forward socially if you insist on a dynamic of uniformity. It absolutely doesn’t function. It’s not effective. So this constantly insulting people because of differences—some of these differences are even completely imagined or very, very slight—it’s extremely destructive. It keeps a community from cohering and even advancing.
You have one of the most humane but critical understandings of the Israeli occupation of any critic I’ve encountered…what would you like to see happen in Israel?
Do you understand President Obama as making any progress toward that?
No. We’ve given Israel more money this year than we ever have.
So is there any hope the United States can change its position with regard to Israel, Palestine, the Middle East, and the people who live there?
Of course there’s hope. The thing with Mrs. Clinton is that she has certain decisions that she makes on principle, like for abortion rights, and she has many positions that she makes based on power. And her support of AIPAC is one of those [power] positions. And I believe deeply that if we pressured her, she would change, just like she did on gay marriage. It’s not like she’s a Zionist; she doesn’t have a central allegiance to the AIPAC position. If we do our job, we can change U.S. policy. When we see mainstream churches, like the Methodist Church, which is her church, take BDS positions or divestment positions, that’s the mainstreaming of popular support for the end of the occupation.
So that’s the kind of program that just has to reach a critical mass. The frustration is that we don’t see any consequence on the ground yet. But it’s clear to everyone that popular opinion is shifting, especially in key communities—academic, African-American, secular Jews, LGBT, progressive Christian churches. In certain social sectors, we’re seeing significant institutional transformation of views on Israel/Palestine. And in the U.S., that’s where change starts, in the subcultures. Nothing starts from the middle or the center in American culture. All change starts from the margins. Younger people are much more pro-Palestinian than older people. We just have to keep going. And I just want to say that even though we’re seeing all these horrible tactics at play right now, like accusing everyone of anti-Semitism, and pressure on students and academics, and trying to pass constitutional rules against boycotts, they have not succeeded at a single one of those strategies.
What hasn’t come up as you’ve done this book tour?
But the idea that the Israeli government lied about deaths of the settler children whose kidnapping was used to justify the war on Gaza [in 2014], that the government knew all along that they were dead but pretended that they did not realize this, and how all of the escalation was caused because of anxiety and fear that the government created during a bogus search for them who they knew were already dead.
And to watch that chaos—I reproduced some of what I saw on Facebook in the book—and the debates on social media, you could see that everyone was being lied to. You could look at the accounts of people trying to work out what was happening and see the absurd mass murder that was not being contextualized for them. And then to find out that the actual media that finally told the truth was, of all things, that broke the story in the U.S., this tiny Yiddish paper. Conflict Is Not Abuse is trying to be a document of public confusion as it unfolds, as people are being lied to. The designer, Zab Design, really integrated Twitter and Facebook into a book text. I thought it was very interesting, because they’re integrated in our lives, but as far as I know, she’s the first person to integrate it visually into a nonfiction book in precisely this way. So there’s a lot of dimensionality to that, how that debate unfolded and how those experiences played out. The reason the book entered that debate is because it’s a culmination of what happens when people are unable to be self-critical in larger groups. You get genocide.
I found at the time I remember that a lot of motivation for the bombing campaign in Gaza came down to the tunnels discovered leading into Israeli territory. I don’t think the tunnels were ever found to be productive to Hamas or Palestinian terrorists.
It was overstatement of harm, again. The Israeli government rhetoric is a cumulative example of all of the issues I raise in the book. They position themselves as abused, they’re under attack, they’re being threatened, but in reality they are the actual perpetrators. In just talking with you now, I’m so glad we’re getting to this part in the book about Gaza, because I don’t want people to turn this book into a self-help thing about how to talk to their friends. That’s not what it’s about, only. It’s about how when you overstate harm and make false accusations in the intimate, you are creating a foundational structure that allows and enhances state power, whether it’s the police in your community, or geopolitical and governmental power. The point is that these kinds of collapses produce division and destruction and can be life-threatening. This is the argument that I’m making. Genocide comes from the same impulse. It’s harder for some reader to internalize that connection because there’s a narcissistic desire to apply the early parts of the book to ourselves and our friends who we’re fighting with. But there’s so much more going on than that.
In those feeds you can see people are struggling to justify what the Israeli government is doing. And they don’t really have any information. It’s incredibly revealing to just read their efforts to grasp at something that’s going to make this mass murder be okay.
I was surprised to hear that some people have decided your book is in support of police systems and calling the police.
It seemed so clear to me that you had quite carefully articulated how the police as an arm of the state were problematically reinforcing this collapse of conflict with abuse and overstatement of harm.
The whole book is about resisting the police.
Right. So what do you think happened?
I don’t know because these people will not speak. They hide behind technology, and they don’t show up to events.
Well, it made me wonder if even the idea of reformulating how we understand conflict and the need to interrogate our own actions is destabilizing for people invested in their current approach or identity.
You know what I think it is, as we’re talking, I’m trying to understand what has been happening… I think that there’s a confusion between corporate celebrity culture, where people are promoted by conglomerates that have PR machines that put people’s faces on television, versus people who are really inside some kind of cultural community and who are accessible, even when there is overlap. And there’s a confusion in people’s minds between the two things because they look on Facebook and see an article about a television show that is a corporate product, while perhaps an innovative one, that has had a positive impact, but it can have a highly financed apparatus to promote it. Then we see people who have stepped up, who you know, who are speaking out. And when you see both entities on Facebook, it looks like they’re the same. But they’re not.
When I wrote Ties that Bind, one of the most real parts of that book was the revelation that homophobia is not a phobia, it’s a pleasure system. Whenever I looked into the eyes of someone being homophobic, they were not afraid, they were actually enjoying it. And these kinds of false accusations give people pleasure.
This is what you bring up in the book, not coincidentally. You’re talking about how people feel some discomfort, and they read that discomfort as abuse—
These distorted ways of thinking go very deep. There are people out there who absolutely believe all of the false accusations they make. I keep wondering why. What’s embedded in that insistence for them?
That’s why I say that these impulses are rooted in the intimate and personal and manifest in the geopolitical and governmental. Whether it’s someone making false accusations today, or people overstating harm, people rallying groups against individuals or against subordinated groups, people using difference or ignorance to create fear—as was the mainstay action of our election—people calling the police on lovers who are HIV-positive, or people relying on racist noninformation to justify the bombing of Gaza. Over and over, we see the same tropes of false accusation, escalation, and overstatement of harm to justify brutality based on some distorted understanding of one’s self as a victim.