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  • A Timely Voice
  • Mat Wenzel (bio)
Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair
Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press
301 Pages; Print, $19.95

Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse has been praised for its timeliness by many, and it was first published in 2016. It was written before Pulse, before the 2016 election, before Charlottesville, before #metoo, before Parkland. That it remains timely isn’t just commentary on the consistency of abuse, violence, harassment, and conflict in this country, but also to the validity of Schulman’s argument: Conflict is not the same as abuse, that “at many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat…to escalate rather than resolve.” Her argument calls readers to engage with conflict through face-to-face communication, personal responsibility (self critique), and with community accountability—to move away from familial “us” vs “them” interaction and move toward friendship.

If her thesis seems naïve and/or unscholarly, it is intentional. Schulman certainly finds her “undisciplined” approach an asset. Naïveté, too, is an asset under Jack Halberstam’s theory of the “subversive intellectual” in his book Queer Art of Failure (2011). The subversive intellectual, according to Halberstam, privileges conversation over mastery and embraces naïveté. For them, “The naive or the ignorant may in fact lead to a different set of knowledge practices.” Setting aside the systems of knowledge and power that have never worked may be seen as naive, but they offer new hope. This Queer hope is also in conversation with José Esteban Muñoz’s Queer Utopia—a “forward dawning,” not a dream but a way of engaging in futurity. “Utopia,” Muñoz explains in Cruising Utopia (2009), “is not prescriptive; it renders potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility, not a fixed schema.” Schulman brings this forth and calls for a community of friends that are able both to discuss, in person, difficult and complex conflicts, and also to reshape their own thinking about themselves.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing,” she writes, “if we could turn to our friends and say, I felt anxious and so I exaggerated, and instead of them using it as a reason to ignore us, disparage us, or punish us, whenever we say I feel anxious and so I exaggerated, our friends would put their arms around us, hug us and kiss us and thank us and praise us for telling the truth?” This model for friendship isn’t just on a one-on-one basis but also for change in larger communities, including whole nations. Her focus is on how to prevent real abuse from happening, how to prevent cruelty, revenge, and, ultimately, genocide.

Schulman’s Queer subversion of expectations, genre, and “Theory” in the delivery of her argument make this book a vital read or reread. Schulman asserts her explicitly Queer perspective early in the first chapter: “I use queer examples, I cite queer authors, I am rooted in queer points of view, I address and investigate concerns and trends in queer discourse.” She cites Audre Lorde as a forerunner in her own Queer subversion, and Lorde’s “biomythographical” book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) as a way of considering her own non-fiction book that weaves together “observations, feelings, contexts, histories, visions, memories, and dreams.” Her Queerly “undisciplined” writing creates a new kind of book—one not meant to be fully agreed with or rejected, but one that creates space for a conversation, an opportunity for de-escalation [End Page 11] instead of a continuation of the current culture of overreaction—a kind of theatrical play the reader watches as it “reveals human nuance.” These nuances make the book an essential read.

Schulman’s opening scene enacts her argument on the micro-level of friendship and flirtation. She gives a personal example of being at a table in a semi-professional setting in which a woman she finds attractive is using sexualized language. The woman uses the word G-spot. For some it could be a problem, but...


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Print ISSN
pp. 11-12
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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