Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Sarah Schulman book)

Published 2022-01-25.

In the introduction of this book, Sarah Schulman says her approach will not be to deliver one big idea, but many little ones. There are certainly many little ideas in the book, but I still took away one big one. It’s right there in the title: conflict is not abuse. Many of the thorniest, most persistent problems in our personal lives and in society are caused or perpetuated by an inability to distinguish between conflict and abuse. Abusive situations are mislabelled as conflict, giving cover to abusers. Likewise, in situations of conflict, one or both parties is mislabelled as abusive, which makes the conflict much harder to resolve.

Schulman’s main advice is to avoid jumping to conclusions about whether you’re looking at conflict or abuse. Gather more information first. This can be especially hard when you’re helping a friend work through something. Often, that friend will implicitly claim they’re being abused, but it could be just as likely that they’re in conflict, or that they themselves are the abuser. The crucial point is that it’s very, very hard to know which situation is which unless you’ve gathered a ton of context, ideally from all parties involved. So the main actionable takeaway from Schulman’s advice is: talk it out, ideally in person or over the phone, for as long as necessary. The worst thing you can do is enable or participate in shunning.

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