From the introduction to Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair:
Nan Alamilla Boyd helped me to understand that my lack of academic training makes me literally “undisciplined.” This news was very freeing, and a gift I wish I had been handed decades before. I now am able to ask you to read this book the way you would watch a play: not to emerge saying, “The play is right!” but rather to observe that the play reveals human nuance, contradiction, limitation, joy, connection, and the tragedy of separation. That the playwright’s own humanity is also an example of these unavoidable flaws. These chapters are not homogenous. As a creative writer I have long understood that form should be an organic expression of the feelings at the core of the piece. Each chapter here serves a different function and that is represented in its tone, genre, style, and form. Some are journalistic, some analytical, some are speculative, others abstract, some are only feelings. As a novelist, I know that it is the cumulative juxtaposition that reveals the story. This is not a book to be agreed with, an exhibition of evidence or display of proof. It is instead designed for engaged and dynamic interactive collective thinking where some ideas will resonate, others will be rejected, and still others will provoke the readers to produce new knowledge themselves. Like authentic, conscious relationships, truly progressive communities, responsible citizenship, and real friendship, and like the peace-making that all these require, it asks you to be interactive.
“Differentiating between Power Struggle and Power Over,” Hodes explained, “is the difference between Conflict and Abuse.” Abuse is Power Over and Conflict is Power Struggle.
What we have instead is a devolved definition of personal responsibility, which constructs avoidance as a right regardless of the harm it does to others. This negative standard persuades some people to feel that being uncomfortable signals that they are being Abused, because they don’t have the option of describing themselves as Conflicted. So asking a distressed person if they are unsafe, or rather, uncomfortable, angry, or hurt provides them with an alternative idea that might fit better with their actual experience. It not only elicits helpful information, but encourages the individual to start to think about themselves in a more adult, complex, and responsible manner.
Lesson: never, ever decide that you know who someone is, what they did, their objective, context or goal, how they feel or what they know, until you ask them. And not asking means a direct investment in not understanding the truth.
“Mainstream Domestic Violence advocacy,” Hodes said in a correspondence later that year, “is committed to assuming that the victim is telling the truth, and any exploration around that trope is met with heavy resistance. Historically, that makes sense for a host of reasons. But this analysis is not about disbelieving, it’s about pinpointing where the problem lies.” One of Hodes’ many valuable suggestions is to lower the bar for what must happen in a person’s life for their suffering to be acknowledged. “The current paradigm is encouraging all of us to think we are in abusive relationships,” Hodes explained. “And if you are not in an abusive relationship, you don’t deserve help. Being ‘abused’ is what makes you ‘eligible.’ But everyone deserves help when they reach out for it.” 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. This is a non-cynical reading of a human condition in which people who have suffered in the past, or find themselves implicated in situations in which they are afraid to be accountable, fear that within their group acknowledging some responsibility will mean being denied their need to be heard and cared for. So they fall back on the accusation of Abuse to guarantee that they will not be questioned in a way that confirms these fears.