I finished reading Conflict Is Not Abuse almost a year ago, and I still don’t know what to make of it, but something makes think about it probably once a week. Schulman’s main thesis is right there in the title — conflict is not abuse. But lately, especially on the internet, this gets muddled, by a lack of open communication, and a sense that someone must be at fault for any negative interaction, that there must be a victim and an abuser, instead of people who are making a mess.
(Today what made me think about the book was a post about the new Star Wars movie, describing all situations where characters hurt each other as abuse, which is… Not good literary analysis, to begin with, and also not worth my energy. I don’t think Schulman had Star Wars meta in mind when she was writing this book, but like I said, all kind of things keep leading me back here.)
The problem she identifies is really compelling: how we tend to frame all kinds of mutually created conflict as abuse, which stops people from working through conflict in a productive manner, and can also obscure real instances of abuse. She sees how framing things as abuse often leads to one side of the argument being shunned, which makes sense, because you don’t want an abuser in your circle. But at the same time, shunning someone does nothing to address what it is that made them behave in this way that made them cause harm. And maybe it isn’t your responsibility to help that person, but if they were a part of your community, and if you care about your community, then maybe you should? But then what does that look like? How do you find balance with this.
Schulman doesn’t have any real solutions. She says we should stop shunning each other, and talk to each other in real life instead of just on the computer, and while she might be right, we aren’t actually going to stop talking to each other digitally, and sometimes it’s hard to make space for yourself that feels comfortable without excluding others.
Even without an answer, this book is valuable for what it asks us to do — slow down and look at what is happening in our communities. Even if we don’t know what to do from there, slowing down and wondering what we aren’t seeing seems like a wise first step. I can tell I’m going to keep on thinking about this book, probably reread it at some point. Few books I’ve read this past year have made me think more, or stuck with me in this way.