This book is about the process by which conflict is mistaken for, and thus escalated into, abuse. The author also talks about how shunning shuts people off from crucial knowledge, and how a mentality of supremacy and/or trauma drives this escalation + shunning behavior. She analyzes how this process plays out for an eclectic set of social issues ranging from abusive relationships to large-scale political conflict. I discuss the shared themes of Conflict Is Not Abuse, Why Does He Do That?, and Nonviolent Communication in order to give some insights into abuse, rationalizations of violence, coercion/control, and deescalation.
Conflict Is Not Abuse (2016) by Sarah Schulman
A major recurring theme of this book is the reversal of the dichotomy of victim vs. abuser — for example, when an abuser justifies their abuse through a mentality of victimization or when a victim of abuse goes on to abuse others. I find the book is best summarized by this image (a classic one on media (ir)responsibility but I have no idea who/what is the source):
In this cartoon, a scene where one figure is chasing another with a knife appears to be exactly reversed by focusing on a small part of the scene and ignoring the larger context. However, instead of a manipulative camera crew changing the meaning of the scene, the reversal can happen directly in the minds of people — people themselves are the camera distorting the scene.
This picture where the abuser becomes victim and the victim becomes abuser has been on my mind because of two recent phenomena:
The first is the observation that most of the public-facing content written by far-right (white supremacist, KKK, neo-Nazi) figures is not a narrative of the inherent biological superiority of the white race, but is instead a narrative of victimization and being singled out for oppression: “Why are white men the only group you can put down?” and “White people are the only group not allowed to fight for our rights or celebrate/preserve our culture.” This narrative of victimization extends outside the far right — historically hegemonic groups such as Christians feel victimized and marginalized because they can’t express opinions on topics such as gay marriage without getting moral condemnation in response. Conservatives claim discrimination and suppression of free speech in universities. Seeing these narratives, it made me wonder how you separate the legitimate claims of victimization from the illegitimate. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and the line “And the first one now will later be last” — how do we know this hasn’t happened, and the ones who used to be ahead are now the new oppressed, as white supremacists claim? Power can certainly change hands, but is there an objective yardstick to confirm or disprove whether this role reversal has actually happened?
The phenomenon I saw was a weaponization of fear, when your fear of a thing justifies for sure inflicting that same thing on other people
The second phenomenon is witnessing responses to issues in the U.S. that have become particularly salient in recent years: police shootings and the Syrian refugee crisis. In both of these cases weakness and fear have become a justification for the perpetuation of violence. For example, I think of a line that has now become rote: “I feared for my life.” This line has been used regularly in cop-killing-civilians scenarios to justify taking life away and making others fear for theirs. I think of a conversation I saw on Facebook regarding the Syrian refugee crisis where a liberal woman in Texas was asked by a conservative friend, “Be honest, if it was YOU, or YOUR loved ones in danger, wouldn’t you sacrifice hundreds, even thousands, of lives to keep them safe?” and the woman replied something like, “Uh… no, because the lives of my loved ones aren’t worth more than hundreds of other people’s lives??” After all, each of those refugees is undoubtedly someone’s family and loved one. But her friend was incredulous that someone would honestly truly make that trade-off. It’s the same mentality as when Donald Trump Jr. said that no one in their right mind would eat from a bowl of Skittles if a small number of them were poisoned. A common response on the left was making the opposite choice, e.g. “If this is a Syrian refugee analogy, does eating one Skittle save one human life? If so, I IMMEDIATELY START SCARFING DOWN SKITTLES.” In short, people on the left were horrified at the suggestion that a possibility of one death should justify thousands more. But on the right, the intuition is that killing thousands of people is so incredibly justified (that to NOT kill looks like insanity) when someone you know and actually care about might die in the future. The phenomenon I saw was a weaponization of fear, when your fear of a thing justifies for sure inflicting that same thing on other people.
At the time I was puzzling over these weird reversals of abuse and victimization, I heard of this book, and I read the summary:
What was surprising is that, just reading the top paragraph immediately reminded me of the puritan culture of social justice spaces — the inflated accusations of harm, the punitive attitudes, the social shunning and expelling people from the circle of righteousness. And yet, the second paragraph made it clear that the focus of the book is on the oppression of marginalized groups, and that the book is criticizing forms of oppression that do not look or feel especially puritan, unlike social justice spaces. I was intrigued by a book potentially capable of dissecting some of the worse tendencies of the left and the right using the same analysis, while remaining committed to a program of social justice.
However, even though I thought the book was interesting and thought-provoking, the analysis offered was ultimately quite muddy and didn’t answer many of the questions I had going in to it.
The main gist of this book is outlining an unjust process that legitimizes abuse and scapegoating:
1. Two parties are in conflict
2. One party escalates harms into abuse
3. They use the existence of abuse to justify punishment
4. Part of the punishment includes shunning and cutting off of contact
5. This act isolates the escalating party from having to hear criticism of their actions, keeping them from learning or being able to change their behavior to stop harming people
The author argues that this process is enabled by friends/family/allies who support the escalator out of a false but intuitive sense of loyalty: one where loyalty means being supportive even to the point of exonerating someone or protecting them from the consequences of their bad actions, rather than a notion of loyalty that entails honesty, which includes criticism when a friend has wronged someone. Under the first view of “loyalty”, a “good” family is one that attacks external threats to internal members, while a “bad” family harms its own members. Under the second sense, a good family is “primarily concerned with the behavior of its members towards other people” (p. 194), holding people within the family unit responsible/accountable for their indifference, exploitation, disdain, and cruelty towards other people regardless of whether those people are external or internal. Under this view, both of the family models in the first view of loyalty count as bad families, as they feature family members hurting other people (either outside or within the family).
As the abuse/scapegoating process is upheld by loyalty, the way to break the process is for friends to be willing to hear the perspective of the other party and to hold their friend accountable for any wrongdoing (in a restorative/supportive way rather than a punitive way — the author also believes that one of the reasons why people have difficulty to owning up to wrongdoing is because they believe they will be ostracized or punished if they were revealed to have behaved in ways society generally views as “monstrous”).
The author also talks about how people who do this escalation behavior may be motivated by a psyche of supremacy, trauma, or both. A supremacy mentality is a belief in one’s superior quality, which results in traits like entitlement to more/better things, dismissiveness toward or contempt of other people, and an incuriosity toward those people’s inner states or needs. A person with supremacy mentality may realize subconsciously (or consciously) that the current setup gives them nice benefits while denying those benefits to others (inferiors) — as such, they are invested in suppressing information and behavior that would undermine their ability to reap these benefits in the future. A trauma mentality results from an incident or incidents in the past when a person’s boundaries were violated by others, damaging their confidence and faith in their ability to protect themselves from others going too far in the future. A person with traumatized mentality fears that they won’t be able to survive criticism and so can’t bear to hear it, and may employ controlling and abusive tactics to restrict/limit people’s ability to hurt them. The two mentalities can exist simultaneously, or it can be ambiguous which one is at play as they can look similar — both involve attempts to control a situation (possibly by suppressing information), escalation of claims of harm if people don’t behave as desired, and a focus on one’s own needs at the exclusion of others’.
The author analyzes an interesting set of issues from her perspective as a queer anarchist Jewish woman. At the microlevel of personal relationships, she talks about how treating romantic interest as abusive is a dangerous attitude to take because the conflation of “unequal desire” with “abuse” has historically been used to hurt people (e.g. black men and queer people: “Being accused of desire is as old as history itself, and is central to the queer experience. It has been very, very dangerous. Both seeing and imagining queer desire in another has and can cost us our lives, our homes, our families, and employment” (p. 38)) and how the increased acceptance of queer relationships has made it easier for some queer people to call on the power of the state (legislation, police) to protect themselves while queer people from marginalized groups (non-white, HIV positive, poor, etc.) remain at risk of being further harmed by that same state. In particular, she excoriates Canada’s criminalization of the act of being HIV-positive and not disclosing this fact before sex (the chapter where she addresses this issue was also published in Slate if you’re interested), which changes safe sex from being a symmetric, mutual responsibility to an asymmetric, one-sided abuser-victim mentality with the effect of disproportionately punishing the already disadvantaged. (For more on nondisclosure laws for STIs, I found this video on similar treatment for herpes interesting.) At the macro scale, the author talks about Palestine — in particular, how the elements of the escalation + shunning process played out in the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
Although I read this book hoping to find some clear-cut distinctions e.g. between conflict and abuse or how to tell which direction the abuser-victim dichotomy runs, if there is a pattern I take away from this book, Why Does He Do That?, and Nonviolent Communication, it is that notions of abuse, violence, and escalation are hard to pin down, and that all concepts useful to combating these phenomena are also in danger of being used to create/rationalize them. In other words, everything can function as a double-edged sword capable of advancing justice or excusing injustice.
Defining abuse: Abuse and conflict overlap
The book distinguishes abuse from conflict by saying abuse is one-sided while conflict is mutual; abuse is “power over” while conflict is “power struggle.” She gives examples of things that count as abuse (sustained violence or credible threats of violence) and things that are conflict not rising to the level of abuse (interactions with people that are destabilizing, hurtful, or stressful, or that leave people feeling angry, frustrated, upset, or helpless).
This is helpful, but it raises several issues. The first concerns the overlap between abuse and conflict. This analysis of “power over” vs. “power struggle” entails that abuse and conflict actually exist on a continuum, ranging from complete and total control (100% effective abuse; this is probably impossible/extremely rare) to no power differential (conflict; neither person having power over the other; probably not a very common scenario either), and including every grey area in between.
Not only that, but the author also illustrates in this book that abuse can be turned into “conflict” by the abused choosing to resist, and conflict can be turned into “abuse” by one party interpreting it as abuse and using that to justify actual abuse (the escalation + shunning process described in the book).
To illustrate the first thing, you can think of a scenario where someone being choked by their partner chooses to fight for their life and punch and kick their partner. This decision briefly turns a situation of abuse into one of resistance and “power struggle” i.e. conflict, however lopsided. The partner can later use this as evidence that violence in their relationship is “mutual” and thus “conflict”, where blame must be shared 50-50. This is the “the victim was no angel either” excuse often used to disqualify someone from victim status (and thus exonerate the abuser from abuser status). The author shows that this form of conversion of abuse into conflict plays out in large-scale conflict, where people who are occupied and controlled choose to resist, which can include using violence. Like in the domestic abuse case, these violent acts of resistance are often used by the abusing side to deny and minimize their abuse: “The other’s refusal to obey unjust orders and accept undeserved punishment is treated as its cause. The other’s resistance is intolerable, and therefore merits every possible cruelty” (p. 245).
Even when people are largely powerless in a relationship, they can still resist coercion, punishment, control, power plays, etc. This resistance is zoomed in on and used in the worse case to create a reversed narrative of violence and victimization (the image at the beginning of this post); and if that’s not possible, it’s used to create the next best thing: a narrative of bidirectional, mutual “violent conflict” that justifies continuation of violence for the purpose of exerting more control.
The author rejects the concept of “mutual abuse” because it is a contradiction in terms, and I think it’s easy to interpret this as meaning that relationships where there is mutuality or reciprocality to the violence and harm cannot be abusive because “mutual” and “abuse” are inherently contradictory. However, the definitions and the examples discussed at length in the book show that conflict and abuse actually (1) exist on a spectrum and (2) shift into each other and can both be at play in a single relationship. Resistance to abuse turns it into conflict; controlling responses to conflict can be abusive. In short, the presence of mutuality or conflict does not imply the absence of abuse or vice versa. As the book title implies, conflict ≠ abuse (i.e. they are not the same thing)… but they aren’t opposites or mutually exclusive either.
Defining violence: Is emotional harm violent?
The second issue with the author’s treatment of conflict and abuse is that it is ambiguous about the grey area of whether sustained non-physical harm (e.g. exclusion, insults, bullying, shunning, rejection, etc.) as a tactic of control can rise to the level of abuse. The author seems to intentionally leave this as a grey area. She views shunning as morally wrong and as part of a spectrum of oppression and escalation that ends in genocide, so it is clear she takes it seriously. However, she declines to name it explicitly as abuse and also at one point makes a distinction between physical harm and social harm as a way to tell people not to escalate emotional harm into violence (i.e. to not treat emotional harm as violence (physical harm) and respond in a tit-for-tat way, thus converting emotional harm into physical harm). This suggests a hierarchy of seriousness where emotional harm is generally less serious than physical harm.
Why Does He Do That? acknowledges that sustained emotional harm by a romantic partner can be the worst, most demoralizing part of abuse… But also finds it reprehensible for people to justify punching people with excuses of “her words were just as violent”, viewing physical violence as an obvious escalation and unjust if motivated by hurtful words. Similarly, the adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” seems to obviously ring false, but the equation of word violence with bodily violence also doesn’t seem right either. Neither book has a good answer on this. I think it’s just hard.
Defining abuse: it is better thought of in terms of coercion and control
I think one main takeaway due to the difficulty of defining violence and abuse is that it’s important to not get too wrapped up in labels and trying to classify situations most correctly as one or the another. Instead, it’s good to look at who is exerting more control in a situation — whose decisions, life, and prospects are most limited or circumscribed by the actions of the other? Whose needs are being met or not met, and what are those needs? There is a difference between (for example) a need for food and a need to feel respected.
This operationalization of abuse as control is also present in Why Does He Do That?, which notes the reluctance people have to label their relationships abusive. (The title of the book contains no references to abuse, instead opting for the descriptor of “controlling”.) This is a somewhat unintuitive way of thinking about abuse — more intuitive is thinking of abuse semi-legalistically, like a set of predefined actions similar to assault, e.g. “she hurled abuse at them” or “their relationship contained multiple instances (counts) of emotional and physical abuse”. By contrast, abuse here is a summary of an overall power relationship.
The importance of deescalation
If the distinctions are so muddy, why make the effort to separate social harm from physical harm, or conflict from abuse? In the end, the purpose seems to be to encourage people to adopt a policy of deescalation.1 After all, violence is easier to justify when someone believes they have been subjected to violence; abuse is easier to justify when someone believes they have been abused and wronged. If abusers and the people around them can correctly identify non-physical harm and non-abusive conflict and lower the stakes, those justifications lose their grounding.
I like this policy of deescalation. In this way, the approach of the book is similar to that of Nonviolent Communication, which advocates practicing empathy, which tends to be a deescalating force. This deescalation happens both in the mind of the person practicing empathy and also the person receiving empathy — when people consciously focus on other people’s needs, doing harm to the person seems less justifiable, and when people feel listened to and understood, resorting to manipulative tactics seems unnecessary. (Personally, I prefer the detailed approach of Nonviolent Communication — I think practicing it more reliably deescalates situations than the advice found in Conflict Is Not Abuse.2)
A policy of deescalation by itself is insufficient for stopping abuse; it must also be accompanied by a commitment to holding people accountable for their actions.
However, while I like this policy of deescalation, it’s also important to keep in mind that deescalation has some major limitations. I covered Why Does He Do That? first because I want people to recall Lundy Bancroft’s insight that abusers will happily take (as a consolation prize) people’s decision that an abusive relationship is mere conflict and both people have responsibility for fixing it. If people are not willing to take the abuser’s side outright, a position of neutrality or giving up on trying to figure out who is abusing whom, or deciding “they both did hurtful things to each other so I guess it’s conflict”, is the next best thing for an abuser and serves only to allow abuse to continue unchecked. A policy of deescalation by itself is insufficient for stopping abuse; it must also be accompanied by a commitment to holding people accountable for their actions. The dark side of deescalation is when it is used to exonerate people of wrongdoing or to justify being a passive bystander. (For what it’s worth, the author of Conflict Is Not Abuse views conflict as also requiring intervention from friends/family (yet another example when the distinction between conflict and abuse is ultimately kind of irrelevant), so would not find “it’s conflict so they’re responsible for hashing it out on their own” an acceptable excuse for inaction.)
A related limitation of deescalation is that its effectiveness, I think, is limited by how much abusers are willing to engage in deescalation. If you think about the police shooting and refugee crisis examples I gave in the preamble, there is a limit to the ability of civilians in a traffic stop or refugees to deescalate situations. In fact, they have every incentive to appear as calm and non-threatening as possible (maximum deescalation). However, this maximum deescalation will not protect them if the person with power has the ability to escalate and declines to deescalate. So while the world would be better and more just with more people who deescalate as a policy (similar to how the world is better with more empathy), the asymmetry in who actually practices it (including who is incentivized to practice it) is a major roadblock. However, we’ve also seen that people who need to deescalate view themselves as powerless and victimized (the abuser-victim reversal of the picture). Therefore, it is better to encourage everyone to consciously choose deescalation regardless of how put-upon and powerless they view themselves to be.
Rationalizations of violence: protective vs. punitive
While Conflict Is Not Abuse has a lot of similarities with Why Does He Do That? (some examples: encouraging people to always get both sides of the story even when one person has presented the other as unreasonable and obviously in the wrong; touching on how the abuser-abusee direction can be reversed especially in the mind of the abuser and the abusers’ network of friends/supporters; importance of communities holding abusers accountable for their mistreatment of others) there are also significant differences and potential points of tension between them. For example, Why Does He Do That? overall depicts abusers as people to whom lying comes easily, which is not an aspect depicted in Conflict Is Not Abuse; the former also has a more pessimistic view of abusers and advocates for short incarceration and mandatory abuser recovery programs, an approach I imagine the author of Conflict Is Not Abuse would have strong reservations about, due to a general preference to avoid using the power of the state to change people’s behavior, and a view of the state’s domain as largely punitive violence. (Personally, I agree caution is warranted because of the way the legal system in many countries including the U.S. operates, but also believe that we have the ability to change our legal system to be more explicitly protective or restorative in its function rather than punitive.)
Why Does He Do That? also recommends people with abusive partners to maintain firm boundaries including laying out in advance actions that will result in a period of no contact — such no-contact policies are viewed by the author of Conflict Is Not Abuse as borderline abusive and part of the refusal of knowledge cycle she finds dangerous and holding back change. (Personally, I think such enforcement of personal boundaries is well within people’s rights to do.)
However, despite the more punitive approach of Why Does He Do That?, punishment is never the center of or rationale for institutional action — instead, the focus is on ensuring physical safety of abusers’ victims and maximizing the chance of rehabilitation of abusers. In this sense, both books reject an attitude of punishment for the sake of retribution. There are parallels here to Nonviolent Communication‘s discussion on the “protective use of force”:
However, the main lesson of this book is relevant here too — violence and abuse are very frequently justified by appealing to protection/safety and victimization, the reversal I talked about in the preamble. So it’s always good to be cautious about invocations of “protective use of force” as well. The examples I gave in the preamble can seem like protective uses of force, but only if certain lives and and certain people’s safety (for example, black people’s safety, immigrants’ lives) just don’t count / are not something people are interested in protecting. Unless people point out this black hole of empathy, people will not be able to see that what they’re doing is wrong, and injustice will continue to be perpetuated.
(Nonviolent Communication also only advocates for protective use of force in scenarios where there is no time or opportunity to engage in dialogue, like in the example where a child is running into the street. If dialogue is a possibility, always seize the opportunity to engage in dialogue.)
So I think the takeaway is that it’s always good to be cautious about justifications of force, coercion, and violence, regardless of what the justification is (although “they started it / they did it first” is especially worrying, as it suggests a punitive rationalization of violence). It is also important to hold people accountable if they choose to do with violence what could have been accomplished with dialogue.
Though I was looking forward to this book delineating a clear-cut way to distinguish conflict from abuse, I didn’t quite get what I was hoping for. However, I think there are still useful insights here that follow from the difficulty of delineating abuse, violence, etc.:
(1) It is often hard to tell the difference between abusers and victims. The reason is because any strategy that is helpful for abused people to employ in order to get sympathy, aid, and help (e.g. identity politics, displaying fear, education/spreading information, etc.) will then also be useful for the abuser to employ in order to get sympathy, aid, and help. As a result, resourceful abusers will often mirror the sympathy-raising behavior and tactics of the abused, resulting in the confusing effect talked about in my preamble and in Why Does He Do That?.
(2) Because of this confusion, it may be tempting to be neutral. However, neutrality in a situation of abuse is also helpful to and acceptable to an abuser; the small amount of confusion and doubt created by the tactics in point (1) can be enough to let abuse continue unchecked. Therefore, it is important to (a) hold friends/family/in-group members accountable for how they treat others, but also (b) go beyond individual actions of harm/violence to look at underlying realities of power, control, coercion, etc. that those actions are either resisting or serving to solidify.
(3) People use previous violence and victimization in order to justify future violence, punishment, and use of the coercive power of the state, often by adopting a position of weakness and fear and/or a punitive/retributive attitude. Justifications of violence should always be treated with care and caution. After all, people rarely inflict violence and control on others wantonly, without reason or pretext. If they do, they are quickly caught and punished because senseless violence is easy to identify and condemn. What is more tricky and dangerous is the person with sophisticated elaborations of how they were hurt first and how this justifies inflicting harm on others, or why violence against a person or a people is for their own good. This is the core mentality of an abuser — not that I am violent but that I have good reason to be violent, that the recipient of their violence deserved it.
(4) The antidote / opposite of this behavior is a conscious attempt to deescalate situations by e.g. labeling one’s situation with the lowest stakes label possible; to lower the stakes (punishment) for people who fear the consequences of their flaws and behavior; to encourage people to see with honest eyes their bad treatment of others and to take positive action to set the situation right; and to open up dialogue so information can flow.
Overall, I thought this book was interesting and thought-provoking (at points, challenging to my view of the world). However, I think the discussion on abusive relationships is best tempered by Why Does He Do That? in order to understand how difficult/misleading situations of domestic abuse can be. I also think that the method in Nonviolent Communication is a more reliable way to consciously deescalate and educate about injustice than using the distinctions made in this book (many of which can themselves be used to escalate or justify escalation/abuse).
↑ 1 Similar to the distinction between conflict and abuse, I also find the concept of escalation/deescalation vague and tough to pin down how exactly can people tell when it’s happening, so in this section, I mostly rely on people intuitively knowing what it means to escalate. My best attempt at an operationalization of the concept of escalation is that it is voluntarily (a) imposing or (b) threatening to impose new costs on people in order to get the other party to change their behavior. Here, the concept of “costs” (similar to “utility”) is vague and person-dependent (for example, for some people, cruel words may not be very effective at making them change their mind, but for others cruel words might throw their self-confidence in doubt which might lead them to defer more to others; some people might not have too much fear for their safety, but for others threatening their safety is extremely effective at getting them to back down). (I think another intuitive notion of escalation that some people have includes claiming or making people aware of underlying costs but not necessarily ones imposed by the speaker (for example, “thousands will die under this policy” or “Western civilization is currently under existential threat”). These certainly raise the stakes of the conversation and might be done with the aim to change someone’s behavior, but I don’t think this notion is as helpful to the topic of abuse as the first one I gave.) I’d be interested if people have a more concrete way of thinking about escalation and deescalation.
↑ 2 For example: In Conflict Is Not Abuse, the author uses “overreaction” as synonymous with “escalation”. Under Nonviolent Communication, though, you would avoid this word because it involves making a judgment on what “normal” reactions are. Labeling something as an overreaction can be a power play and thus be an escalation in my notion of it (e.g. telling someone they’re overreacting is frequently a way to discredit and disorient them so as to get them to back down). So I think Conflict Is Not Abuse does not reliably deescalate to the extent that Nonviolent Communication does.