Abuse as ‘Power Over’ and Conflict as ‘Power Struggle’
Sarah Schulman, a long-standing U.S. activist and author of internationally recognized novels, plays and films, was invited to participate in the 2015 Sexuality Summer School on queer art and activism, held in May at the University of Manchester. From her engagement with Act Up in New York in the late 1980s and onwards, to the creation of the Lesbian Avengers in post-Reagan America of the early 1990s, to her current engagement for the rights of Palestinians and endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, I like to think of Sarah Schulman as one of the most radical minds that I have had the opportunity to come across. By radical, I mean an activist who embraces critique as an integral dimension of political action, and who is able to rethink the foundations of her engagement through renewed paradigms and historicization of her own actions. Adorno’s expression according to which ‘open thinking points beyond itself’ (Adorno, 1998; p. 293) could fairly apply to Schulman’s intellectual and political profile.
The public lecture she gave for the Sexuality Summer School on Thursday May 21st 2015 introduced the audience with provocative and challenging issues that she tackles in her forthcoming book Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. Sarah’s main argument is that it is crucial to distinguish abuse as power over and conflict as power struggle in order to avoid ‘overstating harm’, which encourages escalation of polarization and unnecessary pain that increase the investment and power of the State. At the source of this escalation, Sarah Schulman posits an inversion that makes ‘bullies often conceptualize of themselves as under attack when they are the ones originating the pain’. She says:
It is that moment of over-reaction that I wish us to examine. My thesis is that at every level of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve.
In this sense, she argues for the necessity to be cautious with the notion of abuse. She reminds us that ‘being uncomfortable signals [for some people] that they are being abused‘, when it is not necessarily the case. In a way, Sarah Schulman also suggests that the ability to claim abuse is intricately related to possessing the symbolic and material capital that allows the claim to be heard, and thus does not reflect the proper power of balance that the claim is supposed to unveil.