Conflict Averse

Power, the new victimhood and the disappearance of personal accountability.

Proponents of trigger warnings—labels inserted in university syllabi to indicate when class readings contain descriptions of war, rape and other traumatic subjects—argue that such warnings help survivors of such events avoid reliving their trauma in flashbacks. Last year, for example, four undergraduates at Columbia University in New York wrote an article noting that Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains graphic descriptions of rape: “Like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.” Beyond Columbia, calls for trigger warnings have been made by students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and Rutgers University. Works recommended for warnings range from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogynistic violence) to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (racism, colonialism, religious persecution).

It is noteworthy how trigger warnings differ from existing efforts to assist students, for instance, those with mental health issues. As a professor I feel a strong obligation to make my classroom inclusive and welcoming to such students. For example, on the first day of large lecture classes a few students will approach me with a letter from the Office for Students with Disabilities. The letters note that the student has a physical or mental condition that requires some kind of accommodation: the most common request I receive is for extra time on exams. Something I appreciate about the accommodation letter approach is its personal touch. Because students have to bring their letter to me I get to know them a bit better than I otherwise would. The tailored letter method also sees students play a central role in managing their own condition. They know what will help them better than anyone else, no matter how well intentioned. Students therefore decide for themselves whether they need some sort of accommodation and, in consultation with the OSD, what form it should take.

Trigger warning campaigns follow a different logic. Warning advocates often speak on behalf of students other than themselves. Hence the New York Times interview with a student at UC Santa Barbara who sought a warning before her class saw a film with a graphic depiction of rape: “she said that she herself had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.” Students with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, who sometimes do re-experience trauma in flashbacks, have been less vocal in calling for trigger warnings. The same is true of medical professionals who treat them. Harvard University psychology professor Richard McNally, an authority on PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder, has said trigger warnings are “countertherapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains P.T.S.D.”

If the accommodation letter approach sees students manage their personal needs where trigger warning campaigns have not done so, this is not the only difference between the two approaches. Trigger warnings are generic syllabus text presented to the entire class. They often take the form of “trigger warning: rape” or “trigger warning: war.” What they identify is thus not a problem for a particular student but a problem with the material. Every student in the class receives a message that codes class content as potentially problematic. The idea that reading Metamorphoses can be harmful is normalized in advance. In the Columbia case, the students wanted a warning because they considered the poem “triggering and offensive.” Ovid is thus potentially harmful not only to students with specific medical conditions, but to everyone. Even in instances where avoiding offence is not offered as a rationale for warnings, class readings are presented alongside an invitation into victimhood.

In this way trigger warnings symbolize a pernicious view of the life of the mind. Texts in English, history and philosophy are far more likely to be saddled with warnings than chemistry or physics textbooks. In assigning humanistic texts to my students I am not victimizing them. I am expecting them to show resilience and mental discipline, to not crumble in the face of difficult ideas or images, as they learn to think for themselves. Accommodation letters allow me to meet my genuine obligations to students with mental health issues without compromising my expectations for the class as a whole. So to any OSD students who happen to read this, please know, I have your back. To the rest of the class, essays on the ethics of torture, war and abortion are due Tuesday at five, no exceptions.

These thoughts are inspired by Sarah Schulman’s new book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. Schulman is concerned with an ideology that perpetuates a false view of oneself or another as a victim, or what she terms “the new victimology.” Trigger warning campaigns are illustrative of victimology’s overly broad view of who is a victim. But just as opposing trigger warnings does not entail a denial of the legitimate needs of OSD students, rejecting an ideology of victimhood does not entail denying that real victims do exist. Schulman’s point rather is that the ideology of victimhood denies the normalcy of conflict. If grappling with a difficult or disturbing text is a routine aspect of academic life, so too is it a normal part of life in general that we experience conflicts with others. These conflicts frequently involve power struggles, large and small. But the new victimology, because it does not accept conflict as a normal aspect of every family, relationship and society, has come to redefine conflict as abuse.

Schulman argues that conflict is mistaken for abuse across many domains, from the most intimate and personal, including romantic relationships, to the public and political, particularly where they involve the police. When people think they have been a victim of abuse it is only a small step to believing they have also been the victim of a crime. Thus Schulman sees victimology as often resulting in counterproductive attempts to “gain access to the state’s punishment apparatus.” On an international level, she sees false claims of abuse justifying declarations of war, as when foreign populations are depicted as guilty of crimes deserving revenge.

Whether the context is familial, legal or geopolitical, Schulman argues that the underlying problem is the same: power struggle is too often misidentified as power over. Conflict occurs at so many levels of interaction because it is rooted in difference, which can be uncomfortable to deal with. Hence exaggerated claims of abuse arise out of “the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger.” But classifying conflict as abuse does not merely misdescribe reality. It engenders a false certainty and righteousness in victims that license retaliation against their perceived abusers. “Difference is misrepresented as an assault that then justifies our cruelty and relinquishes our responsibility to change,” writes Schulman.

Scepticism toward claims of victimhood has become a trope of conservative and centrist authors. Schulman’s goal, however, is the opposite of discrediting the claims of women or racial and sexual minorities. Rather, she seeks to bring out how false claims of victimhood often perpetuate injustices against these very groups. Schulman, a prolific novelist and professor at the College of Staten Island in New York, has long experience as an author and activist on feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues. What lends her skepticism toward false victimhood unique authority is that it arises out of intimate familiarity with the real kind. As Schulman puts it, “I use queer examples, I cite queer authors, I am rooted in queer points of view … I come directly from a specifically lesbian historical analysis of power.”

Schulman’s notion of conflict is subtle and includes many different forms of opposition. In the personal realm it often takes the form of unreciprocated sexual desire. Schulman describes being at a professional gathering where she cannot tell if another woman is flirting with her. The woman keeps using the word “G-spot” and Schulman begins to fantasize about her. If Schulman pursues the connection she feels, her inquiry could have a happy ending—or she could be labelled a harasser. “One false move and I could be the sad object of an outraged story on the dreaded grapevine: ‘Sarah Schulman came on to me. It was so inappropriate.’ The story would never be ‘I liked her, I flirted with her, she understood me, and then I was scared I would be hurt like I had been before.”

The story that would never be told is one that happens all the time. Human beings do feel drawn to other people, only to draw back out of fear or uncertainty or because they are suddenly reminded of something from their past. Admitting this, though, means we may share some responsibility for a conflict. In the case of women, Schulman writes, even now, there is the additional consideration of a cultural script according to which they should be attractive yet sexually pure.

Schulman illustrates the dynamic further with the example of a woman who signals that she reciprocates a man’s sexual interest, only to soon break things off and deny that she was ever ­interested: “What he wants is the ‘I was attracted to him but I wouldn’t acknowledge it, so I got confused’ version [of events]. We don’t have language or methodology for that option, because it immediately becomes her ‘fault.’ In a world based on blame, women have to be clear to be clean, unfortunately, so avoiding blame means avoiding complexity, contradiction and ambivalences.” The simplified narrative renders one party a victim in Schulman’s scheme and the other an abuser—which denies the latter person the right to be described accurately.

Schulman argues that oversimplified narratives of victimhood can set in motion patterns of behaviour that escalate into disrespect and harm. One form this takes is shunning. Someone looking back on a relationship or friendship with interpersonal conflict, rather than accept it as something to be managed and negotiated, cuts the other person out of his or her life forever. The person doing the shunning thinks they have been abused, but really their refusing to speak to the other person is itself a small-scale abuse. “Refusing to speak to someone without terms for repair is a strange, childish act of destruction in which nothing can be won,” says Schulman. It can easily become collective. On either plane, shunning is the ultimate form of non-accountability, a way of avoiding our responsibility to set terms for how differences might be worked out.

Progressive political views are often premised on the idea that justice obliges the government to take some affirmative steps. This is true of everything from calls to raise the minimum wage to campaigns to bestow legal recognition on same-sex marriage (as opposed to having the government remove itself from the marriage-recognition business altogether). A distinctive feature of Schulman’s analysis is how cool it is toward the idea that the state has any positive role to play in addressing the problems she describes. One reason is because representatives of the state can themselves mistake conflict for abuse, with deadly consequences. We are all too familiar with police killings of African Americans in the United States. In the case of Eric Gardner, he had been selling loose cigarettes. Michael Brown was simply walking down the street. Their encounters with the police involved conflict, but neither Gardner nor Brown was a threat to the officers involved. Yet those officers, Schulman argues, somehow perceived their interactions with both men as threatening enough to justify lethal force. Racist police killings thus exemplify the pattern of escalation she describes. “Nothing happened, but these people with power saw abuse.”

Schulman’s scepticism toward the law however cuts deeper. She views the legal system as upholding a framework of justice that disadvantages women, racial minorities and LGBT groups. Getting the state involved in a conflict therefore, rather than addressing the real source, is likely only to harm these groups, whether they did anything wrong or not. Schulman catalogues many ways that asking the police to intervene in domestic conflicts can backfire for disadvantaged groups. She cites a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which notes that in 2013 “‘the police mis-arrested the survivor as the perpetrator of domestic violence’ in over half of all queer domestic abuse arrests.” These cases involved actual violence, and so are not examples of abuse claims being manufactured out of conflict. But what they do illustrate—a perpetrator gaining control of an abuse narrative—may be even worse.

What makes such mis-arrests possible, Schul­man suggests, is that the police are often poor arbiters of domestic relationships. Thus disastrous consequences can result when they are asked to intervene in domestic conflicts that someone has mistaken for abuse, as when parents call the police to “scare” their disobedient children, only for the children to be shot. If the law is a “punishment apparatus” in Schulman’s account, it is one that is coiled to go off at any time. An especially destructive feature of false abuse narratives therefore is their propensity to unleash that apparatus on individuals who may have done nothing wrong.

Schulman’s notion of conflict is distinct from trauma. Conflict as she defines it is mundane and manageable whereas trauma is extreme and shattering. She suggests however that individuals who have unrecovered trauma are particularly likely to mistake conflict for abuse. “Traumatized people,” she writes, can “refuse to see or hear or engage information that would alter their self-concepts, even in ways that could bring them more happiness and integrity.” In this way they share something with individuals in the grip of supremacist ideologies, who see themselves as belonging to a privileged gender, nationality or race. The motivations for avoiding self-questioning are different. People with unrecovered trauma feel too fragile to do so, whereas supremacists see themselves as having a right not to critically examine themselves. But the stance of both groups is at odds with the ethos of accountability that Schulman seeks to foster.

When we see other people mistake conflict for abuse, and thereby create an alibi that permits hurting their “abuser,” we should intervene. When we find ourselves involved in everyday conflicts of our own, rather than view ourselves as victims who are justified in lashing out, we should ask how we can replace escalation with “repentance, repair and reconciliation.”

The alternative to repair is illustrated in Schulman’s final chapter, which documents social media coverage of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In Schulman’s telling, the Israeli government falsely portrayed itself as a victim of abuse at the hands of Hamas, the fundamentalist political organization that governs the Gaza Strip, by wrongly identifying Hamas as organizing the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.

When the teens’ bodies were discovered, Israeli president Ben­jamin Netan­yahu paraphrased Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance for the death of a small child, Satan has not yet ­created.” The military assault on the people of Gaza that followed killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, 70 percent of whom the United Nations identified as civilians. Of the 73 Israelis killed in the conflict, all but seven were soldiers. This was a geopolitical instance of victimology: Israel invoked a false victim narrative to license great suffering. In Schulman’s dynamic, “resistance to Abuse was reconstituted as its justification.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Conflict Is Not Abuse is written by a novelist. A work of fiction in which one character is simply a victim, while another is just an abuser, will fail as art. Schulman translates this idea to non-fiction, asking us to avoid a similarly reductive view of real people. Perhaps this novelistic background is what makes Schulman’s analysis so original. There is a tradition of invoking personal responsibility to obscure the role that societal factors such as racism and inequality play in structuring people’s lives. This is evident for example in calls for black Americans to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to escape poverty. Schulman’s breakthrough is to outline an ethic of personal responsibility that is deeply sensitive to systemic injustice.

Inevitably, not every point is equally convincing. Consider Schulman’s scepticism about the ability of the police to respond appropriately to domestic and other conflict. This view may arise in part out of Schulman’s experience coming of age in 1980s New York. The police were then so prejudiced against gays and lesbians that Schulman and every gay person she knew took it for granted that calling the police after a crime had occurred was pointless.

Given this background, it is not crazy for Schulman to be wary of the legal system. But not expecting justice from the police hardly seems an adequate response to the systemic injustice she describes. The report she cites regarding the arrest of LGBT survivors of domestic abuse recommends training police to assess LGBT partner violence better. This seems more reasonable than giving up in advance on the possibility of a legal system that addresses the needs of LGBT people and other minorities. Paradoxically, although Schulman’s analysis is animated by concern for disadvantaged groups, her recommendation to turn away from the state, rather than reform it, leaves its discriminatory elements in place.

Schulman several times anticipates that she will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This is often the result of “supremacist” thinking, which Schulman never engages in. But there are times when she does seem to misallocate blame for a dispute. It is one thing to say that two parties can both contribute to a dysfunctional relationship. It is another thing to say one of them should be blamed for the other’s actions. Schulman sometimes seems to blur the two, as when she describes a woman named Mary who for years was cruel to her lesbian partner. Eventually the partner threw an object at Mary hard enough to break a bone. Schulman clearly states of Mary that “it was not her fault that Beth threw the object. It was Beth’s action to own.” But Schulman less clearly states that Mary “helped produce the moment, even if she did not cause it.” Saying someone helped produce an outcome seems another way of saying that they helped cause it. Here and elsewhere, Schulman’s project of holding all parties to a dispute accountable seems to go one step too far. Surely we can avoid false claims of victimhood and false attributions of blame.

These shortcomings must be balanced against the book’s virtues. Schulman’s work is studded with lucid insights on a host of tangential issues, such as the difference between guilt and shame: the former is “pro-social,” motivating us to make amends through apology or confession, while actions motivated by shame often injure relationships. There is an especially thought-provoking analysis of how modern communication technology such as email and text messaging makes it too easy to avoid face-to-face conversation, which is the most effective means of making ourselves accountable to others.

Schulman’s central insight is that conflict, misunderstood as abuse, can have harmful consequences. This framework has considerable explanatory force. Reading her book I more than once felt it clarified dynamics that had occurred among people I know, including individual and collective shunnings. It also explains a curious feature of contemporary campus life, beyond the rise of trigger warning campaigns.

Protesting students will often identify as victims in some way, as when they characterize a campus policy or visiting speaker as “unsafe.” The same students, however, will frequently demonstrate great tenacity and resilience in protesting the offending policy or person, whether by taking over a dean’s office, organizing a boycott campaign or even launching a hunger strike. Schulman’s analysis can explain this paradox, insofar as it characterizes victimhood as a power status, one that grants its occupants moral energy and authority.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Schulman’s fearless and brilliant book is the way it drains victimology of this authority. One puts down Conflict Is Not Abuse with a sense of being liberated from the lure of false victimhood. One reason Schulman is able to achieve this exhilarating effect is because she rejects the idea that we must be victims in order to warrant help and concern. “The current paradigm is encouraging all of us to think we are in abusive relationships,” Schulman quotes a social worker as saying. “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.”