Conflict Is Not Abuse: Review

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Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair
by Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard

08 Covers.indd[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n her new non-fiction offering, Sarah Schulman explores how circumstances of conflict in modern society often become the catalyst for the exploitation and abuse of the oppressed. She speaks initially of two recent murders of unarmed young Black men by law enforcement, the beating of the wife of an NFL player by her husband, and the oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel: “From the most intimate relationships between two people, to the power of the police, to the crushing reality of occupation, these actors displayed distorted thinking in which justifiable behavior was understood as aggression.” Schulman approaches her topic from a queer, feminist, female perspective and states so clearly. This informs her viewpoint, and only serves to strengthen it.

Schulman not only documents oppression, however; she looks to resolve it through dialogue and perspective on both sides: “I am interested, in this book, in examining the phenomenon of overstating harm where it begins in the earlier stages as conflict, before it escalates and explodes into tragedy.” She believes that it’s at the initial stages of conflict where a difference can be made before it erupts into something out of the ability of both parties to control.

Schulman was on the front lines of the early AIDS crisis and speaks with much truth about how our community was completely marginalized and ignored as its members were dying in great numbers. Those who fought against this injustice, including Schulman, were also criminalized.

This gives the author much authority in commenting on HIV criminalization in Canada, which she does in order to explore her thesis. In Canada, a progressive state whose sodomy laws were overturned long before those of the U.S., the state conflates abuse with living with HIV resulting in the unreasonable punishment of its citizens. A person can be prosecuted even when they have engaged in safe sex. Canada is one of the top ten countries in the world for HIV-related arrests and a large percentage are prosecuted and serve jail time. The numbers are disproportionately higher for Black men.

Schulman not only looks at the problem in her book, and the problem is daunting, but she also breaks it down and explores solutions. The solution in these matters greatly lies in taking an honest and straightforward look at the things that divide us in our modern world. It’s with a long, hard, honest look that we can begin to address the conflict that divides us and leads to our abuse of each other.


John Francis Leonard writes A&U’s column Bright Lights, Small City.