From Ray Rice to Eric Garner to Gaza, How We Mistake Conflict for Abuse


Flavorwire is pleased to publish this excerpt from Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Conflict Is Not Abuse: A Reparative Manifesto

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —JAMES BALDWIN

AS I BEGAN THIS BOOK during the summer of 2014, the human community witnessed systemic repetition of unjustified cruelty with exhaustion and frustration. We watched white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York murder two unarmed Black men: Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We watched a rich and powerful professional football player, Ray Rice, beat his wife, Janay, unconscious in an elevator. We watched the Israeli government mass murder over 2,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza. It quickly became apparent that the methods we have developed collectively, to date, to understand these kinds of actions in order to avoid them, are not adequate.

As a novelist, in order to create characters that have integrity, I apply the principle that people do things for reasons, even if they are not aware of those reasons or even if they can’t accept that their actions are motivated instead of neutral and objective. Using this principle to examine those events, I have to ask myself what the white police officers, the wealthy football player, and the militarized nation state think is happening that produces and justifies their brutal actions. As video and witness accounts attest, neither Michael Brown nor Eric Garner did anything that justified the way they were treated by the police. Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes and Michael Brown walked down the street. Both men tried to offer the police alternatives to cruelty. Eric Garner informed the police of the consequences of their actions on him, when he told them eleven times, while in an illegal chokehold, “I can’t breathe.” Michael Brown raised his hands in a sign of surrender and said, “Don’t shoot.” But something occurred within the minds, impulses, and group identities of the white police officers, in that they construed the original non-event compounded with these factual and peacemaking communications as some kind of threat or attack. In other words, these policemen looked at nothing, the complete absence of threat, and there they saw threat gross enough to justify murder. Nothing happened, but these people with power saw abuse.

We know from security camera footage taken in a casino lobby and elevator that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his wife were having a quarrel. As much as we don’t like quarrels with our partners, and wish they wouldn’t happen, disagreement with one’s lover is a normative part of human experience. It is impossible to live without it ever taking place. Intimate disagreement is, as they say, life. Yet, Ray Rice experienced normative, regular conflict that exists in every relationship, family, and household in the world as so overwhelmingly unbearable and threatening that he hit his wife, knocking her unconscious, and dragged her limp body by the ankles out of the elevator, leaving her lying inert in a hallway. He looked at normative, everyday conflict, and responded with extreme cruelty. He looked at the regular, even banal, expression of difference and saw threat.

The Israeli government has kept the Palestinian Gaza Strip under siege since 2005. This has made daily life unbearable for its inhabitants. In the late spring of 2014, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu escalated pressure on the already suffering Palestinians, and some factions within Gaza responded with rockets that were of such poor quality they had only symbolic impact. The Israeli government re-reacted in turn to this response with over fifty days of aerial bombing and ground invasion, causing mass death and massive destruction of literal, cultural, and psychological infrastructure. The Gazans were reacting to a state of injustice that the Israelis had created. The Gazans were resisting. They were refusing to go along with unbearable and unjustifiable treatment. The Israelis experienced this resistance to ongoing unfair treatment as attack.

Brown and Garner did absolutely nothing but be Black. Janay Rice expressed normative conflict. Gazans resisted unbearable treatment. In all of these cases the police, the husband, and the nation overstated harm. They took Nothing, Normative Conflict, and Resistance and misrepresented these reasonable stances of difference as Abuse. From the most intimate relationship 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. In this way they overreacted at a level that produced tragedy, pain, and division. It is this moment of overreaction that I wish to examine in this book. My thesis is that at many levels 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. I will show how this dynamic, whether between two individuals, between groups of people, between governments and civilians, or between nations is a fundamental opportunity for either tragedy or peace. Conscious awareness of these political and emotional mechanisms gives us all a chance to face ourselves, to achieve recognition and understanding in order to avoid escalation towards unnecessary pain.

Of course it is not only the police, wealthy football players, or colonial occupiers who can feel abused in the absence of actual threat. It is not only the dominant who feel endangered when faced with normative conflict or when their own unjust actions are responded to with resistance. In fact these distorted reactions occur in both the powerful and the weak, the supremacist and the traumatized, in society and in intimacy. In arenas in which real abuse could conceivably take place, there are those who feel persecuted and threatened even though they are not in danger, and they often lack help from those around them to differentiate between the possible and the actual. Bullies often conceptualize themselves as being under attack when they are the ones originating the pain. Everywhere we look, there is confusion between Conflict and Abuse.

If a person cannot solve a conflict with a friend, how can they possibly contribute to larger efforts for peace? If we refuse to speak to a friend because we project our anxieties onto an email they wrote, how are we going to welcome refugees, immigrants, and the homeless into our communities? The values required for social repair are the same values required for personal repair.

And so this discussion must begin in the most micro experience. Confusing being mortal with being threatened can occur in any realm. The fact that something could go wrong does not mean that we are in danger. It means that we are alive. Mortality is the sign of life.