Friday, March 24, 2017

conflict is not abuse, but interminable engagement is not an obligation

Dear Sarah Schulman,

I'm writing my review of Conflict Is Not Abuse as an open letter to you, because your book is about conflict and the importance of dialogue, empathy and repair (vs. disengagement, which you call "shunning"). So I feel like you'd be open to actually hearing about stuff I found troubling, as well as the stuff I liked. You draw parallels between conflicts on the personal, community and international levels, and you attempt to show how dividing people into the black-and-white categories of "abuser" and "victim" harms both parties and resolves little.

I love me some personal/political parallels, and I heartily agree that us-and-them thinking leads to much of the world's shittiness. After all, I work for an organization whose mission is to tell gang members that they deserve love, and that they are not the worst thing they've ever done. I try to tell myself the same. Without repair, we don't have much hope as a species.

So why did I find myself so very much in conflict with this book?


First, you open with a personal but super vague account of (as best I can tell) a time you liked a woman you met on the job, and she seemed to like you back, but then ignored you. Maybe she rallied a couple of people to her cause. You suspect she did so because she was afraid of her own feelings as a result of some past trauma. This is a common and likely occurrence. But it reads as condescending at best, harassing at worst ("How dare she ignore me?!"). In this instance and others in the book, you seem to always know people's feelings better than they know their own. That might be true sometimes. But how could it be true all the time?

Your argument focuses on wrongful accusations of abuse and how unfair they are to the accused. Maybe the accused isn't an abusive jerk who deserves to rot in hell; maybe the accused is even "right." But the idea that anyone owes anyone constant, unending dialogue is absurd. People often disengage not to punish the accused (deservedly or undeservedly) but because it's the healthiest thing for them.

An example from my own life: My dad is a kind, generous and hyper-logical person. Growing up (and still), he never got mad at me for mouthing off or disagreeing or asking for stuff I wasn't going to get. He just wanted a logical explanation of my opinion. But the catch was that he decided what was logical. We have an ongoing (twenty years and counting) debate about whether the majority of poor people are lazy and entitled or trying to survive in a system that has fucked them both economically and psychologically. (Guess which side I'm on.) Sometimes I just have to end the conversation, because his stance tends to be "You haven't convinced me yet." Why do I have to do the convincing? Why is the burden of proof always on me? Why does he get to set the terms? (And maybe it's your own setting-of-the-terms that rankles me most about this book.)

When I'm not in the mood to prove myself to him--especially if it's about a personal decision or even an emotion, the last thing anyone should ever have to defend--I shut it down.

Sarah, you might argue that my relationship with my dad is actually a great example of conflict without abuse (or accusations of abuse). It's true, my dad and I have a very healthy, mildly conflicted relationship over all. He is a good listener, and as long as I'm willing to put in twenty years of patient, carefully researched debate, I get modest results. I'm incredibly grateful for that. But sometimes the healthiest, most productive thing for me is to step back. And to imagine extending that same level of emotional work to someone who wasn't kind and generous and logical and my dad is incredibly unappealing.

Ironically, in your critique of defended behavior, you never interrogate your own. Your lack of self-critique seems defended in itself. All your stories are about times you were unfairly accused or took the high road. And you have a big beef with the family as central social unit, which I suspect is about your relationship with your own family. Personally, I don't think society has problems because of families so much as families have problems because of people and society.

Hegemony!
I tried to read the section about "compensatory motherhood" and queers having kids with an open, "undefended" mind. I'm only two years past giving major envious side-eye to any gay couple with kids, at which point I probably would have welcomed your theory that lesbians have kids to gain social status in a culture that devalues their romantic relationships. It's an ugly truth, at least for myself: I think I wanted to prove I could do anything straight people could, which is one reason infertility hit me so very hard. But I was also self-aware enough to know that mainstream acceptance is a terrible reason to have kids, and that any satisfaction in that arena would be shallow and short-lived. Ultimately AK and I adopted because we wanted to raise a child. I know that's the truth because I am enjoying raising my child. (P.S. He's only two, but he's learning to clean up after himself; you seem very concerned about women raising their sons to be spoiled mama's boys. Lord knows those dudes are out there, but I'm not sure it's the epidemic you imply.)

Dash, take note. There's a sink full of dishes and a jazzy apron in your future.
What if queer parenting isn't a failure of feminism and a triumph of nuclear-family hegemony, but a triumph of feminism? It's true that families with same-sex parents don't inherently raise little feminists. But the option to live a fully integrated life is a feminist success story, as is the fact that more straight women are choosing not to have kids or get married. If people are behaving according to their desires and temperaments instead of some demographic mandate (picket fences for straight folk, radicalism for gays!), that's a good thing.

The part of this book I found most interesting and resonant was your case study about Canadian laws that slap people who spread HIV with prison time. You explain that by involving the police and legal system, which inherently divide people into perpetrators and victims, we take power away from the community and put it in the hands of the state, which does little to actually solve the original problems. You imply a need for a sort of tribe of elders devoted to conflict mediation. I think that would be awesome.

Wanted: a tribal council that doesn't vote anyone off the island.
And then there is the long, confusing section about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. You point to an incident in 2014, in which Israel used the killing of three Jewish teenagers to justify a military massacre in Gaza. You see this as a classic example of the "overstatement of harm"; and history is rife with others (Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as an excuse for the first Gulf War; the sinking of the USS Maine as an excuse for the Spanish-American War). But these horrors don't feel like the geopolitical version of a woman who gets hyperbolic about her boyfriend's behavior when she's pissed. They are orchestrated land grabs by aggressive nations.

It probably doesn't help that, rather than narrate the Israeli/Palestinian events and the reactions they spawned, you let us experience them mostly via excerpts from your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I'm one of those Americans who doesn't know enough about Palestine and Israel, and that's a problem. But I can't think of a worse way to learn than to scroll through fragments of someone else's three-year-old social media feeds.

All that said, I really enjoyed reading this book. That's where you and I are cut from the same cloth. I like reading a book that makes me jot "?!" in the margins every few pages. I don't mind a little drama. I like books (and people) that are broad and ambitious and difficult. Thank you for writing one of those.

Sincerely,

Cheryl

2 comments:

Glenda Bailey-Mershon said...

What a fair-minded review. I hope the author is as happy to receive it as I was to read it. The personal-letter format seems appropriate to the personal-is-political scope of the book and also smart, so the reviewer can bring in contrasting anecdotes, I, too, like books that have a far reach. Brava to both.

Cheryl said...

Thank you, Glenda!