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book review

Author Sarah Schulman examines conflict and abuse from a queer perspective, having observed the recent co-opting of ‘select sexual-minority sectors getting access to the state’s punishment apparatus, often based in whiteness, citizenship, normalizing family roles and HIV negativity.’

"In our own realms – families, cliques, communities, workplaces – we have all experienced the patriarch, the male supremacist, the nationalist, the racist or just the local provincial big man who will not tolerate any opposition. He can never be wrong. He can never apologize. He explodes in rage whenever there is another experience being presented. He belittles others but can't stand any criticism of himself. He may use sarcasm or cruelty to tear others apart, but his understanding of emotional life is shallow. He won't allow people to talk to him about what is going on. He doesn't seek resolution, which means to him that he would have to acknowledge having made a mistake, which is an impossibility … He expects that once he asserts his position, everyone else will obey, fall in line, and that this is how the moment is resolved: through obedience."

It's true. We all know this man.

It's easy to see the supremacist in a man a German newspaper dubbed "the Horror-Clown." Some find it harder to see it in the pediatric surgeon who has held office as a member of Parliament for the Ontario riding Simcoe-Grey since 2011. Yet, the day after the U.S. election, Kellie Leitch welcomed Donald Trump's win as "an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well."

Leitch is, of course, the Conservative leadership hopeful running a dog-whistle campaign claiming newcomers pose a threat to Canada. In interviews, she throws herself into verbal contortions to not say that the people she views as a threat are Muslim, though this is the clear implication. When journalists hold her to account for this innuendo, she draws a cloak of victimization around herself, claiming words are being put in her mouth. She then plays up this claim in campaign literature railing against "elites."

Surely, if anyone counts as an "elite," it's the one with the political capital of an MP and the income of a surgeon who can make such a classically xenophobic claim – that the country needs protecting from a shadowy, unspecified "Other" – dress it up in the language of tolerance and human rights and be taken seriously as a reasonable choice to run the country.

The quote that opens this review is from Sarah Schulman's Conflict Is Not Abuse, in a section where the author describes supremacy ideology as a refusal of knowledge.

Leitch doesn't need to bring Trump's supremacist message to Canada. She knows it's already here.

The premise of Schulman's book is that, in 2016, we have confused conflict with abuse at our peril. Conflict, defined as "power struggle," is part of normal life for individuals, groups and states; learning to resolve normative conflict is part of becoming a responsible actor in society. Conflict is mutual. By contrast, abuse, defined as "power over," is lopsided: one side dominates the other.

Schulman draws these definitions from a workshop she attended in 2014. Social workers use these terms to differentiate conflict from abuse on the interpersonal level, but Schulman shows they can also provide moral clarity when looking at group and state conflict, as in the cases of Canada's criminalization of HIV non-disclosure and Israel's 2014 war on Gaza.

Schulman's argument might, at first glance, seem to downplay abuse's seriousness or prevalence, but the opposite is true. We live, she says, in "a culture of under-reaction to abuse and overreaction to conflict."

"I am motivated to separate out the cultural phenomena of overstatement of harm from harm itself," she writes, "because this separation is necessary in order to retain the legitimate protections and recognitions afforded the experience of actual violence and real oppression."

One of the dangers of mischaracterizing conflict is how it lowers the bar for what we term abuse, allowing in many instances the abuser to claim the position of victim, even when this supposed victim carries a weapon and has the full force of the state behind them. For instance, whether because we live with HIV or are people of colour, of non-normative genders or sex workers, non-citizens or simply poor, the police are a source of violence in the lives of many queer and trans Torontonians. There can be no question of who uses power over in this instance.

Yet, when a group of LGBTQ Torontonians held a peaceful sit-in to resist the inclusion of our bullies at the Toronto Pride Parade, straight, cisgender commentators, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, sided with the police. (Tory's former campaign strategist, incidentally, now works for Leitch.) Exemplifying a process that Schulman outlines in her book, where the supremacist cannot handle information that challenges their sense of righteousness and so misinterprets it as threat, condemnation of Black Lives Matter Toronto cranked up the fear-talk, misrepresenting activists as "thugs" (a loaded term) who "hijacked" the parade and "terrorized" attendees.

The BLM sit-in made public a schism in what is often called "the LGBTQ community" (though in reality, it is many communities), which is of interest to Schulman, who writes from a queer perspective. A long-time activist, she has observed "the transition of gay from a severely oppressed, once broad category of people, to the more recent phenomenon of select sexual-minority sectors getting access to the state's punishment apparatus, often based in whiteness, citizenship, normalizing family roles and HIV negativity." In Toronto, this division crystallized in the form of petitions and counterpetitions for and against the police.

"Just as unresolved, formerly subordinated or traumatized individuals can collude with or identify with bullies, so can unresolved, formerly subordinated or traumatized groups of people identify with the supremacy of the state," Schulman writes. "In both cases, the lack of recognition that the past is not the present leads to the newly acquired power to punish rather than the self-transformation necessary to resolve conflict and produce justice."

Conflict Is Not Abuse is not without faults. Although she acknowledges younger generations communicate differently on the Internet, Schulman insists the only way to resolve conflict is to talk – if not in person, then on the phone, specifically not over e-mail or text. It's a strange claim to make in a book with one chapter composed largely of tweets and Facebook threads (the first time I've seen a book so closely mirror Storify). The qualities she so admires about phone conversation – openness, reflexivity, tone – are also available to those more comfortable in the media of texting and chat.

The ultimate value of a book such as this is its usefulness. Conflict Is Not Abuse presents a gestalt shift in thinking about conflict, power relations, harm and social responsibility. A small shift in perspective, yet one offering radical clarity, the full impact of which it will take years to determine.

Jade Colbert covers Canadian independent publishers and debut authors for The Globe and Mail.