Monday, 28 November 2016


Conflict Is Not Abuse is the simple, eloquent title of a fascinating and controversial new book by Sarah Schulman. Schulman’s thesis is that conflict and abuse are very different things. However, in contemporary culture they are taken to be synonyms. Though Schulman is an American, she recently spent some time in Canada, and her observations are particularly relevant to Canadian culture.
Schulman is very careful to explain that she certainly understands people are abused, and that abuse is a significant, often tragic issue.  But she dares to challenge what I would call modern ‘victim culture’. Schulman uses case studies referencing social work, Israeli/Palestinian relations— as well as HIV criminalization — to make her points. 
Schulman’s argument concerning HIV criminalization is especially relevant to Canada, where an inordinately large percentage of black heterosexual men (along with some white men and women, both straight and gay) have been charged with assault and/or murder for not disclosing to their sexual partners their HIV status. Emotionally volatile reactions to this sexually transmitted disease cloud the issue. However Schulman asserts that those who charge their sexual partners with assault or murder for not disclosing their HIV status should instead themselves be responsible for protecting their own health. These so-called ‘victims’ should demand their partners use condoms. And now of course — in addition to condoms — we have access (for those who can afford it!) to the enormously effective HIV preventative drug PREP. Schulman reminds us that HIV education traditionally recommends  that everyone take responsibility for their own health. This philosophy has done much to prevent the spread of HIV. Why should we abandon it now? The non-disclosure issue is conflict — says Schulman — not criminal abuse.
But, possibly because Canadian culture is essentially kinder and gentler than American culture, we are particularly prone to confusing the two notions. This is particularly true where it comes to hate speech. I have always opposed this legal concept — not because I don’t think that some speech is regrettable and hateful — but because as a writer I would not wish to see language criminalized. My most recent novel is Sad Old Faggot. This title might seem offensive or even abusive to some. I think it should be my right to use these words.
Schulman’s thesis sheds light on two recent contemporary Canadian issues. First there is the case of Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has refused to call his transgender students by their preferred pronouns. This is conflict, not abuse. It should not come under the criminal or human rights code. However Peterson’s actions are beyond insensitive and the university should discipline him for not treating his students with respect, as this is a primary responsibility for any teacher.
Similarly, there is much discussed Steven Galloway case. It’s important to remember that Steven Galloway, formerly a professor at UBC, was (rightly or wrongly) accused of abuse. Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is not an abuser and should not be accused of it when she defends him. It is deplorable that the defense letter which she signed felt it necessary to shed skepticism on the claims of the victims in the Steven Galloway case. But this is conflict, not abuse.

It’s about time that we begin to ponder the difference.