“We have all experienced the patriarch,” writes the celebrated author and activist Sarah Schulman in her new book, Conflict Is Not Abuse (Arsenal Pulp Press), “the male supremacist, the nationalist, the racist, or just the local provincial big man who will not tolerate any opposition.” She isn’t talking about anyone in particular, but right now it is impossible for her words not to conjure a specific person. Her book could not have come at a better time.
Schulman is a novelist, a journalist, and an AIDS historian. Throughout Conflict, she returns to an insight drawn from long-time anti-violence advocate Catherine Hodes, who suggests that if we are to meaningfully confront abusive and oppressive behavior, we need (in Schulman’s words) to “lower the bar for what must happen in a person’s life for their suffering to be acknowledged.”
If conflict must rise to the level of abuse in order to be worthy, Schulman argues, this will limit our options for resolution: We can get caught up in denying one another’s suffering, and we also can end up overstating our pain in order to get the care we need. All this is part of recognizing that conflict is a normal part of our lives despite living in a world that has a far easier time identifying only victims and perpetrators, winners and losers.
Overstating harm and denying suffering have become campaign tactics for the Republican nominee. Back in March, political historian Nicole Hemmer identified his behavior as “gaslighting,” a profoundly effective form of abuse meant to destabilize its target’s sanity through deliberately manipulating reality and then denying there’s anything wrong. The term seemed perfect, and feminist commentators echoed the diagnosis until it finally landed, in September, in the New York Times.
The analysis spread across a voting public feeling like it has been exposed to secondary trauma just by following this race. We crave the reassurance available to us at any hour, from our choice of news anchors or Twitter avatars, telling us: You may feel like this is crazy, but you are not alone.
My invocation of “crazy” is deliberate: Our mental health these days is stretched. The authoritative faces on television, repeated later as clips across feeds, show the deterioration wreaked by sustained, mounting disbelief: melting expressions, brows in hands, mouths agape. Disembodied nervous laughter breaks in from outside the frame. The mood is intense, the vibes delirious and unsure.
But as Schulman asks often in Conflict, does this — here, calling a politician’s behavior “gaslighting” — tell us what is actually happening? We are not in a relationship; we are in an election, and what is happening is the regularly scheduled assumption of control over our enduringly violent state. What that man is doing to get there is not abuse. We, the voting public, should use a better word for it, something simpler: lying.
Victims of gaslighting are made to doubt their reality, as the candidate has tried to do to the women who have accused him of sexual assault. But we, the broader voting public, have social media to act as a continuous fact-check; we know reality. For every lie from the candidate, there is a screenshot, a replay swiftly posted. The fear we face now, the one that will linger past November, isn’t that nobody can tell the difference. Our fear is that it doesn’t matter.
But who can pretend this moment is a break with the normal? That our country is forever distorted by his actions, having crossed an invisible line into some irreversibly alien territory? To those who have long been ignored, shunned, and punished — any immigrant who was threatened, any woman who was assaulted, any dissenter who was jailed — the revelations of this candidate’s violence and hatred are just another day. The distortion was there all along, right under our own feet, going back to our founding days.
Schulman recognizes the continuity of behaviors here, too; it’s the core of her book. “The dominance of white, wealthy, and male ‘needs’ over the needs of poor, immigrant, and non-white women is a pervasive quality of the state,” she writes. This does not make the candidate unique; as Schulman points out, overstating harm is not the province of the oppressor alone, a hard thing to face. What we have called denial and victim-blaming in this race are part of a much longer American story, of distorting the identity and truth of those who have long suffered far from the cable news light.
I find Conflict a balm against comforting explanations for violence and abuse, ones we know aren’t true, just easy. Facing this — that, whether or not this campaign has abused us directly, many of us have been, with little recognition of it — could reorient our politics. It is also a necessary act of compassion to acknowledge the suffering that’s been happening all along. “Our job,” Schulman writes, “is harm reduction in the broadest sense.”