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A New Understanding of Loyalty: An Interview With Author Sarah Schulman

When we abdicate personal accountability and accept scapegoating, we enhance the punitive power of the state.

Sarah Schulman is on a roll. In the last seven years, she has published six books — two novels, and four nonfiction titles. Each book builds upon the analysis of the others, creating a crescendo effect. In Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), Schulman exposes homophobia as a practice rooted in family structures, from childhood abuse to adulthood exclusion, and calls for third-party intervention as a solution. In The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012), Schulman shows how the gentrification of downtown New York simultaneously displaced artists, activists, people of color and other low-income residents while creating a commodified lifestyle based on their removal. In Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (2012), Schulman documents her own evolution from a Jew willfully ignorant about Israel’s genocidal policies against Palestinians to an anti-Occupation activist connected to a global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

“I chose being uncomfortable and unsure over being complicit,” Schulman writes, in Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, describing how she came to acknowledge violent political realities in order to intervene. And, in her new book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, she writes, “Pretending that what is comfortable and easiest is inherently what is right is a tragic self-deception.”

Conflict Is Not Abuse is not a book that seeks to make people comfortable; it is an activist intervention. Schulman synthesizes the insights of her previous books to examine the moments in which discomfort leads to overreaction in personal relations, in group dynamics, between governments and civilians, and between nations. She exposes the tragic trajectory from oppressed to oppressor, in order to illuminate a path toward de-escalation of conflict. While the book starts by scrutinizing the dynamics of intimate relationships, it is ultimately about saving lives. Here I talk with Sarah Schulman about accountability, the co-optation of antiviolence movements, HIV criminalization, feminism, the gay family, challenging the murderous policies of the Israeli government and reimagining communal possibilities.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Conflict Is Not Abuse engages the reader on so many different levels — as in all your books, you meld a keen political analysis with informal history and queer activist world-making, but one thing that makes this book different is that you actively engage with self-help rhetoric. It seems to me that you’re intervening in the genre of self-help by creating a book that reimagines self-care as communal care. Talk about the difference between these two approaches.

Sarah Schulman: I could write another book in response to this question. To start, Conflict Is Not Abuse is a political analysis of how the individual’s abdication of responsibility to acknowledge our roles in escalating conflict enhances the power of the state. In order to make my arguments land, I begin by identifying the tropes of escalation that we see in interpersonal and group relationships so that I can reveal how these same tropes operate in oppressive power plays by various state apparatuses. You know, I am a book writer — the book is my form. And what a book can do is build, use durational techniques to accrue and accumulate information, to juxtapose, until it reveals cumulatively, and then lands the revelation that would not be possible without that structure. But this requires readers who understand how a book works, and I have been finding readers who start to draw conclusions after the opening preliminary warm-up chapters on the intimate realms. Of course it is very gratifying to see how strongly readers identify with the structures I engage, and how much they want to change the daily ways we casually exclude, shun, show false loyalties, project, blame and thereby create tragic separation and division.

But, if they would wait and see how those set-ups culminate in the relationship with state power, I think there would be less impulse to focus on the preliminary questions in a self-help, depoliticized manner…. I would say that I am advocating the opposite of “self-help.” I am advocating “group-help” — that the groups we belong to (relationships, cliques, friends, communities, religions, HIV statuses, nationalities) … need a renovated definition of loyalty to be based in helping each other negotiate; that real love is expressed by helping each other be accountable, and removing the punishment for accountability.

What do you mean by “punishment for accountability”?

It is all about the group relationship being rooted in a new understanding of loyalty — instead of measuring it by how much we help each other victimize the people who reveal our true selves, group loyalty can be the force that rewards us for changing. Right now there is a tragic conflation between taking responsibility for our roles in escalating conflict [and] blaming us for the overall problem, making it be our “fault.” People are afraid that if they are accountable they will no longer be eligible for compassion, if they belong to groups with negative bonds. I am amazed by how often I am asked to hurt other people — “don’t talk to her,” “don’t go to that party,” “why did you invite that person?” “You shouldn’t work with her,” etc. Negative groups define loyalty falsely in this manner, and we see this extended to class, race and national groups as well.

You write about how 1960s movements against violence emerged from radical organizing against poverty, racism, misogyny and other forms of structural violence, but when these movements became professionalized as nonprofit organizations and government-funded service providers, they moved away from structural critique. Did this also make these organizations less accountable to the communities from which they emerged?

Of course. Once a political movement is transformed into a funded business or government bureaucracy, the loyalties of the employed become to their funders, and not to their constituencies, who become clients instead of friends or neighbors. That does not mean that the government shouldn’t expand the services that it provides, it must. But political movements are driven by the needs and visions of their rank and file. A clear division between social service provision and activist, community-based movements is necessary if the drive for new policy originates from the people most affected.

One of the ways in which anti-violence movements have been co-opted is evident by their reliance on the police as enforcers. As you show, the police are often the cause of violence, and the enforcers of systemic injustice, especially against poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, people living on the street, migrants, the undocumented, trans and queer people, and anyone else victimized by the state. So, in this way, anti-violence movements paradoxically seek to challenge violence in the home by relying on state violence. Who does this protect, and who does it make more vulnerable?

When I was born, in 1958, if a woman was raped her testimony was not sufficient to get a conviction in the courts. She had to have a witness. That is how dire the conditions were for women when the feminist movement against violence emerged, in the 1960s, in the context of global movements for radical social transformation. And in that context, their understanding that male violence against women and children was caused by patriarchy, poverty and racism was consistent with other “big picture” movements imagining profound changes in how people relate to each other. Interestingly their focus was more on empowering women than on punishing men. They began to provide grassroots services like hotlines, battered women’s shelters, illegal abortion networks and self-defense classes. By the seventies, many of these programs had some federal funding, often in the form of programs like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act [CETA], in which salaries of staff of community-based services were paid.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 — which is D-Day for the troubles we are having now — one of his early actions was to eliminate CETA. This strategy of defunding was a political move that made it impossible for these services to continue from a grassroots base, while the demand was increasing. Through bureaucratization and professionalization, these programs came under the control of the government. Now this produced a crisis of meaning because the US government is one of the greatest sources of violence in the world.

In the meantime, corporate culture created massive propaganda pieces like “Law & Order Special Victims Unit,” which repeatedly insisted that there is one truly evil perpetrator, one purely innocent victim, and the solution is … the police. We couldn’t have been further away from “poverty, patriarchy and racism” as the framework, now everything told us that we are not responsible to negotiate or to ask our communities to help us solve problems — instead the police are the appropriate arbiters of relationships. The entire focus became punishment: identifying who “the” perpetrator is, so that that person can be punished. Of course this construction affected poor people with far greater force, it allowed state intervention into poor people’s homes and enacted increased incarceration and policing of poor men, while strictly and vigorously maintaining poverty, patriarchy and racism. And that is where we are now.

The section of the book on HIV criminalization in Canada shows how accusations of HIV infection in sexual relations lead not just to persecution and imprisonment of individuals, but to criminalization of an entirely new class of people. You show how Canadian HIV criminalization targets individuals for allegedly unsafe behaviors, while ignoring the governmental, media and religious institutions whose neglect and pathologization actually cause infection. This results in the stigmatization of an entire group of people who have already been persecuted for decades. In the US, we often look to Canada as a model for compassionate health care, and, while HIV criminalization is widespread in the US, it seems that it’s even worse in Canada. Why is this?

This is a really interesting question, and the answers are complex. Most of the arrests are in the province of Ontario, which is a very wealthy province — in fact, Canada has the richest middle class in the world. British Canadians have a very supported life: health care, subsidized quality higher education, art subsidies at a level where there really would be almost no cultural production without the government. Compared to the US it is cushy, and privilege often breeds entitlement. So Canadians are more identified with the state, and more embedded in the state, than Americans are. This notoriously produces antipathy toward outsiders, and HIV criminalization — because of its racial roots — was initially, in part, an anti-immigrant measure. The first cases were Ugandan immigrants, and the press played up the image of the predatory Black male. Today, when you examine the 200 or so people who have been incarcerated in Canada under HIV Criminalization, half of them are Black. This is startling information for a country where only 2.6 percent of the people are Black. Most of the women incarcerated in Canada for HIV are Aboriginal.

You also critique the paradigm shift in HIV prevention, both in the US and Canada, from treatment of individuals in order to improve their lives to the current dictum of “treatment as prevention,” meaning that the treatment isn’t just for HIV-positive people, but so that others don’t get infected. Do you think this shift in rhetoric reflects prejudice against HIV-positive people as irresponsible and undeserving of care, unless the care is for the “public good”?

It is actually more complex than even that. In countries with national health care, the government has all your health information. For example, I was recently in Taiwan, and there the government has stupidly imposed a new policy basically outlawing poz-on-poz sex, of all things. So HIV-positive people don’t want the government to know their status and therefore have to go to Thailand or somewhere else for treatment and medications. So, if a government with national health care decides that it is in the national interest for every positive person to be virally suppressed, they have access to people’s medical records which includes their viral load, and therefore how infectious they are. In this way, the government can enforce their policies easily with punitive measures. Of course, in the US we would love to have health care delivery to all who need it. Right now, only one third of HIV-positive Americans have the standard of care and are virally suppressed, and it would be great if everyone had access to the medications that exist.

In the US, these laws differ from state to state. For example, Guardian journalist Steven Thrasher has done incredible reporting on the case of Michael Johnson, a Black gay man in Missouri who was sentenced to 30 years in jail for infecting two white men. While this is not a national standard, as in Canada, the potential is mind boggling. Thirty-four million people in the world are HIV-positive and they were all infected by someone. The idea of “treating” HIV infection with incarceration is terrifying. It is another example of manipulating people’s fears to enhance the power of the state by creating a new class of people that the state can imprison.

Another institution that often enhances the power of the punitive state is the nuclear family. You say that “the greatest challenge to feminism has always been and continues to be the family itself,” since the family is often the incubator of racism, nationalism, classism, religious supremacy and other forms of bigotry, and you don’t let so-called “non-traditional” families off the hook. Are you saying that the focus on the family in queer worlds can actually be detrimental to a feminist analysis?

Well, all studies show that queer parents produce less violence against children, so gay family has turned out to be great for kids. But it’s the mothers I am worried about. The queer family has not ever been able to transform the mother role from one of martyrdom and guilt to something alive in body and heart. I am especially concerned about my beautiful generation, who I love so much. For many of us, just being born girls was bad enough when it came to our families — often we were made subservient to male family members, and if we were exceptional, that was really bad news. But then when we became lesbians … that was the ultimate disappointment, and most of us were left out there on our own in a number of ways. Fortunately, we found each other. That exile, while emotionally often permanently damaging, actually gave us access to adventures and pleasures and intellectual and personal insights that straight women our age simply didn’t have access to, unless they were also rejected. It was a kind of freedom caused by expulsion.

But then, when my generation started having children, a kind of reconciliation took place — on one level there is joy there, to finally be approved of, and to be allowed a certain kind of intimacy with our mothers through normalcy, but the sinister underbelly is that it was motherhood that won us the reentry, not our beautiful selves and all the amazing things we created before we had those kids. Then, if a relationship becomes stale or disappears, we’re out there with one central source of credibility and redemption — that child! Especially if our lesbian relationships have failed in some central way, there is a lot of encouragement to throw in the towel in favor of the one arena in our lives in which we get approval: motherhood.

I notice a retreat into the mother role — the only place of recognition — sometimes to the exclusion of our own personal growth, our own happiness. It’s depressing, wasteful and a collective tragedy in the making. As a result we often see what I call “compensatory motherhood,” in which the queer mother not only has to compensate to her child for all the pain of the world, but she tries to compensate vicariously by giving her child everything that she was denied because of her gender and sexuality. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Sisters, we have a right to adult intimacy, love, sex, learning about ourselves through intimate romantic relationships with equal partners. We have the right to live to the fullest, and not through overly involved fixations on our children.

In the final section of the book, you follow the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014 as it unfolded live on social media. This real-time reporting really shows how the Israeli state uses a false search for kidnapped Jewish teenagers to justify mass arrest, home raids, mass murder of civilians, and the targeting of an entire people. This fits in perfectly with your thesis about how false accusations lead to escalation rather than resolution, and in this case the consequences have led to genocidal policies.

Yes, The Israeli war on Gaza is a crystal-clear example of how negative group relationships, rooted in the family, promote false loyalty systems. This obstructs self-criticism, and deflects it into scapegoating, victimization of anyone defined as “outsiders,” and in turn this enhances the power of the state to kill people. In Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, the militarized Israeli state used abuse language to describe Israelis as “threatened,” “endangered” and “under attack,” as they were mass-murdering over 2,000 civilians. In this section I show the contradictions between the dishonest and complicit mainstream US press reporting, and Twitter feeds from Gaza that I summarized on Facebook, where Americans responded from the place of being denied information by our own press. The feeds are also, themselves, examples of conflict, and different ways to negotiate it.

In this section I also integrate Twitter and Facebook feeds, through the design work of the Canadian book architect Zab Design. I believe this is the first integration of these two visual platforms fully into a traditional nonfiction text-based book, and her work here is really remarkable.

What do you think has been the biggest misreading of the book?

Some people who have read it process it only in the realm of their personal experiences, like it was a self-help book. This is not a project of advice, but rather one of analysis. The thesis is that when we abdicate personal accountability, and have this supported by negative group bonds, we enhance the power of the state. Leaving out “the state” part does not accurately represent the content of the book.

People who have not read the book have falsely accused it, and me, of being “pro-police,” and beyond. They have thereby fully enacted the thesis of the book, which they may never actually know because they haven’t read it.

Is this cruel irony something you anticipated?

No. I expected disagreement to be based on what is actually in the book. But then again, projection of anxiety from earlier unresolved pain is the source of so much escalation in every arena of life, so why not here?

Copyright, Truthout and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. May not be reprinted without permission.

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