Friday, October 7, 2016

Control and Overreaction to Conflict by Sara Schulman

Human life, being mortal, is inherently filled with risk, and one of the greatest dangers to it is other people’s escalation of conflict. It can hasten the inevitable end before we’ve had a chance to really begin. It can be a terrible waste of life and potential. Being the object of overreaction means being treated in a way that one does not deserve, which is the centerpiece of injustice. Yet, protesting that overreaction is often an excuse for even more injustice. There is a continuum of pathology in blame, cold-shouldering, shunning, scapegoating, group bullying, incarcerating, occupying, assaulting, and killing. These action substitute for our better selves, and avoid the work of self-acknowledgment required for resolution and positive change. Refusing to resolve conflict is a negative action, yet many families, cliques, communities, religions, governments and nations choose this option all the time.

We know that people get killed over nothing, and by extension people get scapegoated, shunned, demeaned, excluded, threatened with the police, locked up and assaulted without justification every day. The mere fact that someone has been the recipient of group cruelty has no relationship to whether or not they have done anything to merit it. Without talking to them in person and fully understanding what has occurred from their point of view, being punished is no measure of anyone’s innocence or guilt. But the person being shunned by being excluded, silenced, or incarcerated will not be listened to by others, so the terms of their punishment cannot be contested. In this way, shunning is a trap. Escalation can take many forms:

Escalation can be a smokescreen, a way to deflect attention from the real problem at hand because the person acting out doesn’t know how to approach conflict and doesn’t have support to do the work to make that possible. The only support they have is to blame and assume the role of “Abused.”

Escalation can be an expression of distorted thinking or mental illness, and can be rooted in earlier experience, some of which may have a biological consequence. These projections from the past onto the present can be expressions of anxiety. They can also be a compulsion, a hyper-vigilant automatic action with no room for thought or consideration of motive, justification, or consequence.

Escalation is almost always exacerbated  when parties are members of shallow communities like dysfunctional families, and bad friends. Religious/racial/national Supremacy concepts are at the basis of destructive groups, bound together by negative values.

Escalation can be a tactic of the state.


In the case of this book’s subject, overreaction to conflict, the patterns are often familiar. Someone says or does or is something that the reacting individual doesn’t like. Perhaps the offending person objects to a negative situation, they respond to an unjust structure, or just by being themselves they illustrate difference. In other words, they say of do something that requires an individual or a community to examine itself, something they don’t want to do, or are not supported to do.


Again I turn to Beth Richie’s illuminating book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. She offers a definition of “control” in relationships that is very pertinent to this discussion. She describes scenarios in which one partner “creates a hostile social environment in a shared intimate sphere of their lives.” She describes this as “power exercised by one person’s extreme and persistent tension, dominance of their needs over others, chronic irritability and irrational agitation.” They don’t say this is what I need, what do you need? Negotiation or adjustment are deemed unreasonable. Subjects become unapproachable. Interestingly, this behavior, describing intimate relationships, is also an accurate description of how the US state treats poor women, showing again how intimate constructions become social dynamics. 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. irrational agitation is certainly another, as the renewed focus on police violence reveals.

I would certainly also agree that in expressions of narcissism, an entitled and arrogant person can create that environment in a relationship, community, family, or household. They can bring the ideology of Supremacy, especially White Supremacy or Male Supremacy, into other peoples’ lives through the integrated conviction that they should not have to be aware of others, take other people into consideration. This is an ideology that men often bring to their relationships with whomever is serving them, whether it is a mother, a female or male partner or child, or another female adult. The objective is that a woman’s independent needs, or the subordinate man’s actual experience, should be subservient to keeping the supremacists male on track with his goals, whether those goals are dependency or self-aggrandizement. That this is common in sexual relationships is so well known it doesn’t even need to be illustrated. As well, it is common for adult men to expect women in their circle, including the workplace, to drop everything in order to perform favors for them that usually involve compensating for some task they didn’t bother to take care of or complete themselves. Certainly I have seen adult males feel confident and secure in living off their mothers, controlling their mother’s sexual and emotional lives, and having their mothers cook, clean, and earn money for them. That daughters and sisters absurdly have to serve their male relatives is beyond the everyday, at least in America.

But Richie’s definition helped me to expand my own thinking by recognizing that these control elements of Male Supremacy, White Supremacy, and government apparatus also can describe the behavior of women and others who were violated in their youth by fathers and others. Just as supremacists may control what their partners say and do, people traumatized in childhood may consequently live with a fragile self as well as insecure boundaries with their partners that also produce control. Many discourses, both popular and clinical, exist to address how those who have survived violence, sexual abuse, and psychological assault during their childhood may behave, depending where they are in their developmental process of awareness, in order to “feel safe.”


Feeling “safe” of course is already a problematic endeavor since there is little guarantee of safety in our world, and the promise of it is a false one, as the effort to enforce this is often at the expense of other people. Both Supremacists and the Traumatized may conceptualize themselves as “weak” or “endangered” unless others around them are controlled, repressed, punished or destroyed. The concept of “safe space” can also be a projection in the present based on dangers that occurred in the past. It may have been once used for those living in illegality, like gay people, Jews, immigrants, or adults who now have agency but were oppressed as children. But now those of us who have become dominant continue to use this trope to repress otherness. It is used by the dominant to defend against the discomfort of hearing other peoples’ realities, to repress nuance, ignore multiple experiences, and reject the inherent human right to be heard. Instead, it may even be considered victimizing by the supremacist/traumatized person to not simply follow their orders when they “feel” or say they “feel” endangered, even if that feeling is retrospective.

As Christina B Hanhardt illustrates in her book Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, safety is an acquisition of power, often dependent on unjust structure of subjugation to satisfy the threatened person or group’s need for control. Normativity itself is dependent on the diminishment of others. We know that determining punishment by the feeling of one party is the essence of injustice. Philosopher Sara Ahmed made a similar point earlier in her book The Promise of Happiness, showing that happiness is something that may be predicated on the oppression of others, and may in fact only be obtainable by controlling others, to their detriment. In my book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, I expanded  on Ahmed’s theme by discussing “gentrified happiness” in which people exploit others to avoid feeling uncomfortable. .  .


If someone is upset but thinks that it is Abuse, the focus could be placed on understanding what it is about them that creates their overreaction or drives them to escalation; it could be Supremacy, or it could be unprocessed Trauma. For this reason Conflict must be discussable. Accusations of Abuse should not be substitutions for talking things through. Very little in human relationships is automatically clear. As  actually dealing with the substance of Conflict may initially feel more upsetting than repressing it, the appropriate response to high levels of distress may often require even higher levels of distress. In this way, internal and external domination systems are revealed.


My conclusion from this experience of noticing the similarity of behavior between the projecting traumatized person and the entitled self-aggrandized supremacist person is that both need and want dominance in order to feel comfortable. And yet the sources of this need are so different. Underlying all of this is that traumatized behavior is most often caused by Supremacy. Most sexual and physical abuse in a family is caused by Male Supremacy. Oppression from the state is often rooted in both Male and White Supremacy, or in the case of Israel, Jewish Supremacy. Racism, colonialism, and occupation are all Supremacy-based systems. These are two entirely different systems, Trauma and Supremacy, but they operate with resonance and similarity under the same system. And, of course, these two impulses can co-exist in one body.



There are two conclusions about which classic psychoanalysis, modern psychiatry and its stepsister pop psychology, Al-Anon and the mindfulness movement agree. The sudden triggered reaction a) without consideration of choices; b) without looking at the order of events, motives, justifications, context, or outcomes; c) without taking responsibility for consequences on others and the escalation of Conflict; and d) without self-criticism, is the source of social and personal cruelty and the cause of great pain. Lashing out by overreaction deepens the problem. All these systems recommend the same tactic: delay.

And in order to delay, they all agree, one needs to be in a community, friendship circle, family, identity group, nation or people who encourage us to be self-critical and look for alternatives to blame, punishment, and attack. We need to be in groups that are willing to be uncomfortable and take the time to fully talk through the order of events, take all the parties into a account, and facilitate repair.

[To engage in socially beneficial work]


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