Supremacy ideology and the refusal to change

Cofounder of the MIX New York LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival, and co-director of the groundbreaking ACT UP Oral History Project, Sarah Schulman argues that when people are raised or otherwise made to feel superior, being asked to be self-critical causes them discomfort, and to see the challenge to this internalized sense of dominance as being somehow abusive or as an assault.

“There is a correlation between supremacy ideology and the pleasure of feeling uncomfortable”, says Sarah Schulman, the award-winning writer, playwright, journalist, and activist from New York. She argues that the experience of self-investigation in the relationship to others is a necessary action.

“My books reveal how the experience of self-investigation, especially in relationship to others, is necessary to a healthy society because it is dynamic, and means that people are heard across differences,” she says.

Throughout Schulman’s work, power, abuse, conflict, and discomfort seem to be terms closely related to the way people experience social environments.

Conflict is Not Abuse: community responsibility and American politics

The central argument of Schulman’s book Conflict Is Not Abuse: overstating harm, community responsibility, and the duty of repair (2016, Arsenal Puppy Press) centres on the phenomenon of “supremacy victimism” where inflated accusations of harm are used to avoid accountability.

In these scenarios punishment replaces personal and collective self-criticism, showing why difference is so often used to justify cruelty and shunning. “It is the racist who is dangerous, but he presents himself, falsely, as endangered,” she says.

“The blatancy of how racial difference was centered in these false claims became more apparent and more heightened in public discourse. After all, racism – like all rejections of difference from a power position – projects internal anxiety onto other people and then blames them for it.”

According to the author, when anxiety becomes a social method, change can feel uncomfortable and difference can be rejected from both supremacy positions and trauma positions.

“The supremacist thinks – how dare you ask me to question myself, that is an attack – but when we are traumatized, sometimes it is so hard to just keep it together that when another person’s difference naturally makes us question ourselves, we feel that we will just collapse or fall apart if those defenses that keep us together are shaken. In this way the other person gets dehumanized into a threat when their difference is really just dialogic” she says.

“Anxiety about difference is the most destructive social force currently at play. This is an era of complete lack of compassion and identification – whether it is the rejection of refugees and migrants to group cruelties by cliques, families, and communities. Supremacy ideology is masquerading as reality in most social milieus,” says Schulman.

In Schulman’s understanding, US society is currently in a very fragile place amidst a viral pandemic and a violence pandemic. It is a moment when grassroots movements will reposition themselves away from necessary voter/election activism to pressuring elected officials to advance the creation of new social structures.

PuSh Rally cancelled

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (“PuSh“) had originally invited Schulman to conduct an online public conversation alongside author Marcus Youssef on February 4, but on January 15 the event’s organization team cancelled the event citing unspecified internal reasons. Supremacy Ideology and the Pleasure of Feeling Uncomfortable would have been an open discussion about the productive potential of difference, and the sometimes-blurry lines between victim blaming and victimhood.

To Sarah Schulman, anxiety about difference is the most destructive social force currently at play. | Photo by Drew Stevens

But an open letter on the event’s official website from the PuSh Rally Team (Maiko Yamamoto, Marcus Youssef, and Dani Fecko) asserted that although the open talks could be a platform to foster conversation, it has also affected people in the local artistic community, some of whom withdrew from participating in the Festival.

Believing that the perspective offered could be rethought and reframed, the team stepped down from their contracts as Rally Curators and Producer, and PuSh has agreed not to move forward with the programming.

Although her online presence will no longer be available through PuSh’s invitation, Schulman’s works on political action and community ethics remain an invitation to think and discuss politics, co-existence, and activism by questioning the way US supremacists take advantage of the victim role to manipulate public opinion and conduct a necropolitical crusade.

In her talk with Youssef, Schulman would have also discussed the release of her new book Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, New York 1987–1993 (FSG, May 2021, 750 pages) On the one hand, it shows how the activist group ACT UP NY was able to win changes that have literally saved millions of lives. But it also documents the contradictions and failures that all movements and all people hold simultaneously with their achievements.