Academic Boycott Blowback

As everyone on the planet knows by now, an executive order by the new US administration regarding immigration has triggered tsunamis of controversy across the globe.  Given that we’ve been chest deep in commentary regarding that decision since it was made, I’ll forgo talking about debate over that policy in order to focus on one specific reaction to it.

Over the last week, more than 4000 academics have signed a petition calling on scholars to boycott academic conferences in the US until the immigration ban is lifted.  As far as I know, that boycott does not extend to refusing Americans access to conferences outside the US, nor have I yet heard calls for international academics to shun their US colleagues by, for example, refusing to review or publish their research, or rejecting graduate students or grants applications based on nationality.

Still, this measured approach is grounded in the assumption that punishing American academics for actions taken by the US government is an appropriate choice of action.  I’ve not yet heard that this assumption is based on alleged culpability of American academics (or academic institutions) for US policy.  We’ve heard people make that case in other academic boycott debates by applying a principle that says any college or university taking government money or performing research that contributes to government decision-making is automatically complicit in the actions of that government.  So far, however, the only direct criticisms I’ve heard are complaints that some academic associations have not taken official stands protesting Trump’s controversial immigration policy quickly enough.

Absent the assignment of blame, it might be that international academics – lacking other ways to protest US immigration policy – are doing what they can, regardless of whether it will have any impact on those setting that policy.  In which case, American scholars are being asked to serve as “mere means” towards the protestor’s political ends.

Regardless of motivation, a principled stance against any academic boycott of any kind says that research, scholarship, and the free flow of ideas should transcend politics.  Cary Nelson – former leader of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) – sums up this argument [behind a paywall, unfortunately], which should be read alongside his masterful work which provides the historic backstory to our society’s choice to grant one profession – academia – special privileges which fall under the category of “Academic Freedom.”

Given that it is academics who benefit most directly from special considerations granted to no other profession, one wonders why some of those academics seem so trigger-happy to act in ways that undermine this global societal compact by trying to punish or exclude one another on political grounds.  As ever, the dynamite that has been laid which undermines an important principle of civil society is labeled BDS.

Recall that the only significant academic boycott over the last decade is the one directed at the Jewish state.  And in this debate, none of the aforementioned cautions or qualifications are in place.  One can argue whether a French academic refusing to attend a conference in Chicago is punishing someone else, or just making a personal choice.  The same argument cannot be made, however, by those pushing academic institutions, associations and individuals to shun their Israeli colleagues in every possible way.

So if a conference boycott does take hold targeting American academic meetings, the gate is already wide open to escalate it to include all the things the BDSers want done to Israeli scholars (refusal to cooperate, rejection of papers, etc.).  And as the construct of academic freedom unravels, what will keep others (including supporters of the current President) from calling for boycotts of other academic institutions or associations based on a different set of political gripes?

While we’re on the subject of BDS talking points, what about the argument that the proposed sweeping academic boycotts only target Israeli institutions and thus in no way should be seen as an attempt to punish individual scholars?  Well academic conferences and the organizations that run them are also institutions, yet it’s hard to imagine that one can harm an institution that consists solely of people talking to each other without harming the participants in those conversations.  This case study that describes the personal suffering caused by an “institutional boycott” of University of Illinois also provides an empirical nail for the coffin of the “intuitional-boycotts-don’t-harm-individuals” argument.

Finally, one of the reasons I described that argument made by AAUP’s Cary Nelson argument against all academic boycotts as “principled” is that it is universal, which allows him to consistently fight against academic boycotts of Israel and the US, Trumps immigration ban, and other issues that stand in the way of scholarly discourse.

In contrast, look at how much the boycotters must tie themselves into knots trying to jibe their claims to stand for universal principle (like human rights and academic freedom) with the narrowness of their target list (currently standing at one, maybe two, with the greatest abusers of scholars, students and free inquiry permanently off their agenda).

As noted previously, academic freedom is not a natural phenomenon like gravity or even a natural corollary of the Rights of Man, but remains a relatively recent social invention that benefits scholars by preventing the vagaries of politics from impacting their work.  To throw all that away in the name of “Israel Must Go” seems a pretty big sacrifice for such ugly and immoral ends.

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