About a week ago, I started jumping into discussion forums related to the ASA boycott.
Unlike discussion I tried to have with PCUSA members who supported this summer’s divestment vote, ASA boycott debates were taking place on news sites that (in contrast to allegedly dialog-starved Presbyterian bloggers) don’t tend to delete challenging posts.
Even so, my ASA interlocutors tended to get scarce once they faced questions to which they had no answers (especially regarding the absence of any support whatsoever from the field in terms of implementing a boycott they insist represents “landslide” opinion within their organization).
Absent genuine conversation, the most interesting phenomenon I observed during these exchanges involved the techniques the BDSers used to avoid debate, including a familiar set of arguments regarding whether things like the ASA boycott represent inconsistency, and thus hypocrisy.
Those defending ASA (and other BDS groups) against accusations of double standards tend to point out that they are under no obligation to fight all the battles in the world. Which means that (for them, anyway) they are fully justified in implementing a boycott against Israeli universities for perceived injustice while not doing the same over other injustice (real or perceived) elsewhere.
On the surface, this argument actually holds up. For aren’t all humans creatures of inconsistency, especially with regard to politics? Don’t we select which charities we give to and which causes we support, even as we know full well that other charities and causes support people who are far needier? My wife is off to a community farm meeting tonight, just as I will be out tomorrow to participate in my sons’ Boy Scout meeting. But is the naches we gain from being involved in these charitable causes diminished by the fact that we could be spending our time feeding the poor and healing the sick, rather than supporting a couple of civic organizations that don’t fight famine, pestilence and plague?
Similarly, I choose to fight against the forces of BDS rather than join the struggle to free Tibet or liberate the North Korean people from the loonocracy that has impoverished and enslaved them. And if I have made such a choice, who am I to criticize the BDSers for dedicating their time and effort towards attacking just one country (Israel) vs. other nations where mass murder and repression represent daily occurrences?
But that “on the surface” phrase telegraphs my real opinion that the “don’t tell me I can’t attack Israel before I condemn ISIS” defense is, at best, superficial. For this attack on Israel is not being made in the name of personal political preference, but in the name of universal values (human rights, academic freedom, the fight against bigotry and imperialism). It is only when questions get raised about how much the boycotters actually subscribe to these values (vs. using them as propaganda tools) that we revert to the far thinner “it’s a free country/I can choose who I politick against” argument.
The assumption that criticizing the double (or triple) standard directed at Israel consists merely of calling people inconsistent (or hypocritical) also misses a far more interesting point that we can draw from the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (the same philosopher I mentioned during that recent discussion of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals).
In the Alinsky series, I talked about how it is never moral for anyone to use someone else as a “mere means” towards their ends. But Kant’s philosophy also included the “Categorical Imperative” which asks people to consider whether the motivation for their actions, if translated into a universal rule, would lead to moral or immoral consequences.
To a certain extent, this is just a fancy philosophical version of the “what if everyone did it” argument used by parents since time immemorial. But Kant’s reasoning carries a pragmatic usefulness if used to interrogate the principles upon which someone’s choices are based. For when asked to articulate such principles, most people try to locate their choices in something loftier than personal preference. And it is the window on the soul such an articulation generates that invites meaningful scrutiny.
For example, if you were to ask an ASA member for the principles upon which their boycott was based, they might say that the behavior of the Israeli government (and Israeli universities which they claim represent that government – even if only tangentially) makes boycotting Israeli universities appropriate. But if taken to a universal level, that would make it legitimate for any group to boycott the academics of any nation whose government did things that group did not approve of.
In fact, if we universalize still further, the boycott would seem to indicate that anyone with a political grievance against either a nation or its academics (or just a group of academics) was free to choose and implement their own punishments, up to and including excluding them from a wider academic community (i.e., a boycott). Which ultimately translates to prioritizing the desires of particular group over what was previously seen as a reigning universal value (i.e., academic freedom dedicated to keeping the free flow of ideas unimpeded, regardless of politics).
But unless ASA is the only organization that is allowed to follow this new rule, why can’t a consortium of colleges and universities declare ASA a bigoted organization and ban them from campuses? Why can’t legislators punish those who give the organization funds? Why can’t the University of Illinois rescind someone’s contract over controversial tweets? After all, if academic freedom must now take a back seat to someone’s political likes and dislikes, who gets to decide which “someones” and what “likes/dislikes” can be included under that rule?
I don’t know if it is confusion or just the usual BDS preference for avoiding difficult questions that causes them to break into the “Don’t tell me I have to condemn Saudi Arabia before I start in on Israel!” argument (even if Saudi Arabia was never mentioned). For it’s very possible that they don’t understand the implication of the Dialectical Imperative for the simple reason that most people don’t study Kant (or philosophy in general) any longer.
Which is a pity since it can provide quite a bit of guidance in this particular situation. For the article that got me thinking about this issue talked about how European academics were shunning Ariel University due to its location on what some consider “occupied territory” even as those same Europeans gleefully build relationships with schools on Turkish-occupied Cyprus.
For the boycott proponent, this observation simply boils down to: “Now you’re telling me I have to protest Turkey and I just told you I get to choose where I direct my moral/political wrath!!!” But for those who subscribe to a Dialectical Imperative, the choice is really between two universal principles: one which embraces what we generally think of as academic freedom which says that the free flow of research, inquiry and learning should never be interrupted (even between nations in a state of war) and a different universal principle which says that this unfettered exchange of ideas that defines academic freedom can be put aside if politics (anyone’s politics) dictates.
Given a choice between these two universals, I know where I would cast my lot.