Making sense of academic boycotts

In the United States last week, one prominent anthropologist resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest at the membership of the Academy of another prominent anthropologist. The field of anthropology is no different from many other subject areas, and there are different academic approaches, different political outlooks and of course different personalities. Often these differences do not encourage peaceful coexistence. In this case the resigning anthropologist – Marshall Sahlins – didn’t want to be in the same academy as newly arrived Napoleon Chagnon. His objections were to the latter’s work for the US military, and apparently also to Chagnon’s work on certain communities in the Amazon rain forest.

I’m not going to get into the substance of all that, but I am wondering here about the extent to which the academy, by which I now mean the whole academic community, can live with differences and contradictions, and at what point its members opt for exclusions and boycotts. Of course once you mention boycotts you are immediately drawn to various long-running campaigns to isolate academics from Israel. These campaigns in turn have divided the academy, with strong voices both for and against.

Partly of course these are really debates about ethics: at what point do you become so disturbed at the values associated with certain academics that you cannot in conscience be in their company? That in turn may prompt the question as to how sensitive your conscience is, and whether it perhaps gets exercised too easily at the point of disagreement.

I guess that for me academic freedom, encompassing very high levels of freedom of speech, investigation and analysis, must protect many of those whose views we find disturbing or even reprehensible. The late Christopher Hitchens argued that the generally discredited views of historian David Irving deserved protection in part because they were so universally rejected. I confess that I have found this particular defence difficult to accept. But then again, if academic discourse is the search for the truth then we must be very slow to shut out any contributions to that search.

Marshall Sahlins is absolutely entitled to disagree with Napoleon Chagnon. He may indeed be right in his disagreement. But he should conduct this argument as a debate, not as a boycott. And that, generally, is what I believe should be the position of the academy.

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4 Comments on “Making sense of academic boycotts”

  1. no-name Says:

    “But he should conduct this argument as a debate, not as a boycott. And that, generally, is what I believe should be the position of the academy.”

    The position you articulate, that, in general, such feeling should be channelled into debate rather than boycott is one that I would agree with (although, I might not myself be inclined to declare how Sahlins, in particular, should or should not conduct himself). However, in general, constructive debate requires at least two engaged parties and an audience (which typically, but needn’t, extends beyond the two parties). In the absence of that minimal prerequisite, there is some sense to departing from the setting, lest one be thought of as at one with alienating whole and used as a supporting statistic.

    Labor strikes are a form of economic boycott, and blunt as they are as tactical devices, they do sometimes have the desired effect of impressing managers that workers are more than just the individuals whose wage suppression yields managerial bonuses.

  2. V.H Says:

    I’m not so certain Hitchens is wrong where Irving is concerned. Hateful as is Irving’s position. What his position does is sharpen and remove dross for the narrative. If we took the received teachings unexamined, which is what’s expected in many quarters we end up with dogma not history. Further, the ‘official’ history has the formation of the attitudes underpinning national socialism originating post 1918. We hear it aspects spouted by economists to explain German issues with inflation. But more importantly, if we take the official position we confine the attitudes as defined by National Socialism and Fascism to Spain Italy and Germany, forgetting that those positions were if anything stronger in almost all other countries. It is easy to think the Holocaust was something that arrived fully formed and not something made by bland increments.

    Somewhat amusing that the setting for the current Blandings by P. G. Wodehouse is Crom held by earl Erne on who’s Mayo estate Boycott was land agent.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    What about other examples of academic boycotts? This short piece assess the impact of the one regarding South Africa during the apartheid:

    http://www.monabaker.com/pMachine/more.php?id=A1105_0_1_0_M

    by concluding that its effects were mostly symbolic, however personally I would not underestimate the importance of symbolism in certain circumstances and the need for academia to take a stand in the strongest possible terms…


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