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.