Are Academic Boycotts Ever Justified?

Since the early 2000s, academics, particularly in the United Kingdom, have advocated and attempted to implement a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and/or academics themselves. This boycott has been compared, by both its advocates and detractors, with a similar boycott targeted at South Africa in the early 1990s.

Twice this year debates have erupted on PHILOS-L, the European philosophy listserve, related to the academic boycott. The first, in early January, was prompted by a call for applications to a new Israeli educational institution. The second, in early March, was prompted by a link to Judith Butler’s recent talk as part of “Israeli Apartheid Week” in Toronto. A common point in both of these threads was the special nature of academia in relation to boycotts. There is, the argument goes, something intrinsic to the nature of academic freedom that makes academic boycotts, separate from economic boycotts or sanctions, particularly problematic.

Both proponents and opponents of academic boycotts point to special features of academia in their arguments. Proponents point out that academics play an important role in legitimating social structures and creating a sense of “normalcy” in social life. Further, academics, as privileged members of  society, might have special obligations to change that society for the better. Opponents, such as Martha Nussbaum, dispute the privileged status of academics, but also point to the importance of academic freedom. Such examples as the persecution of Darwinists in Soviet Russia or leftist academics during the McCarthy era, are particularly vivid.

This argument seems like one that historians and philosophers of science ought to be particularly well equipped to analyze. Many philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper or Philip Kitcher, have pointed to the importance of a vigorous opposition when evaluating a scientific theory. If a scientific theory has stood up to severe tests, or countered arguments from determined opponents, we have much more reason to put our faith in that theory if it continues to be successful. Theories which have not faced determined opponents, conversely, inspire much less confidence. So it seems important for science, and knowledge in general, to not discourage, and even encourage, vigorous debate. The threat of boycott might thus be harmful not just for those holding minority opinions, but for all of science and society.

On the other hand, some ideas might be so objectionable that the social cost of giving credence or voice to them outweighs any gains to knowledge. Kitcher suggests a similar analysis in Science, Truth, and Democracy, where he argues that some lines of inquiry might be too socially dangerous in the near-term to pursue. Somewhat ahistorically, Should Nazi scientists who experimented on human subjects have been invited to medical conferences and allowed to publish in respected journals? Is it worth engaging with researchers seeking to demonstrate socially-important racial differences?

However, neither of these arguments seems completely apt, as, in the first case academic boycotts aren’t necessarily targeting beliefs connected to the professional work of academics, and neither are they responding to wrongs directly committed by those academics, but their position regarding other alleged wrongs.

So, to the original question: are academic boycotts ever justified? Is there something special about academia or science that makes such boycotts forever off-limits? If not, how should we draw the line? In the ensuing discussion, please to the extent possible, refrain from turning this into a discussion about the Israel / Palestine situation, the policies of the state of Israel, or specific wrongs perpetrated by any side. I think we can have a positive discussion, but invoking these specifics could easily degenerate.

Some additional questions: do you agree with Nussbaum that sanction or censure should only be in response to specific wrongdoings such as discrimination against a particular group of students, or is general participation in systemic oppression enough? Do you agree with Butler that shifting the target of boycotts from individuals to academic institutions avoids the ethical problems associated with policing people’s thoughts, or does it amount to a different form of the same thing?

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