Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On the Boycott of Urbana-Champaign

I rarely post on hot political topics (unless quantitative analysis of philosophers' lack of diversity counts), but one hot political topic has been very much in my mind this week: the boycott of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I've been forced to consider the issue especially carefully because I was scheduled to give a talk to the Philosophy Department there in December, and UIUC was starting to invite speakers for a proposed mini-conference on experimental philosophy the next day, where I would give the keynote address.

The boycott arose after Steven Salaita, who had been scheduled to start teaching at UIUC this term, was summarily dismissed by the chancellor of UIUC in the wake of some controversial tweets about Israel and Zionism. (His contract had not been completely finalized yet; sometimes they aren't until after one has already started teaching.) His old tweets can be found here.

Much has been said on both sides (e.g., against Salaita 1, 2, 3; in defense of Salaita 1, 2, 3). My opinion is that the pro-boycott case is stronger than the anti-boycott case: Salaita's tweets were not sufficient grounds for the chancellor's extreme and unusual action; and even if they were sufficient to justify revoking his position, Salaita did not receive due process. A strong response is warranted.

However, I do feel compelled to add two points that haven't been as clearly acknowledged by the pro-boycott side as I would have liked to see:

(1.) Given the recent and not-so-recent history of extreme violence against Jews and journalists, reasonable people reading Salaita's tweets might understandably be upset to see these public statements coming from a senior scholar in a position of trust and authority -- even if carefully reading the tweets in context might show them to be less hateful than they at first seem.

(2.) The argument that the UIUC chancellor behaved wrongly in canceling Salaita's appointment is not identical to the argument that a boycott is the best response. A boycott sends a strong statement; but it also harms many people who have done no wrong. I believe that graduate students are especially harmed, since interacting with visiting scholars and speakers is central to their education, exposing them to views other than their professors' own and putting them in contact with the larger scholarly community.

With heavy heart, I am honoring the boycott. I have canceled my talk and abandoned my conference plans.


Paul Baer said...

Thoughtful thoughts. Thanks for this!

Callan S. said...

What I'd consider is if no one else was boycotting them, would I go or would I stay away?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Paul!

Callan: I think that is actually the wrong question. Dishonoring a boycott is (to some extent, not entirely) like crossing a picket line. Even if one disagrees that a boycott or strike was a good idea (and I was on the fence about that), one might still wish to honor the intentions behind it and not send the contrary signal that would be sent by violating it.

Callan S. said...

The one that might wish to honour the intentions behind it, isn't that the same one who is there if no one was boycotting them?

I think yours is actually the wrong refutation. If you want to choose to marry your will to an organisation so that they start making (some of) your choices for you, I think that's a viable choice (people joing political parties all the time, after all, and allow the parties sway to decide some of their actions). That would be an apt refutation.

But otherwise no, unless you wanted to honour the concept of the boycott before (even if no one else was boycotting), then you don't want to honour that boycott.

How can a picket line matter if the group setting it don't happen to give a crap about you? So I can't say I really grasp 'don't cross a picket line' as a significant statement unless it's as some sort of reciprical team work. But if I'm not on the team, it'd just strike me as being a threat. No team benefit AND I have to obey them? Really?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm pulled more than one way on more than one issue here, Callan. Not sure I can fully articulate it in a way I would find satisfying. One thought: "team" can be a pretty large concept, if it encompasses my motivation for not crossing a picket line at (say) a Vegas casino.

Callan S. said...

Well, 'team' can be pretty large if you become a vegetarian as well, given you're trying to not eat any other creatures on the planet. Though would some of them have the same concern in regards to eating you? Indeed if you were made of grass, would the majority of them of them hold the same concern?

Don't want to see anyone such a sweetheart (to use your term) that they are getting devoured by their own team.

Side note: I'm not sure what the reference to Vegas refers to? Against gambling (or more exactly the fairly ruthless manipulation involved)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nothing against casinos -- just reluctant to cross any picket line, regardless of whether I agree with the protesters. (A casino comes to mind because it was a real case.) Not an absolute rule. My reluctance doesn't mean I conceive myself on their "team" except in such a broad sense as to stretch the meaning of the word.