November 2014

The Foucauldian Game of Academic Boycotting

Recent months have seen a renewed interest among academics in the question of academic boycotting, particularly with regard to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) lead by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The rationale that underpins these efforts seems to be that a worldwide isolation of the State of Israel would eventually lead to a change of its policies towards the Palestinian people, which are deemed by BDS activists as oppressive and discriminatory. Israeli academy, according to that view, is implicated in the continual oppression of the Palestinian people and occupation of its land, and is therefore a justified target of an academic boycott.

The topic of boycotting in general has received thus far little attention if at all in moral and political philosophy, a surprising fact that makes it somewhat more difficult to engage with the ethics of boycotting in a more fine-grained way. The ethics of academic boycotting seems to be even more under-theorised, which is pretty striking considering the recent widespread support among academics for boycotting UIUC in the wake of the Salaita affair. The issue is clearly a complex one, and I have no intention of providing here any kind of an exhaustive account of the various difficulties that it raises (e.g. compatibility with academic freedom, collateral damage, the causal chain). What I intend to do here, however, is to raise a point that seems to have attracted little consideration or awareness, which is the incredibly mercurial nature of academic boycotting.

What does academic boycotting mean, precisely, in practice? The answer seems surprisingly vague. During the height of the Salaita affair, for example, it became very clear that, institutionally-codified statements aside, different individuals have very different ideas of what academic boycotting actually means, and what kind of practices they choose to include in it. Some refused to serve as examiners of UIUC thesis, while others did not. Some refused to write letters of references for UIUC student and junior faculty, while some argued that this would constitute an unjust collateral damage. Some wondered aloud whether they should refuse to review manuscripts written by UIUC faculty, or collaborate with UIUC faculty. It therefore became very clear that taking part in the boycott effectively meant very different things to many individuals, bundled together under the general umbrella of ‘boycotting UIUC’. In other words, there suddenly was a new game in town, with little attention given to the fact that its rules were in fact incredibly vague and far from being transparent in any way.

In ‘The Lonely Politics of Michel Foucault’ (in The Company of Critics), Walzer mentions that Foucault ‘doesn’t play chess, or any other game whose rules the rest of us might know’ (p. 192). The mercurial nature of academic boycotting seems to follow a similar pattern, which forces boycotted academics – often through no fault of their own – to play a game whose rules they don’t know and often have no easy way of finding out. Since every boycotter is free to interpret the boycott as they see fit, the rules of the boycotting game as a whole are almost entirely individual-based. Some won’t review manuscripts or grant applications submitted by a boycotted individual; others won’t accept his or her students for graduate or postdoctoral work; some would refuse to collaborate with a boycotted person, consult his or her work, or host them as academic visitors. Boycotted individuals, in other words, became all of a sudden the target of a set of rules that seemed unclear if not downright arbitrary.

Although my point here is a general one, my interest in this particular debate has an obvious personal angle. As an Israeli with a degree from an Israeli university I have been on the receiving end of such individual-based mercurial interpretations a number of times, purely on the basis of my nationality and with little or no regard to my own moral views. In other words, I was given no choice whether to become a ‘stakeholder’, so to speak, in this debate or not, being coerced by others to play a game whose rules were never properly clarified at any stage. Here are some of my own experiences during the past couple of years:

Some boycotters would consider me a non-expiring target, due to my country of origin and educational background. In the eyes of others, I would be considered ‘legit’ as I am not presently affiliated with an Israeli institution. Some would consult my work, but refuse to collaborate. Others would agree to collaborate but reject me as a campus visitor. Others would be inclined to make special dispensation for projects co-led with non-Israeli nationals, so as not to penalise them. In each of these cases, the precise boycotting practice would mostly not be disclosed from the outset, requiring a careful and patient piecing together on my part of what each interlocutor would define as their own boycotting practices. In some cases it has been made clear that my boycotting interlocutors were seeing themselves as granting me some kind of an exceptional privilege by agreeing to interact with me at all, and some have indeed revoked it at a later point. To date, however, I still struggle to comprehend how exactly this sentiment is compatible with the most basic principles of academic freedom and collegiality.

To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to dismiss academic boycotts as such, although I personally struggle to come up with a sufficiently compelling moral and practical argument for those. Rather, my goal here is to point out that conceptually-vague boycotts force boycotted individuals to play a game that they did not choose to play, whose rules they do not know, and which they don’t always have a straightforward way of finding out. Forcing an effectively arbitrary set of rules on individuals seems to me to stand in complete opposition to moral philosophy as a profession and a vocation. One obvious way of remedying this situation would be for boycotters to be more - rather than less - outspoken, openly declaring not only their support but also what precisely does it amount to in practice. If anything, an open disclosure would better serve their cause by making it more visible and concrete. So, if there is indeed a compelling argument for academic boycotting, then making it less of a Foucauldian game seems like a better way to advance it.

If I forget Thee, Jerusalem

"I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus-routes
but: 70 after, 1917, 500
B.C., Forty-Eight. These are the lines you really travel on.
A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places
that used to hurt don’t hurt any more.
But a light warning remains in everything,
like the movement of a light veil: warning."
(Jerusalem 1967: II)

Yehuda Amichai’s Poems of Jerusalem is probably the best guidebook to the beautiful, complex and deeply troubled city of Jerusalem as I remember it. It doesn’t offer much in the way of where to eat, sleep or shop. But it provides an intricate and profoundly humane x-ray of the ‘Venice of God’, where religions, cultures and languages endlessly evolve and intermingle, each with its own baggage of hopes, delusions, realizations and fears. And the more one reads through it, the more they understand that the soundtrack of Jerusalem is that of irreducible frictions and tensions bound together by the forces of history and memory.

"Jerusalem is built on the vaulted foundations
of a held-back scream. If there were no reason
for the scream, the foundations would crumble, the city would collapse;
if the scream were screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens."
(Jerusalem 1967: XIX)

Recent events suggest that too many people with too much political power on all sides fail to comprehend Amichai’s gentle warning on the fragile equilibrium that prevents Jerusalem from either crumbling or exploding. Those people would gladly see the scream being screamed, and the city exploding into the heavens which they consider their to be own exclusive domain. These are the merchants of the Venice of God, Jews and Arabs alike, united in a common destructive purpose and indifferent towards the many pounds of flesh already claimed by their cynical game. Their path to redemption is paved with the sorrowful lamentations of those who have mourned Jerusalem’s dire in previous times of turbulence.

Calvin, Hobbes and Mental Health in Academia

Depression is a toxic soup made out of poisonous ingredients: sadness, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt, stewing together over long periods of time. For some, this emotional soup takes the form of a chaotic mix that wreaks havoc on their body and mind. For others still, this turbulent soup generates a clear realisation that they are not destined for happiness. Since all life has to offer is never-ending pain and sadness, the reasoning goes, what is the point of continuing to live? In some cases, that clear realisation sometimes translates into a small voice with a single and sinister message that says: ‘you do not deserve to live.’

The impossibility of a life that is not full of interminable pain, as is the feeling of not deserving to live, is a bleak conclusion, and one that is surprisingly hard to refute even when one’s profession involves working on a daily basis with the fundamental idea of equal respect for all individuals and their equal moral worth and dignity. This, however, often seems like the only logical conclusion in a professional world in which depression teams up with the impostor syndrome, one of academia’s most permanent features and least favourite ghosts.

Impostor syndrome, for those fortunate enough never to have experienced it, is that deeply seated conviction that one is a fraud and will soon be unmasked as such. Accomplishments are attributed to pure luck, timing or deception, rather than to genuine competency, skill and expertise. Self-perceived ‘fakers’ - being women, highly educated and in a high-level position serve all as risk factors - live with unrelenting feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and guilt. Where things get really ugly, however, is when the impostor syndrome joins hands with depression, within the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short-’ (or sometimes long-) term realities of today’s academic job market.

Depression tells you that ‘there is no happiness in this world for you’ or even that ‘you do not deserve to live’. The impostor syndrome tells you that ‘you are a fraud’. And in today’s academic world, this ugly marriage between the two actually makes a perfect, if twisted, sense. Every unsuccessful grant or job application, every rejected manuscript, every negative teaching evaluation – all work together as a a kind of an accumulating database of empirical evidence showing that one is, truly and genuinely, incapable and unworthy of being an academic, and, at a deeper level, of being. The academic vocation often constitutes a huge part of one’s sense of identity and agency in the world. The logical leap from ‘the professional self’ to ‘the self’ is therefore pretty much irresistible.

Academic Calvinism’ in a Hobbesian reality is playing with fire. The tendency in academic culture to regard mental illness as ‘weakness of the (moral) will’ leaves too many people with burns, too often serious ones, and sometimes even terminal ones. It doesn’t result in better research, teaching or collegiality. The underlying logic of this system, financial and otherwise, seems to be working very hard to affirm the twisted logic of a depressed individual struggling with an impostor syndrome, which equates success with moral worth. It seems implausible that such a twisted and self-defeating reasoning could fuel academia for too long. It also seems like an open betrayal of the very principles that it claims to be standing for.