Thursday, July 19, 2007

Speaking freely

The Gauntlet reports that Canada's universities are not taking warmly to the idea of a boycott on Israeli's academic institutions. It's increasingly rare that I find myself in Israel's corner, but I have to think that Canadians are making the right decision here by rejecting an unfair and ineffective policy. One of the professors quoted correctly points out that such a policy presumes an intellectual consensus (perhaps even homogeneity) amongst all of the implicated communities at the university calling the boycott as well as the universities being targeted. I agree, and I'd add that trying to isolate Israeli thinkers is not the way to cultivate a critical consciousness for Palestinian justice amongst academics or students. Israel, like the United States, finds many of its most prominent Leftists and critics in the ivory tower - making it into an ivory Bastille just doesn't seem promising. All this concerns the potential utility of Israel's students and academics to anti-militarist, Pro-Palestinian consciousness, so I'll note for the sake of clarity that even an Israeli academia that loyally supported the IDF and showed no sign of altering its perspective would not be deserving of a boycott.

One argument made in this controversy does strike me as disingenuous, though, and that is the move to contrast "boycott" with "academic freedom", as in this sentence:

"Universities, idealistically, are supposed to be politically free," said Stortz. "The university is all about freedom of thought and activity. It is designed to create ideas, research them, and deconstruct them for critical discussion, and therefore, must take a fairly non-political posture to try and understand ideas intellectually."
I take issue to this line of argument not because I disagree that a boycott would strike a blow to the exchange of ideas that is crucial to intellectual development. It most certainly would be. But I do not think we should be fooled into thinking that not engaging in such a boycott in anyway leaves us with a politically neutral forum for discussion, or that the ideal of the "politically free" university is anything but that.

Universities, like all other forums of discourse, are inevitably pervaded by power. At my school, brining in a pro-Palestinian feminist activist to speak about her work required that a student coalition of activists (of which I was a part) to put forward the funds and, more importantly, to name ourselves as her host. No department (like Political Science) or student-service institution (like Multicultural Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Center) on campus was willing to risk the political liability of affiliating with her. Even those that were sympathetic to her work and excited about the prospect of her visit simply did not want to face the backlash of defying the considerable pro-Israel consensus amongst faculty, administrators and trustees. Certainly no one was being boycotted, but political power was still brought to bear on the exchange of ideas. To introduce something like an academic boycott would not impose power on what once was a power-neutral territory, it would merely reform the existing networks of power.

This is the same argument I make in reply to conservatives who believe that "political correctness" will compromise the political neutrality of campus speech. Campus speech is manifestly not politically neutral even absent a speech code or an anti-harassment policy. True such a policy might shift some power in the direction of, for example, queer students. But in discursive climate of the American university, there is nothing that I, as a gay student, can say to a straight interlocutor that has the psychological or social capacity to induce shame, self-doubt, or marginality based on her or his sexual orientation. But my straight interlocutor wield precisely that power, and can unleash it by using homophobic stereotypes or epithets. Similarly, there are a variety of speech situations in which my race, gender, ability status and national origin grant me a considerable amount of power. The subject position of an interlocutor and their relative power in a conversation depends upon their place in structures of privilege that accrue on all types of social axes. To the extent that the array of policies lumped under the banner of "political correctness" by conservative critics can help to reverse asymmetries of power (or at least blunt their capacity to induce harm) I support them.

Similarly, I might support reform policies that could dampen the ability of powerful campus figures to exert influence over the type of political activity that students engage in. But the boycott of Israeli universities would do no such thing.

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