Why Boycotts Are the Devil: Martha Nussbaum Tells it Like it Is

In an essay in this summer's Dissent (published online in advance of the print version), superstar American philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks out against Britain's 120,000-strong University and College Union vote yesterday to endorse a motion to boycott Israeli universities. Though local branches … Read More

By / May 31, 2007

In an essay in this summer's Dissent (published online in advance of the print version), superstar American philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks out against Britain's 120,000-strong University and College Union vote yesterday to endorse a motion to boycott Israeli universities. Though local branches will decide whether to support the endorsement, British academics are also called on to condemn the "complicity of Israeli academics in the occupation."

Nussbaum, wisely, doesn't get into the specific details regarding boycotts of Israeli individuals and institutions:

There are three reasons for this silence. First, I believe that philosophers should be pursuing philosophical principles—defensible general principles that can be applied to a wide range of cases. We cannot easily tell whether our principles are good ones by looking at a single case only, without inquiring as to whether the principles we propose could be applied to all similar cases.

Made "uneasy" by the single-minded emphasis on Israel, she also points out the irony of the situation –Americans really should not talk about boycotts of countries across the globe without considering our own policies and actions that "are not above moral scrutiny."

Nussbaum rightly identifies that there is a gross double standard when it comes to the world's critiques of Israel and all things Israeli. But what strikes me as especially disturbing is that few people seem to be pointing out the startling imbalances in the arguments of some of the countries (or their institutions) that are most vehemently opposed to Israel.

Come on, people — yesterday the emperor may have been only scantily clad, but today he is naked and about to run his ass through your living room. Thank G-d we have Nussbaum to call it like it is.

Nor should we fail to investigate relevantly comparable cases concerning other nations. For example, one might consider possible responses to the genocide of Muslim civilians in the Indian state of Gujarat in the year 2002, a pogrom organized by the state government, carried out by its agents, and given aid and comfort by the national government of that time (no longer in power). I am disturbed by the world’s failure to consider such relevantly similar cases. I have heard not a whisper about boycotting Indian academic institutions and individuals, and I have also, more surprisingly, heard nothing about the case in favor of an international boycott of U.S. academic institutions and individuals. I am not sure that there is anything to be said in favor of a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions that could not be said, and possibly with stronger justification, for similar actions toward the United States and especially India and/or the state of Gujarat.

The breakdown of impartiality in the case of the boycott of Israeli institutions is as clear as day.

By failing to consider all the possible applications of our principles, if we applied them impartially, we are failing to deliberate well about the choice of principles. For a world in which there was a boycott of all U.S., Indian, and Israeli scholars, and no doubt many others as well, let us say those of China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (on grounds of sexism), and Pakistan (on the same grounds, though there has been a bit of progress lately) would be quite different from the world in which only scholars from one small nation were being boycotted, and this difference seems relevant to the choice of principles.

What's great about Nussbaum's piece is that she doesn't simply rail on and on about the problems with the boycott without offering a solution. In fact, she offers six alternatives to the boycott:

1. Censure

Censure is the public condemnation of an institution, usually by another institution. Thus, for example, a professional association might censure an academic institution that violates the rights of scholars. Censure takes various forms, but the usual form is some sort of widely disseminated public statement that the institution in question has engaged in such and such wrongful action. Professional associations have also censured governments, or government policies, such as the Iraq War.

2. Organized Public Condemnation

Sometimes organized movements carry on campaigns to alert the public to the wrongful actions of an institution. Most of the international consumer protest movement against the apparel industry has taken this form. Thus, movement members will try to circulate documents to customers of the retail outlets where objects made by child labor are being sold and will try to make customers aware of the behavior of the corporation in question. The customers themselves can then choose whether to buy from the retail chain or not. This sort of public condemnation is very different from a boycott of the retail outlets, because it allows the individual consumer to choose and does not directly threaten the livelihood of workers.

3. Organized Public Condemnation of an Individual or Individuals

When it is believed that certain individuals bear particular culpability for the wrongs in question, then it is possible to work for the condemnation of those individuals. Thus, if Martin Heidegger had been invited to the University of Chicago, I would have been one of the ones conducting a public protest of his appearance and trying to inform other people about his record of collaboration with the Nazi regime. Again, in the approach I am considering, there would have been no attempt to prevent people from going to hear Heidegger: the emphasis would have been on informing, persuading, and promoting personal choice.

4. Failure to Reward

Some modes of interaction are part of the give and take of daily scholarly business; others imply approval of an institution or individual. Without going so far as to censure the institution or individual, people might decide (whether singly or in some organized way) that this individual does not deserve special honors. The debate resulting in Margaret Thatcher’s being denied an honorary degree from Oxford University fits in this category. By conferring an honorary degree, a university makes a strong statement about its own values. Harshness to the poor and the ruin of the national medical system, not to mention then-Prime Minister Thatcher’s assault on basic scientific research, were values that the Oxford faculty believed that it could not endorse.

5. Helping the Harmed

Usually, when wrong has been done, some people have suffered, and one response would be to focus on helping those who have been harmed. Thus, many scholars concerned about the Gujarat genocide put aside their other engagements and went to help the victims find shelter, take down their eyewitness testimony, help them file complaints, and so on. Others occupied themselves in defending scholars who had been threatened with violence by the Hindu right, publicizing their situation and protesting it.

I wonder if number 5 should have been the first line of defense in this boycott alternative lineup.

6. Being Vigilant on Behalf of the Truth

Often, people who commit wrongs shade the truth in their public statements, and one thing that it is extremely important for scholars to do is to combat falsehoods and incomplete truths. Here again, the case of the Hindu right is instructive. It has its own cherished but quite false view of ancient and medieval history, according to which Hindus are always peaceful and Muslims are always villains. When they put this version of history into textbooks for public schools in India, there was a tremendous outpouring of scholarship showing exactly what was and is wrong with it. After the election of 2004, those textbooks were withdrawn, and the field of combat shifted to the United States, where the Hindu diaspora community is very involved with the Hindu right.

Nussbaum goes on to discuss boycotts, those "blunt instruments," at length. She concludes:

As for the academic boycott, it is a poor choice of strategies, and some of the justifications offered for it are downright alarming. Economic boycotts are occasionally valuable. Symbolic boycotts, I believe, are rarely valuable by comparison with the alternatives I have mentioned, and the boycott in this case seems to me very weakly grounded.

She's right, of course (in my mind), and this kind of protest against boycotts in general might be the most effective way to go about rectifying the situation. But . . . I still can't help but think that the root of the problem — many countries' deep-seated hatred of Israel — is not going to go away any time soon . . .

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