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BDS, Academic Freedom and Self-Censoring Debate on Campus

When academics decide to self-censor and not debate Israel-Palestine, they have given up their academic freedom.

Protest against Israel's Gaza Blockade and attack on humanitarian flotilla - Melbourne 5 June 2010. (Photo: Takver)

Without a doubt, the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel has gained a foothold in the United States. Not only has the first labor union endorsed BDS – with many rank-and-file members taking part in the Block the Boat action on the West Coast, which prevented a ship from Israeli company Zim from docking all along that wide expanse on the Pacific – but the chilly reception that talk of academic boycotts previously received has thawed perceptibly.

Nevertheless, despite the increased momentum the BDS movement has enjoyed, there remain two concerns that stand in the way of more endorsements of the academic boycott of Israel: the possible effect boycotts have on academic freedom and on the mission of academic organizations. Many still ask, how does this boycott affect our sense of how we as academics are part of a common enterprise, or what the Modern Language Association, a huge academic organization with more than 24,000 members, just addressed at its last convention in Vancouver – the idea of a commons? Don’t politics like this take us away from that? Isn’t our business restricted to researching and teaching our academic fields, and not on taking potentially divisive political stances?

Academic freedom is often understood as the protection academics in higher education enjoy against censorship. The type of censorship we are most familiar with is the type that institutions visit upon those whose exercise of academic freedom seems threatening. But there is another, perhaps even more pernicious type of censorship, and that is self-censorship, as it occurs in individuals, and in organizations. Self-censorship announces the successful internalization of all the controls institutions now have no need to exercise from without; those mechanisms are now safely in place within individuals and within organizations. Self-censorship’s relation to the idea of a “commons” is that it effectively removes us from that space; we withdraw into the safety of received opinion and give up the democratic rights and responsibilities which members of an academic commons hold.

Self-censorship finds form in our reluctance not just to speak out, but sometimes even to think carefully and deliberately about certain subjects. It is as if we somehow understand that actually knowing about a controversial issue will then oblige us to act, and we anticipate that action will create discomfort. So we simply stop short of finding out all the facts; that is to say, we stop being academics. This then provides us with an alibi: How can I take a position when I don’t have all the facts?

Indeed, self-censorship most often finds an alibi in lack of expert status. While I am not cavalier about charging off half-cocked, there is a difference between researching something responsibly and in an open-minded fashion, reaching a conclusion and taking a position, and feeling that until one can pass a Ph.D. exam in the subject, one just should not speak out.

When this kind of thinking takes root – and I mean particularly in safely tenured faculty – then let me be blunt: We academics have basically given up our academic freedom. It is lying there on our bookshelves with the books from our freshman year in college that we gaze upon fondly from time to time, but whose actual contents we have absolutely no recollection of.

Now what about academic organizations? One argument has been that academic organizations should not take political stances because in opening debate we cause divisiveness and discomfort. But then we must decide whether the price we pay for that placid environment has not been too great. Like individuals who use lack of expert status as an alibi not to exercise their academic freedom, academic organizations that avoid debating difficult issues squander their bully pulpit and in effect end up betraying their mission to protect and advance their cause.

Let me end on a more personal note – why have I, as an individual, become so involved in this issue? That’s easy. Along with the quite legitimate and certainly urgent nature of what is going on in Israel-Palestine, for the longest time I have been struck by the fact that no other subject is so quickly shut down as a discussion point on campus.

It is absolutely eerie to me that this is the one topic that causes this much silencing of debate. No one has silenced discussion of Chinese violations of human rights, or the egregious violations in Sudan, or just about any other topic. One would have to go back to the outrage and silencing that surrounded the teaching of evolution to find any such debate. This to me sends out a red flag. And bears scrutiny. What is so sacrosanct that the idea of raising the issue and perhaps taking a stance results in self-censorship? What knowledge is on the one hand so absolute, and on the other hand so unable to accommodate debate?

There is no other profession I know of that has anything resembling academic freedom. It is there for a reason. It is pointless if it is not used. It is not a matter of personal betterment or reward; it is a matter of us holding true to the educational mission of the academy and to the vocation whose call we have answered. We are in fact deeply privileged, but also we are entrusted with this privilege to do something with it, and not to let it lie, taken for granted, jealously held close to us, but not used so as to extend it to others. If we do not make that gesture of generosity, we see how narrow and self-interested a “commons” can be.

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