Sunday, June 1, 2008

The UCU Boycott and stopping it


In their advice [pdf] to the Stop the Boycott campaign on the legal status of the UCU boycott motion (subsequently adopted by the UCU conference on May 28, 2008), Michael Beloff QC and Pushpinder Saini QC of Blackstone Chambers, London, refer to the provisions of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2003 against the creation of a hostile environment. This section of the Act defines harassment as follows:

3A. - (1) A person subjects another to harassment in any circumstances relevant for the purposes of any provision referred to in section 1(1B) where, on grounds of race or ethnic or national origins, he engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of –
(a) violating that other person's dignity, or
(b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him.
(2) Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (1) only if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.
The principle that the Act formulates is uncontroversial across a broad spectrum of opinion within the anti-racist consensus. People have the right to live and work in an environment in which they are not subjected to racial abuse, where such behaviour consists in expressing hostility based on race, national origin, or ethnic background (and, it should be added, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, although these are not enumerated in the Act). But while the principle is clear and commendable, its application raises serious problems of interpretation. Specifically, when is an action an instance of racist harassment, as opposed to a legitimate, if offensive, exercise of free speech?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to construct non-defeasible criteria for making this distinction in entirely general terms. There seems to be no alternative to considering particular cases on their merits in order to develop paradigms of each kind, as the basis for distinguishing classes of actions which can reasonably be construed as generating a hostile environment from those which cannot. For purposes of concreteness, let's situate the discussion in the context of university life.

Assume that a lecturer in social psychology gives a talk in which he/she purports to show that general human intelligence is largely determined by heritable racial or gender properties. This view is offensive, and it has been shown to be unsupported by serious genetic evidence. However, it is very doubtful that we can use the notion of a hostile environment here to prevent the lecturer from presenting his/her arguments, such as they are. The reasonable response is a robust critique of the empirical mistakes and errors in reasoning that infect his/her claims. By contrast, if someone presents a paper describing the members of an entire racial or ethnic group as inferior, criminal, deviant, etc., then there are good grounds for seeing this as racial abuse.

What about the boycott of Israeli academics? If an individual endorses the proposal for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, then he/she expresses a view which is misguided and, to many of us, deeply unpleasant. This does not suffice to place it in the category of harassment. However, if someone denies access to academic forums to Israelis simply because they live and work in Israel, or have Israeli citizenship, then they are not only generating a hostile environment. They are engaging in racist (in the extended sense of nationality-based) discrimination.

It is worth recalling a relevant incident in this context. In 2002 Mona Baker, then a lecturer in translation studies at UMIST, dismissed two Israelis from editorial boards of journals which she owns and publishes, because of her objections to Israeli Government policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. This was an act of blatant discrimination.

On December 16 the Guardian published a letter by five former presidents of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) objecting to UMIST's investigation into Baker's actions and defending her right to 'engage in political' action outside the University as an issue for [her] 'own individual judgment'. A colleague, Jonathan Ginzburg, and I published a reply the following day in which we pointed out that we are British-Israeli linguists teaching at a UK university. We asked if the authors of the letter would also endorse the right of boycott supporters to exclude us from academic activities in Britain. We received no reply to this question from the people who wrote the letter, or from our other colleagues who supported the boycott.

Shortly after this exchange another Israeli linguist teaching in the UK approached the serving president of the LAGB and asked that the Association officially distance itself from the original Guardian letter. This request was refused, and the president would not respond to further correspondence on the issue. As a result of these and related events, I and a number of other Israeli linguists in Britain experienced a deep break with the LAGB and much of the field in Britain that it represents. We were particularly struck by the fact that, while many of our colleagues privately expressed opposition or indifference to the boycott campaign, virtually none of them took a public stand against the fact that five former presidents of the LAGB spoke in their name, defending Mona Baker's right to discriminate against Israeli linguists.

This would seem to be a clear case of a hostile environment. While the letter defending Mona Baker's right to dismiss Israelis from her editorial boards is obviously protected as free speech, its effect was to offer legitimation to an act of discrimination from some of the most senior people in the field, who had occupied leadership positions in its official professional association. The fact that the then president of the LAGB rejected an appeal to issue a statement indicating that the letter did not express the Association's policy permitted the authors' claim to 'speak for a large body of opinion' in the field of linguistics to stand unopposed. The relative silence of the membership gave this assertion additional credibility. What began as an expression of opinion by a group of senior linguists quickly became an ugly exercise in embarrassed silence and collaboration that alienated those of us on the receiving end from active involvement with large parts of our own field.

The real damage caused by events of this kind is their corrosive impact on the normal course of academic life. If many of our colleagues are prepared to accept a boycott of Israeli academics living in Israel and they are not willing to rule out exclusion of Israeli academics working in the UK, then how can we trust decisions on research grants, promotion, journal articles, etc? How can we interact freely with colleagues who have publicly endorsed the principle that acts of discrimination against Israeli academics are a matter for a person's 'own individual judgment'?

Continued:  UCU Boycott

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