Being the Target of a Boycott – Indiana and Lessons from UIUC

A month or so ago, UIUC professor Susan Koshy wrote a piece on being the target of a boycott. She supports the candidacy of Steven Salaita. She’s angry at the administration for their conduct. She writes (behind the paywall. I will quote as extensively as seems reasonable):

For someone like me, who is inside the university and supports Salaita, the boycott represents an experiential impasse. I find myself in the impossible position of being the target of a boycott as a member of an institution whose actions I and many others here have challenged. Unlike faculty members outside Urbana-Champaign whose safe target is another university, our target is our own. The frequently repeated joke here—How do we boycott ourselves?—captures this problem. How do you oppose your own institution yet protect valuable parts of it at the same time?

There’s been a lot of shouting about the Indiana bill, with “boycott” as a major part of the strategy to punish the state for its prejudice. I get it. I recommend Melissa McEwan’s piece “Stop” on why this is a bad idea.

The boycott is a blunt tool. Koshy writes:

First, in most boycotts, the relationship between external and internal groups is crucial to the campaign’s efficacy. Various arrangements are set up to enable the two groups to coordinate strategies and organize actions together, and to provide support for those on the inside. Throughout, the concerns of those within the boycott help determine the choice of tactics. By contrast, the actions and narrative of this boycott have been shaped mostly by those on the outside. Outside actors have taken the lead in organizing it and defining its stakes, sometimes without sustained input from those on the inside, although often in stated symbolic solidarity with them.

Second, boycotts typically are only one tactic among many—and usually one of last resort—in a multipronged political strategy to bring about change. Boycotts usually work in tandem with economic sanctions and protests that reinforce the boycott’s effects. 

Koshy talks about discourse and the way that the internet, focusing on star political bloggers (I assume this is a veiled call-out at Corey Robin), shape the understanding of the boycott from the outside, with less attention given to the narrative from the inside. She concludes:

Finally, while the primary focus in the last few months has been on the negative actions of the boycott—what outsiders will not do for the university or its faculty and students—affirmative actions, or what outsiders will do for those inside, have been few or largely symbolic.

It has become too easy to support the boycott from the outside—to share, “like,” and forward one’s political commitments; to update oneself through the musings of star boycott bloggers; and to “give up” invitations that one could hypothetically receive from the university. Meanwhile, on the inside, the costs are steep and mounting.

Many colleagues outside the university have posted their rejections of university invitations on their Facebook pages, blogs, or websites, or have written open letters to the chancellor condemning the university’s actions. These actions are invaluable in exerting pressure on the university. But despite a few calls to invite Urbana-Champaign faculty and students to their campuses to counter the debilitating isolation those on the inside are facing, few have followed through on those proposals.

Perhaps colleagues could post with as much passion on their Facebook pages the affirming actions they have taken to support the boycott—listing the graduate students they have hired from our university, or the professors they have invited, or the collaborations they have undertaken with groups here.

There are specific issues with the university boycott. But I think Koshy also raises important points about boycotts in general. They can be effective tools, but they have to work WITH the people on whose behalf one is boycotting, and they have to be paired to specific, direct, affirmative actions to support those people.

Calls to boycott Indiana have not, to my knowledge, included affirmative actions to support LGBTQ and other progressive movements within the state. Until that happens, keep me out of your boycott.

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