The Injustice Boycott and Academia

Influential activist and writer Shaun King—currently “senior justice writer” at the New York Daily News—has announced plans for a potentially massive boycott of “cities, states, businesses, and institutions which are either willfully indifferent to police brutality and racial injustice or are deliberately destructive partners with it.”

The boycott is set to begin on December 5th, the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (no relation to Shaun King). However, the specific targets of the boycott have not yet been named. The targets are being researched and will be announced when the boycott starts. On this, King writes:

Between now and then, we hope that cities and states around the country will begin to enact emergency legislation and policies to prevent police brutality and racial violence. Furthermore, we do not want any potential institutions to somehow undermine our efforts.

Potential targets include:

  • Entire cities and states much like what you see being done in North Carolina right now over the anti-LGBT House Bill 2.
  • Particular brands and corporations who partner with and profit from systemic oppression.
  • Particular brands and corporations headquartered in cities and states notorious for police brutality and racial violence, which say and do little to nothing about it.
  • Particular institutions, including banks, which fund, underwrite, inform, train or otherwise support systemic oppression and brutality.

The point of the boycott, King writes, is “visible, measurable, tangible change” to reduce police brutality and racial injustice. And though the organizers will “be providing each city, state, business and institution a clear path out of the boycott,” King expects the boycott to last months or years.

Leaving aside for the time being any moral or practical objections to the boycott, and keeping in mind that we don’t have some relevant details (there is a plan to release some further information on November 2nd) certain questions for members of academia arise. Suppose one is interested in supporting the boycott. One might ask:

  1. Should those who have already planned and made substantial arrangements for conferences that will be taking place in locations, or making use of hotels, that end up as targets of the boycott, cancel their events or attempt to make alternative arrangements? And if the latter, at what expense? Does it matter what type or size of conference it is?
  2. Should those who have committed to attend conferences in locations that end up being targeted by the boycott withdraw? Does it matter if the meeting is a small workshop the happening of which we have good reason to think will make no difference to the success of the boycott, or if it is a large gathering, such as the upcoming meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA) in Baltimore, Maryland and Kansas City, Missouri?
  3. If one is scheduled to give a colloquium talk in a given city, and then, say, a week before the talk (after everything including plane tickets is booked, for instance) the city is named as a target, is it inappropriate to pull out of the talk, given the effect it might have on the department there? Does one have an obligation to warn departments about this in advance of knowing the specific targeted cities or areas?
  4. Does one’s status in the profession affect one’s obligations in regards to the boycott (e.g., a new PhD, currently adjuncting and on the market, in comparison to a tenure-track assistant professor up for tenure soon, in comparison to a tenured and successful academic, etc.)?
  5. What should one do if one’s conference job interviews or campus visits are scheduled in boycotted locations?
  6. Should one refrain from submitting to or working for (e.g., refereeing or editing for) publishers located in targeted locations?
  7. Do academics in areas not targeted by the boycott have a duty to assist academics in neighboring locations that have been targeted (e.g., by agreeing to host their conference)? Or does this undermine a mechanism by which the boycott is supposed to effect change?
  8. Does the boycott give academics in areas not targeted by the boycott reason to not work with academics at schools in targeted areas (e.g., not to invite them to conferences or to contribute to volumes, or to co-author work with them)?
  9. What alternative measures apart from cancelling events and refusing participation are available to academics that are consistent with supporting the boycott (e.g., is video-conferencing into a workshop in a targeted location, rather than traveling to it, a way of supporting the boycott or a way of undermining it)?

To reiterate, the topic is this:

Assume one is interested in supporting the boycott. What does that imply for one’s actions as an academic?

Discussion of the above questions and relevantly similar ones welcome. For the time being, let’s not discuss the question of whether such a boycott should be launched (a question that this post does not issue a position on).

If you haven’t yet, please take a look at the comments policy before you comment.

"Atop the Wall" by Justin Weinberg

“Atop the Wall” by Justin Weinberg

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David Wallace
David Wallace
7 years ago

Maybe this is too close to “should a boycott be launched?”, but it seems premature to consider *how* you should support the boycott without more than the most rudimentary information as to *what* and *who* is being boycotted. Isn’t this something to assess on a more detailed basis once more is known?

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  David Wallace
7 years ago

I would also expect that a lot of the detailed discussion of how best to implement a boycott would depend on what the explanation is for why one thinks the boycott is a good idea in the first place. This is particularly true for the questions about whether relocating events to nearby locations that aren’t boycotted would support or counteract the initial boycott.

7 years ago

I think there are at least a few things one can say in advance of knowing the specifics, since there are pre-existing models of boycotts on which Shaun King is drawing, and since he does lay out some general ideas for what will happen.

For instance: I think it would be supererogatory for anyone with a somewhat tenuous position in academia to feel like they needed to give up a professional good to support this boycott. If you have a campus visit in a city that has been declared a target of the boycott, I don’t think anyone should have to give that up, since it would come at such an unbelievably steep cost to themselves. I think anyone with the security that academic freedom provides, or, in other words, anyone with tenure, has a prima facie obligation to be ready to hurt a bit to support the boycott. This is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing that academic freedom that comes with tenure was designed to support. Surely it will hurt a bit professionally: giving up on a talk, especially if it was one you were excited to give, new material, a bigger audience, a step up from previous invitations, etc. has a cost. But let us be honest with ourselves. The cost of giving up a potentially professionally useful talk is peanuts compared to the horror that black teenage boys, for instance, are facing. If you can hurt that little bit to maybe bring about the change that will save a young black kid from getting shot by the police, you should. Full stop.

Also: I think a lot of people should, in fact, be ready to cancel their hotel reservations and their travel plans to the APA Eastern or Central if it turns out that Kansas City or Baltimore are named as cities on which pressure is going to be put. Academic philosophers are exactly the sorts of people who can put pressure on – write an op ed to the newspaper explaining why you just cancelled your hotel and airplane ticket, why you won’t be spending any money on food, drinks, etc. during that time. Make sure the hotel knows exactly (by name) why you are cancelling. Make it hurt a bit, which a couple dozen or more philosophers suddenly cancelling will do. If you make it clear why, you can be very sure the hotel will be putting some pressure on city council or whoever to reconsider that clear path out of the boycott.

If we assume that King and others do a conscientious job of assessing which cities, institutions, etc., deserve this level of censure, (that they do a conscientious job of making the punishment fit the crime, so to speak), and that they have carefully and honestly laid out the options for getting back out of the boycott, and given these cities and institutions a genuine cahnce to do so that they fail to take up – under those assumptions, we can already say a lot about how we are obligated to support this boycott.

I don’t need to know more at this stage to know that King does not take this lightly, is already a clear voice of conscience on this topic, and that he seems to be mobilizing a lot of very good support from a lot of sources. If he says, this is what we should do and why, I already believe that those will be good recommendations made for clearly thought out reasons, because I trust him on these issues. Unless we start from a stance of distrusting him and the boycott, then we (here, I mean the tenured professionals in philosophy) do have a moral obligation to get ready to do something that is realistically only mildly painful, in order to help effect a kind of change that could be groundbreaking for others.

Plus, as professional philosophers, we can do things like write compelling op eds to the cities we are now boycotting, and catchy well-crafted blog posts, and talk about it in our classes, and more, because those are the tools we can uniquely bring to this project.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  metamorphic
7 years ago

“Academic philosophers are exactly the sorts of people who can put pressure on…”

Why think this is true? Academic philosophers have not been particularly effective at resisting the weakening of tenure in places like Wisconsin, or at stopping the elimination of programs in places like Illinois. Why think academic philosophers are especially well placed to be more effective here?

Reply to  Derek Bowman
7 years ago

I like metamorphic’s suggestion that philosophers write op-eds about their decisions to boycott cities. The issue of police violence ties in with the zeitgeist and the public imagination in a way that concerns about the status of the humanities or tenure don’t. And so there’s more of an opportunity to use our writing skills to help publicize the issue.

Of course, it will be a very small minority of us who will be able to publish these kinds of things, but I suspect that there are many capable people who haven’t tried op-ed writing yet and who could do a good job. We won’t all get published in the Stone, but we could contribute to a concerted effort to get the word out in local newspapers too.

A related, though perhaps more specialized thing that could be very useful would be for a sharp applied ethicist or philosopher of the social sciences to sort through some of the empirical studies (Ross, Fryer, the DOJ report on Ferguson, etc.), which lend themselves to different narratives about the issue, in order to further clarify the moral problem.

Alex Howe
7 years ago

When the target of boycott is selected, the entire idea is that the wrongs perpetrated by the target are so grievous that a trumping negative consideration is created with respect to relevantly engaging with the target. The trumping negative consideration outweighs any positive consideration that may speak in favor of engaging with the target, such as the fact that you booked a conference there or that engaging with the target may assist your ability to get a job or boost your CV. That’s…sort of an integral part to a boycott. The statement being made is that this target is so morally condemnable that we will inconvenience ourselves so as to not support/relevantly engage with it.

If your own personal considerations don’t make the calculation work, then don’t engage in the boycott. Just be honest about your own circumstances, and remember what’s at stake.

“I know their business model is dependent on deeply immoral labor practices that knowingly enslave millions of women and children alive today, and that they are knowingly complicit in global sex trafficking, but what about my career aspirations?” Come on. Gear up to help, not to excuse yourself.

7 years ago

I’m excited for this boycott and will definitely be participating. My understanding is that the boycott page will ultimately suggest alternative resources that people can use/buy from in lieu of the boycotted institutions. Great work, Shaun!