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Juggling and Free Speech? Article for THES Dec 06

Juggling and Free Speech  

My son went to a ‘posh’ university.  You know the kind I mean?  Squares, lawns, masters and all that.  I recall that his graduation was a stunningly hot summer’s day.  And as I looked around at the brightest and the best from around the world, I wondered about the experience for him and reflected on my own, as a mature student, less than ten years previous.

So I asked him what he thought he’d learnt during his three years.  “Juggling”, he said, as he produced three small balls and demonstrated.

Now here am I, a decade or so later, still trying to juggle.

The difference is, I’m trying to juggle concepts of freedom, boycotts and speech.

Someone posed a question on this blogsite asking me about academic boycotts, and what my views are.  I have to confess that I have not found this an easy question to answer.

Does an academic boycott mean a constraint on academic freedom?  Does a constraint on academic freedom lead to an attack on free speech?  Does an attack on free speech result in …  it goes on and on and on.

Is an academic boycott different from a cultural or sporting boycott?

Is a boycott a sanction by another name?

What was it about apartheid that said a sporting boycott was acceptable?  Did the lack of international cricket, rugby and athletics really help bring about the end of the pariah status of South Africa?

And, moreover, is the question really about absolutes?  I don’t know.

What I do know is this.

If the argument against boycotts is that working-class people are impoverished, in one or more of those areas, then there has to be serious consideration.

However, if a boycott, of any kind, cultural, academic, sporting and, most importantly, economic, is not only designed to, but actually does help bring about change for the better, then “yes”, boycotts are valid.

It is an unanswerable question and I could only attempt to answer if the question was more expressly put.  

I have to admit, I’m having trouble keeping all my balls in the air.


December 19, 2006 - Posted by | Academic Boycotts?


  1. As the one who asked the original question, an explanation of why I phrased it as I did may in order.

    I wanted to get an answer to my question without referring to any specific instances of boycotts because I think that there is a general issue to be addressed.

    If somebody thinks that academic boycotts for anything other than purely professional academic reasons (e.g. a track record of falsifying results) are wrong _in principle_, then the answer to my question is clear.

    OTOH if they believe that boycotts for other than academic reasons are _acceptable_ in principle, then it is necessary to consider the reasons for or against each boycott.

    Unfortunately, if somebody thinks that non-academic boycotts are acceptable in principle, then that person cannot use such a principle as the basis of an objection to, say, the Nazis boycotting ‘Jewish science’, only being able to complain that the basis of that specific boycott is wrong, and by that time half the battle is already lost.

    Comment by Paul Wernick | December 21, 2006

  2. I was intrigued by the address from this GS candidate. The idea of having a General Secretary who was actually a member of the union rather than a professional trade union bureaucrat does appeal to me. I was therefore hoping that he would demonstrate a willingness to answer issues and queries in a direct and clear manner. As the question here was clearly referring to the (rather weak) boycott decision taken by NATFHE in relation to Israel then a simple and unambiguous answer was clearly appropriate. He is either for or against the boycott.

    Sadly, this candidate waffles, obfuscates and dodges the issue. He is unwilling to answer the question and unable to set out a principled positin. If he cannot apply principles (even ones I disagree with) to this issue then he is unlikely to take a principled position on any of the big (and equally difficult) issues that confront anyone with a leading position in the trade union movement.

    If he believes that teachers and academics should not engage in politically motivated boycotts then he should say so. This would mean that he would have opposed a proposal to boycott Nazi Germany in the 1930s or South Africa at any time before 1994 (and both comparisons are absolutely appropriate).

    I suspect that I will end up being unable to vote for any of the candidates before us in this election – I certianly wont vote for this one.

    Comment by Steve Radford | February 12, 2007

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