There Are More Than Two Sides To Everything

January 28, 2014, 10:31 am


I welcome the broader observations about the current state of American Studies that Christopher Shea has made at the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Boycott Debate is Symptom of Broader Debate in American Studies,” 1/27/2014). However, I do regret the characterization of the ASA as split between, as he implies, progressive proponents of the boycott and “cultural conservatives.”

Why? In my view, this choice reinforces the views of the most vigorous participants in this conversation (including those who have become activist in their views that an academic organization has no business becoming activist) that there are only two “sides.” You can call them radical and conservative;  or perhaps you will want to characterize them as those whose faces are turned to an intellectual future and the angry traditionalists. In the dichotomies proposed, there is no middle ground, no place of intellectual conversation, no place to propose ideas without being judged. There is no place for friends to gather and engage in polite, respectful, disagreement that maps a strategy for politically engaged scholarship and does not use silencing as a tactic.

In fact, it is pretty much damage all around, and everyone bears responsibility for this, including me, since my early posts took a very strong stance against the boycott. Since Shea’s article is behind a pay wall, I want to give you his quote in context:

Members of the ASA, meanwhile, argue that their opponents are cultural conservatives who are using criticism of the boycott as a vehicle to further their own retrograde views, scholars who would turn back the clock to a time before women’s studies, ethnic studies, and postcolonial theory made their mark.

No one interviewed for the article specifically uses the phrase “cultural conservatives,” although perhaps they did and were not quoted (Shea notes that “association leaders insisted on answering questions via email, saying the news media have been misquoting them.”)

Shea then goes on to unpack the debate as being far more complex than his initial framing suggests, but the “cultural conservatives” smog hangs heavily over the ensuing paragraphs. Because the culture wars of the 1980s were so traumatic and divisive, particularly in their manufactured quality, the phrase itself — “cultural conservatives” — is a real conversation killer. It also seems to reflect the belief of some boycott proponents that this is not a quarrel about ideas, or even the Palestinian question, but a revived academic quarrel in which intellectual reactionaries want to take back the whole banana:

“I’m uncomfortable with the way that people who are against the boycott have used the language of ‘taking back’ or ‘reclaiming’ ASA,” says David J. Leonard, an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University. The language assumes that there are “rightful owners” of the field, he says, and dismisses decades of American Studies scholarship.

I have seen these things too, and like Leonard, I am also uncomfortable with them. And yet, his analysis also totalizes what is going on, since only some of these protests are about scholarship and others are about whether the ASA has forfeited its mission to the field and to scholarship in favor of forwarding its principled foreign policy agenda.

Furthermore, by wanting to claim that the boycott mandate was overwhelming, the ASA leadership inevitably begs the question of how very few people are fighting this fight, and how many people are hiding until it is all over. I would like to point out that the choice between being disengaged or having one’s life swallowed by this controversy is also a cause of resentment among the membership at large. Many people will confide privately that a cherished identity as an American Studies scholar is now an awkward one.

The well known fact that only about a third of the membership voted on the boycott resolution should, perhaps, be re-examined as not entirely a phenomenon common to electronic elections but one in which the majority of the ASA refused to be mobilized in someone else’s fight. While incoming president Lisa Duggan maintains that the ASA continues to be “absolutely open” to everyone who has always identified with it, this would not preclude the leadership from being thoughtful about the fact that the organization has become a site of conflict or doing something affirmative about that. “Those who have been inactive should get active, rather than blame the more active members for their absence,” she points out. Yet, the implications of being active on this question, on either side, are likely to be email inboxes, twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blog comments sections filled with hatred and accusations.

Shea’s focus in the article reflects frequent assertions in social media that mark boycott opponents as racists, homophobes and Zionists. The ASA leadership could continue to support its own decision and, at the same time, realize that it is not too late to defuse this language. Current ASA president Curtis Marez, for example, discusses the changes in the field that have led to postcolonial, transnational, critical race, feminist and queer scholarship becoming critical framing theories for American Studies. Intellectual opposition to these methods and knowledge is the real agenda for some opponents, who are cynically using this controversy as an opportunity to push their own agenda in the field. Marez is quoted: “The boycott has served as a “Trojan horse…enabling some scholars to indirectly express their resentment against a turn toward questions related to race and sexuality.”

Now in some cases this may be true, in other cases it is absolutely not so, and Marez’s quote allows for that. And yet, because such a quote relies completely on the prior knowledge one brings to it, and offers no other reasons for opposing the ASA resolution, it functions as a (perhaps unintentional) smear against anyone associated with an anti-boycott position. Smears are being liberally deployed by boycott opponents as well. How do I know this? Over time I have been smeared by everyone, in every possible venue, and the smears never offer more than two choices. With us? Against us? Ready to cry “Uncle” — or are you “doubling down”?

One of the most troubling aspects of this debate is the notion that there can only be two views, that each is absolutely clear, and, depending on what side you are on, your views about the ASA boycott, should you choose to express them, now say everything about your character and your moral fiber. This is called “guilt by association.” It is one of the oldest rhetorical tactics in the political playbook, utterly flattening the possibility that there are moral positions that exist between, or within, the two most dominant views.

I want to make an argument for a big middle space. As followers of this blog know, I have shifted my position on the boycott over time, and did not, as nearly two-thirds of the American Studies Association did, decide to punt. I don’t believe in punting: I believe in making a decision. I voted for the resolution. I ended up becoming skeptical of my own absolutist views on free speech, in part because of having had the privilege of listening to activists on the ground rather than only those at the top. I also voted for it to support the National Council’s process and compromises, including the compromise that brought it to the membership for a vote rather than making the boycott resolution solely a decision of Council, which, under the bylaws of the organization, it properly was. I also ended up changing my views because I felt increasingly misled by generalizations about the negative consequences of the boycott. Always seeing decline and corruption over the horizon of the new is a disturbing, and very academic, trait. It dictates that nothing can be changed, nothing can be attempted or spoken, without absolutely knowing what the outcome will be.

All of this being said, I continue to nurture my friendships with people who absolutely oppose this boycott; they do so for many different reasons that are neither racist nor homophobic. They raise concerns about the role of academic associations in a time of crisis that are also important. Are there debates within the field of American Studies about what kinds of approaches ought to be privileged? Yes, of course there are. But what we forget is that this is true in all intellectual fields, and that these debates can exist side by side with other debates as well. Turning intellectual disagreements into evidence of someone’s political bona fides — particularly when it flies in the face of a lifetime of engaged scholarship — is absolutely wrong.

But no one is asking me to vote on that.

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