On neutrality, consensus and other such hocus pocus: TOWARD a campus culture of interrogation and antagonism

By Greg Hagenbuch

(An excerpt of this article was published in the last issue of the “The Word” titled incorrectly, however)

Does neutrality claim to simply hold no position? Claims of objectivity, neutrality, and omnipresence flourish in the positivist “culture” of the “West.” As I have seen during my time at college, the academy – yes, specifically Earlham College – has in no way transcended the proclivity to worship such flawed positivist concepts. Although it is high time we interrogate all claims of truth circulating in “academic” discussions – for example, former President Bennett’s claims of “legitimate” protest[1] – I would like to call into question the concepts of neutrality and consensus preventing the BDS Earlham movement from reaching success.

Does neutrality claim to simply hold no position? The concept seems to describe two different meanings in Earlham politics: the idea of a neutral topic, decision, idea, or truth, and the idea of a neutral platform or setting in which to speak. In Earlham’s unending aim to reach consensus, the idea that a neutral space is needed to reach consensus runs alive in the debate over BDS. Because of a lack of opposition present at the various information sessions on BDS throughout this semester, I will not argue against the need for a BDS discussion to be hosted by the “neutral” ESG.  However, because the issue of BDS itself was not deemed “neutral,” it could not be the topic of discussion. We are thus being provided will the platforms “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Past and Present” and “Israel/Palestine: How do we engage on our campus?” The two senses of neutrality are being run together: the idea that in order to have a neutral space of discussion (which I do not celebrate as ever fully present), the topic of discussion itself must be “neutral.” This conflation can be seen in tweets by Eli Richman, Earlham’s representative at large: “My view: Why prop up failed #BDS policy? Let’s do a forum for Israel/Palestine discussion without incorporating this divisive policy” (@Eli_at_large tweet 10/21/2013) andHow would folks feel about a neutral space to discuss Israel/palestine more generally, not necessarily in the context of #BDS?” (@Eli_at_large tweet 10/22/2013). The topic of Israel/Palestine is no more neutral than the topic of BDS. This new topic is a deflection from the goals of BDS. BDS Earlham recognizes the power discrepancy between Israel and Palestine, recognizes the role that certain corporations have in occupation and seeks to strip Earlham’s investment in these corporations. BDS Earlham does not claim that it will resolve the conflict. The alternative topic for the forums indicates that mutualistic dialogue between various campus groups will provide us with the best answer on how to achieve peace for Israel and Palestine. This mimics the historic, unending call for Israel and Palestine to just “talk it out.” I need not cite how far this has gotten the two parties in resolving the conflict. The stance has been taken that dialogue surrounding Israel/Palestine is a more appropriate topic of discussion. Thus, the call for a forum explicitly on the topic of BDS has been disregarded. Thus, the topic of discussion is not (and will never be) neutral.

Given this climate of hegemonic neutrality, I will next interrogate our process of reaching consensus. Earlham’s commitment to “truth-seeking” invokes the notion that “Because each person brings different knowledge and perspectives, truth-seeking is best fostered in community… [where] all people have the potential to discover truth.”This idea leaves me wondering if Earlhamites are all expected to arrive at the same truth, or if it is through recognizing the irreconcilable differences, disagreements and discrete “self-truths” amongst Earlhamites, that some sort of action can be made. I argue for something closer to the latter, and that the former not only presents a mode of hegemony, but that it permits this campus culture of inaction, this culture that that those in favor of BDS just aren’t listening hard enough, this culture of if we just talk it out for the hundredth time we will finally all agree. Indeed , SRIAC’s warning that minority voices are being marginalized may be rooted in Earlham’s view that “People in consultation with one another have the potential to make better decisions than will individuals alone or majorities unaided by minority views.” I will not argue against the aim to hear minority voices. I will, however, contend that some truths are harmful, that some truths refuse to be moved by the larger cry for social justice, that some truths, ones that people on this campus are unwilling to give up, are violent. I don’t expect that Earlhamites will ever arrive at one truth. Some people may never accept divestment. Who is asking themselves, “Do I have the wisdom to discern when to stand aside, allowing a consensus to emerge?”[2]

SRIAC’s response in 2012, the most recent formalized response to BDS the committee provided, was concerned with consensus and minority voices:

“SRIAC feels that there is not sufficient unity in the Earlham Community to recommend divestment. In fact, we find that there is substantial disunity and polarization on how best to proceed. We have particular concern that eagerness for effective action is creating an environment in which a minority viewpoint is being marginalized and perhaps suppressed. Our sense is that the proposed divestment will not significantly help the situation in the Middle East, and that such an action is likely to do more harm than good to Earlham in carrying out its educational mission.”[3]

Well, I don’t remember the last time anyone asked for consensus to be invested in these companies in the first place, but, apparently some really well-informed proxies who can represent Earlhamness were capable of determining for us that divestment will do more harm than good for the pursuit of our educational mission (namely… truth?). I am unable to see how an argument that rests on the notion that there is no consensus to divest, and those in disagreement are being “marginalized,” can hold when there is no consensus to be invested in these three companies in the first place and the BDS Earlham movement has called for an ESG forum specifically on the topic of BDS for the purpose that any student voice or opinion may be expressed on the matter. (Granted, the SRIAC letter was written before the spring of 2013 ESG decision to hold a forum on BDS, which, as I have mentioned, has been formatted away from a specifically BDS forum. This is what SRIAC must see, the lengths BDS goes to achieve this discussion, only for the efforts to be thwarted). “Minority voices” are not being marginalized when they can entirely change the topic of discussion away from BDS. “Minority voices” are not being suppressed when they can give SRIAC the illusion that BDS Earlham thinks it will “significantly help the situation in the Middle East.” Earlham alone will not bring peace to this situation. That is not the goal. The goal is for a more ethical investment. The goal is to recognize our investment in companies that profit from occupation and to change that. SRIAC, however, will not even recognize the violence of these investments:

“Although the goods and services of these companies or their subsidiaries have been used by one (or both) sides in this conflict, SRIAC does not reach the conclusion that these companies are engaged in ‘persistent and widespread behavior that results in …active involvement with governments in the violation of human rights’ which is the standard stated in the Earlham Socially Responsible Investment Policy. These companies provide goods and services that are used throughout the world in many different contexts. We judge that these goods and services are, by a wide margin, more often used for good and peaceful purposes.”

I wish I knew more about the qualifications for being a member of SRIAC. I wonder what kind of person it takes to determine that “these goods and services are, by a wide margin, more often used for good and peaceful purposes.” What I am most specifically wondering is how did SRIAC determine that the goods and services provided by these three companies do more good than harm? Can someone please tell me how, when caterpillar builds armored bulldozers specifically for the Israeli Army (IDF) to use to demolish Palestinian homes and has recently doubled its contract for unmanned ‘drone’ bulldozers to the IDF for “urban warfare close support,” we can say Caterpillar has done more good than harm? How can SRIAC, which hopes to “honor the diversity of our community” ignore the call from the large array of Palestinian students to divest? (Note: I am not saying all Palestinian students support BDS. It would be disingenuous to appear as if I can account for or represent all these student voices myself).  How can SRIAC pretend to be “honoring diversity” in this context?


This entry was posted in Issue 4: December 10, 2013. Bookmark the permalink.

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