The Symbolic Violence of Choice

“Hasn’t he got any patriotism?” [Colonel Cathcart asked].

“Won’t you fight for your country?” Colonel Korn demanded. “Won’t you give up your life for Colonel Cathcart and me?”

Yossarian tensed with astonishment.

“What’s that?” he exclaimed. “What have you and Colonel Cathcart got to do with my country? You’re not the same.”

“How can you separate us?” Colonel Korn inquired with ironical tranquility.

“That’s right,” Colonel Cathcart cried emphatically. “You’re either for us or against us. There’s no two ways about it.”

“I’m afraid he’s got you,” added Colonel Korn. “You’re either for us or against your country. It’s as simple as that.”

“Oh, no, Colonel. I don’t buy that.”

Colonel Korn was unruffled. “Neither do I, frankly, but everyone else will. So there you are.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22   


Pierre Bourdieu wrote that symbolic violence is exercised through the “hypnotic power” of “injunctions, suggestions, seduction, threats, reproaches, orders or calls to order” that emerge within the structures of domination that shape our perception and activity. We help reproduce those structures whenever we speak in their terms, are moved by their claims, and follow the channels they establish. The AAA’s discussions of  a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions  are a good example of how such symbolic violence is accomplished. These discussions have drawn up sides which resist both ethnographic and theoretical illumination. They have chained the possibility of thought to the imperative of duty by deploying the irresistible vocabulary of justice and complicity, loyalty and betrayal, virtue and sin. You are either with us or against human values.

You are presented with a choice. Interestingly, the choice isn’t actually about working to end the suffering of Palestinians. You don’t need the AAA for that; the long worldwide boycott of South Africa proceeded without AAA endorsement. Moreover, given the structural constraints on universities, the specific conditions outlined in the current call for academic boycott are  impossible to achieve (Rabinowitz, AN), and more broadly, according to Noam Chomsky (The Nation 2 July 2014), some elements of the overall boycott movement’s goals are “a virtual guarantee of failure.”

The decision you’re being asked to make has to do with two things. First, it’s about whether or not to take seriously what we know about social theory, identity, and historical context: e.g., that individuals are inseparable from their institutions, and that identities are complex and groups heterogeneous. Second, in a practical sense it’s about deciding who you want to be, and that isn’t a matter of what you think or what you do. It’s a matter of what kinds of thoughts, motives, and values people attribute to the collectives you belong to. It’s about how lines are drawn in the sand.

If you vote “No” on the resolution, you will signal your approval of Jewish settler-colonialism in Palestine, the strengthening of violent ethnonationalism, forced segregation, deprivation of rights, direct and structural racism, land and resource theft, dehumanization, mass imprisonment, murder, and the hypocritical American foreign policy that supports it all. If you vote “Yes” on the resolution, you will mark yourself as someone who once again identifies Jews as the cause of the world’s problems and seeks to destroy the state that protects them, who ignores liberal values of diversity, tolerance, and dialogue, who unjustly lumps together progressive Israeli activists with the worst of their violent racist countrymen, and who ignores the hypocrisy inherent in Americans criticizing Israel for bad Middle East policy while they materially support the murder of civilians in Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Palestine with every tax dollar. You get to choose, in other words, whether you’d rather be a right-wing Zionist or an anti-Semite. (You get to be a racist and a hypocrite either way).

If you refuse the choice because you recognize it as a false dichotomy, or because you don’t care one way or the other, you can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to your own work, convinced that you have transcended both the nasty politics of the discipline and the much nastier and more consequential politics of the world. But you will also have voted “Yes” by default, because the supporters of the boycott resolution will easily deliver all the votes they need to approve the boycott resolution , and one is always responsible for the actions of the groups with which one identifies (I don’t buy that logic, frankly, but everyone else will. So there you are).

Members of the American Studies Association learned this in mid-December 2013 when they voted to approve the Palestinian civil society organizations’ call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Of 1,252 votes cast, 827 favored the resolution. That overwhelming majority constituted a bit more than sixteen percent of the ASA’s roughly 5,000 members. In January 2014 state legislators in Maryland and New York introduced bills to defund universities which paid for their employees’ meeting travel or membership in organizations endorsing academic boycotts. The bills were wildly popular in committee and floor votes, but they did not ultimately become law. In February Congressmen Peter Roskam and Daniel Lipinski of Illinois introduced HR 4009, the outrageously mislabeled “Protect Academic Freedom Act,” to Congress, barring the US Department of Education from providing financial assistance to academic institutions boycotting Israel. That bill died in committee.

“Statement bills” such as these allow legislators to signal their constituencies about issues they might care about. In that sense, they are rather like AAA resolutions. The difference is that, while there is little chance that anthropologists boycotting Israel will enhance the quality of life in Palestine, statement bills occasionally do work their way into law (see “Abortion, Texas” and “Immigration, Arizona”). Most anthropologists boycott Israel by default simply by having no connection to it, so signing on costs little. But voting to have AAA approve the academic boycott will make us feel like we’re doing something. It will communicate our virtue. It will link us to a larger movement by placing our disciplinary organization on an exclusive list, just as signing petitions can make us feel like agents of human liberation even if we do nothing else. AAA approval of the boycott will symbolically purify the discipline of the stench of complicity with Zionism.

And because this is an election year, our symbolic purge will be followed by a new wave of bills in our state legislatures and in Congress, egged on by the real apologists for settler-colonial violence: lobbyists and politicians who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by pointing conveniently past the atrocities visited on Palestinians to the distracting and shameful spectacle of “anthropologists” (whatever those are) counseling the extermination of the Jews. In Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere where disciplines such as anthropology are already in question, perceptive legislators will propose bills simply to eliminate the nests where such vipers lay their eggs. Governors will quiver happily at the prospect of signing them in the name of wise budgeting and “academic freedom.”

Apart from that, nothing much is likely to change. The dire, chronic violations of Palestinian rights in Israel and its settler-colonial frontier west of the Jordan River will remain. Reactionary movements in the US seeking to silence discussions of those violations through a “Palestine Exception” to free speech will continue to multiply. At the same time, the intellectually dishonest claim will persist that the tactic of academic boycott actually safeguards the prospects of all our colleagues. “Well of course you Israelis can continue to belong to our organization and subscribe to our journals, and attend our meetings! Such a shame, though, that so ‘surprisingly few [of you] have come out in solidarity with [your] Palestinian colleagues, or in open protest against the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli state.’ Tsk, tsk. And what a pity I can’t write you a recommendation. It’s not you, really; it’s an institutional thing…”

The politics of belonging consumes both those who embrace it and those who would critique it. The discourse of the boycott’s opponents becomes whiny and paranoid, mixing an exasperated recital of “facts,” with reference to the other side’s “convenient lies” and “secret endgames.” The discourse of boycott supporters becomes an ever more stale and focused repetition of atrocity narratives, and acquires an increasingly messianic pitch. “We” did not choose Israel as a target; it was chosen by the United States for special treatment in the first place. “We” did not choose the tactic of boycott; it was chosen for us by Palestinian civil society. “We” are merely the agents of larger forces. What does the fate or reputation of a professional organization matter anyway, as one distinguished political scientist asked at a Middle East Studies Association forum in 2014, if its approval of the academic boycott will finally bring justice and freedom to Palestine?

Both the supporters and the opponents of the tactic of boycott criticize the horrors of nationalism while furthering nationalism’s work directly and sincerely by framing “solutions” in terms of more of the same: crude identity distinctions, national liberation, and the granting or withholding of collective recognition by states. Unfortunately, whatever it ends up doing or not doing for Palestinians, the AAA’s sadly inadequate framework for discussing their plight has effectively shut down critical thought. It has replaced some of the most important contributions our discipline can offer—including understanding that there are ways of thinking and living beyond the state and beyond nationality—with an oversimplified set of enemy positions in the guise of “choice.”

So get ready. Your ballot arrives soon.

Gregory Starrett is a professor of anthropology at UNC Charlotte. He was President of the Middle East Section of the AAA in 2009 and 2010.


Gregory Starrett claims that the boycott initiative under consideration by AAA members has “chained the possibilities of thought to the imperative of duty,” and has given us, therefore, a “good example” of how “symbolic violence is accomplished.” By interpellating interlocutors to one side or the other of the debate, the initiative “effectively shuts down critical thought.” But has it really? Rather than a closure of thought, the initiative, I would argue, has precipitated an unprecedented outpouring of critical exchange on the situation of Israel and Palestine. This exchange has seen contributions by many leading voices in the field, essays written with both acuity and passion on the complexity of the issue, and on the factors that eventually inclined an author in one direction or the other. It has also seen anthropology departments around the country stage open discussions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict involving both students and faculty. In my own case, I have learned a great deal over the last year about how my colleagues view the situation in Israel/Palestine, about why they feel the boycott initiative should or should not be supported, and about the moral quandaries it raises.
The problem here goes well beyond a matter of misinterpretation. For Starrett’s essay does not simply describe a debate stultified by a moralizing and vituperative language, it performatively enacts the very symbolic violence that it excoriates, the same violence that it blames the supporters of the boycott initiative for having imposed on the anthropological community. That is to say, while the piece assumes a critical perspective on such polarizing and belligerent discourse, its own rhetoric works through exactly the same argumentative style, its primary tactic being to repeatedly mock and ridicule proponents of the initiative.
While this exercise in maligning supporters of the initiative for what Starrett claims are their true, base motivations extends across the essay (“It will communicate our virtue,” he mockingly notes), it reaches its most enthusiastic excess in his vignette of an imagined boycott supporter taunting his Israeli colleagues. Clearly we’ve now entered the theater of ridicule. Yet, what makes this piece even more disturbing is the manner in which it repeatedly disguises its attack on the credibility of those supporting the initiative as an exercise in nonpartisan judgment.
As far as a substantive argument, Starrett makes a last ditch gesture toward one in his conclusion, when he refers to the “sadly inadequate framework” of the boycott initiative. In light of the fact that, up until this final paragraph, he has not referred to a single feature, nor cited a single line, of the actual framework of the initiative, this gesture cannot be interpreted as anything more than a smoke screen. The one sentence where he does refer to the “specific conditions outlined” as being “impossible to achieve,” he makes no mention of what those conditions are, other than to say that anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz and Noam Chomsky have discussed them.
Admittedly, the last three lines of the essay do suggest that the inadequacy of the framework has something to do with an overemphasis on nation and state, a failure to recognize that “there are ways of thinking and living beyond the state and beyond nationality.” But how are we to read this abrupt and cryptic call, pasted on to the end of this no holds barred indictment of the boycott resolution and its proponents? Clearly he is not advocating that Israelis should abandon their state, or “move beyond” their attachment to a Jewish national identity. No. This call, one reflecting what Starrett identifies as “some of the most important contributions our discipline can offer,” can only be meant for Palestinians, a people who don’t have a state, and whose nationality is not recognized by the country that claims control over their lives and territory. It is they, we are left to conclude, who are being called upon to abandon such anthropologically unenlightened goals as having a state or being recognized as a nation. (A longer version of this Letter was published on the anthropology blog, Savage Minds:

Charles Hirschkind describes my essay as an “attack on the credibility of those supporting the [academic boycott] initiative,” that is “[disguised] as an exercise in nonpartisan judgment.” There is nothing disguised in my essay, no hidden codes or meanings. The goal of boycott supporters–to find ways to free Palestinians of the Israeli projects of imprisonment and colonization–is one I share. As for the possibility of pretending “nonpartisanship,” that has been foreclosed altogether. The boycott initiative itself is what has precipitated parties and generated mutual suspicions about motivation. There is no possibility of balance, nuance, or complexity when one is compelled to answer yes or no.

To be very clear, I think the academic boycott of Israel as it is currently framed is both internally flawed and incapable of achieving its goal. Most of my colleagues in Middle East anthropology disagree. That does not represent a problem. Anyone should be free to engage in and lobby for the tactics of boycott and divestment, and in seeking sanctions against Israel as a matter of moral and political obligation.

What I have criticized is the enterprise in which we are now engaged: voting on whether or not to cause the AAA as an organization to endorse the boycott. This vote is problematic not because of anyone’s judgment about the potential effectiveness of academic boycott or the motivations of its supporters or opponents, which is the mistaken claim at the center of Charles’s response. The vote is problematic because it subjects us all to the polarizing logic of ethnonationalism that we should be critiquing. Charles’s insistent attempts to find secret meanings in my essay and his strained attribution to me of political positions I do not hold with regard to Israeli and Palestinian national rights is a remarkable illustration of that process.

But beyond that, as I indicated in my essay, this vote takes place at the intersection of exaggerated local and transnational discursive fields relative to Palestine/Israel which are not under our control, fields in which “solutions” are posed, accusations made, responses demanded, and intentions policed by lobbying organizations, state governments, universities, and sometimes our colleagues themselves. In the current American political climate, AAA endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel will focus far more attention on the pointing finger than on the injustices it is intended to signal.

A more detailed response to Charles’s critique can be found at:

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.