Boycotts

Aug. 15th, 2013 01:29 am
ajva: (bmovie)
[personal profile] ajva
I had a really interesting exchange with Lauren Close today on Marcus's Facebook page. Marcus had posted the link to this wonderful thing on Americablog about the New York Times' report on November 6, 1935 that "German Chancellor Adolf Hitler promised International Olympic Committee (IOC) chairman Count Henry Baillet-Latour that he would take down anti-Jewish signs during the two week period of the Berlin Olympics of 1936." The NYT at the time added that IOC chair Baillet-Latour was “well satisfied” with Hitler’s assurances to temporarily pause his campaign of hate against Germany’s Jewish minority.

This is being highlighted as a very close parallel (as indeed it is - strikingly so) with Russia having brought in its own particularly brutal Section 28 equivalent and the international outrage this has prompted in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics next year, and the IOC's somewhat weak reassurances about having received equally dubious reassurances from the Russian government that the new laws won't apply during the Olympics for visitors.

Lauren made her point that she thought a boycott worthwhile, I argued against it rather forcefully, to the point where she seemed to worry that I might soon explode. If you're reading this, Lauren: don't worry. I'm happy to agree to differ as you suggested, and although I feel strongly about this you were not provoking me at all unfairly. I thought you made your case with mindfulness and respect and I enjoyed the exchange. I hope you didn't feel as if you'd had your head bitten off - I can only apologize if that's how I came across, which it may well have been. It was not my intention. :o)

So on my LJ tonight I'd like to explore this issue a little further. My basic position is that a boycott of the Olympics will not add anything of merit to the cause, but it will cause blameless athletes to suffer the loss of one of the few towering opportunities available to them in their relatively short-lived careers to distinguish themselves in their respective disciplines. The main beneficial thrust of protest happens in the initial objection to the horrendous anti-gay policies that have just been introduced in Russia: sure, let's get angry in our media and online spaces; let's make angry complaints to the IOC and put pressure on them. But a boycott adds very little on top. The Olympics will still happen, and if some countries were to stage a boycott it just means the pool of competing athletes would be a bit smaller. Importantly, I think that even in the unlikely event of a massive (or perhaps more likely, a bit smaller) boycott happening, it would only serve to entrench the anti-gay rights positions of those in Russia who hold such views, so pissed off would they be by what in their view would look like anti-Russian sentiment. And they'd get even more defensive.

Don't forget that there remains to this day a very large nationalistic Russian constituency that perceives its country to be a strong if sleeping bear, and so it will become dangerous if the issue of gay rights comes to be seen mainly as a foreigner's imposition - which I don't think it is quite yet (certainly not as it surely is somewhere like, say, Saudi Arabia, which is a whole different kettle of fish - so let's not push that idea too much into the consciousness of the Russian public at large): gay rights in Russia have to be won by the gay community in Russia, or they won't be sustainable. Maybe we can support it from the outside, but we can't effectively make it happen unilaterally (or at least have it perceived to be such). In trying to, we could provoke a dangerous backlash that will be more harmful than helpful. That might sound like appeasement, but there's a basic truth there, I think, that means we have to be careful. At the very least, we must tread much more carefully than Lauren on my "strongly-held beliefs". ;o)

In terms of the story of the Berlin 1936 Olympics, direct comparisons are difficult because it was a very different era. We're talking about a time when "foreign policy" was, to most people, just that: something left to the politicians, something outside of the common person's experience, and upon which they could have no influence, even should they have wanted to. Unless they decided, for example, to take up arms themselves in a foreign country, as happened, for example, during the Spanish Civil War. This easy international activist culture we experience so freely, so dear to our hearts these days, is very much a product of our 21st-Century well-connected world, and is a relatively recent development. Let's not forget that the very idea of universal human rights as something that can be realistically implemented is a post-war one: in modern terms it derives from 1948, which is when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris at the UN General Assembly of that year.

Don't get me wrong: boycotts can be powerful - because they can be effective. Most effective, perhaps, in a situation like boycotting the products of a company taking a position with which we disagree. If the company is small enough, its bottom line will be hit by an organized group of people refusing to buy its products, and it will be forced by the resulting financial pressure to sit up, take notice, and change its position. Another situation where boycotts can be effective is in raising awareness of an issue, if ultimately that leads to an egregious situation being exposed, and resulting public pressure rendering a previously held position untenable. Often, a mixture of these two effects can also work well to achieve a good result.

But that's not the situation here. As much as we'd like to, I don't think we can be effective in changing the anti-gay atmosphere in Russia just with a boycott. It would be an accurate reflection of our displeasure, but it would simply mean that lots of individual athletes suffer for no good political return.

In a way, I think we've been spoiled a bit in the UK and in other similar countries by experiencing an extraordinary liberalization of attitudes towards gay rights in a relatively tiny amount of time. Our experience is unusual. I mean, I'm not even 40 yet, but in my lifetime I've seen the general perception of homosexuality in the population at large move from very negative to the point where we routinely have civil partnerships announced as a matter of course in that bastion of the British establishment, the Times newspaper. In 1990, OutRage! was formed, their first action being on 7th June of that year at Hyde Park Public Toilets to protest against Metropolitan Police entrapment of gay men cruising. Only 15 years later, Captain Jack Harkness - an openly bisexual swashbuckling hero - made his first appearance on British TV, during peak-time family viewing, and nobody batted an eyelid. Sometimes I think we forget how astonishing the speed of that change was, maybe partly because to most of us, it represented quite a big proportion of our own lives' timespans so far. As I said on Marcus's FB page, gay rights polarizes world opinion like perhaps no other issue of our day. We want to make it happen as fast for everyone, but we can't - it has to come from them. Let's give all the support we can, but we could ruin things for the local activists if we try to force other countries' hands too fast.

Of course, I fully expect you all to provide me with links to Russian gay activists supporting a boycott. In fact, I hope so! Prove to me I'm totally misguided, and I'll be right in there with you.

Over and out. xxx

Date: 2013-08-15 10:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thekumquat.livejournal.com
I don't know much about effectiveness etc of political boycotts, but I've read a fair bit about large retailers and how they respond to boycotts and other forms of pressure (Nestle, McDonalds etc). Apparently the main value of a boycott in pressure terms is the publicity that goes with it, as the boycott itself is rarely significant enough to effect the bottom line, but if it leads to news items, or media not taking their ads, it counteracts their advertising, has therefore a significant cost, and is more effective. Most effective of all are threats of legislation if voluntary changes aren't made (hence all those Industry Codes of Practice), and receiving well-argued letters cc'd to MPs is therefore taken most seriously.

So sending a letter is likely to be more effective than a boycott on an individual purchasing level, but trying to get both a government and a society to change its values is rather different. And in this case, it's people asking the athletes to forego the greatest moments of their career - it might make more sense if it were spectators boycotting the event. Which is a similar issue to whether tourism to dodgy-regime nations is good or bad - the populace may want the economic and social benefits of tourism, or they may want tourists to stay away as their presence is seen to condone the regime (and probably the populations disagree with each other), and IIRC it varies from country to country. But given Amnesty's successes simply from getting people to write to embassies and ministers, maybe letter-writing is more effective than boycotts here too? Though if the majority of the population actually support the government, it's a lot harder - and I'm pretty sure we're never going to go to war with Russia.

Date: 2013-08-15 04:03 pm (UTC)
adjectivegail: (Tienanmen oppression resistance)
From: [personal profile] adjectivegail
What I'm finding interesting is that I've read several articles for and against "boycotting" the Sochi Olympics and I don't think I've seen a single one explain what they actually mean by that word, and what they think it would achieve, and why they think it should/should not happen. Do they mean literally no one should turn up, no athletes, no coaches, no athletes' families, no media presence, no fans/spectators, no sponsors? Obviously, that's not going to happen. So, what then? At what point would the number of people, from any one or more groups, staying away from Sochi, constitute a boycott? And what if all the spectators stayed home but just tuned in from home - is that still a boycott? What if they travelled to Sochi but refused to buy anything from any of the Olympic sponsors? And so on and so forth.

Other things missing from this conversation (not just here, I mean I'm failing to find any in-depth, meaningful exploration of these points in online media at all):

- what would LGBT+ Russians like the rest of the world to do to support them? Do they actually think that a boycott of the Sochi Olympics would be useful to them in their current plight?

- what would out LGBT+ athletes who are expected/ing to compete at Sochi, and their coaches and their families, like us to do? Do they feel safe attending the Sochi Olympics? All the assurances about their safety at the Games hinges on them not doing anything that might be construed as promoting homosexuality in front of minors - which means for example not being able to hug or kiss their same-sex partner, or even hold hands with them I bet if they're already out about being non-heterosexual. For that matter, if they're known to be out as LGBT+ even if they did refrain from wearing a rainbow pin (such as the ones distributed at London 2012) or holding hands with a person of the same sex as themselves, can they be sure that this will be enough to keep them safe from a beating or worse? Even in the Olympic village?

All conversations about boycotts and writing letters and pouring Russian vodka down the drain completely misses the point that these are still privileged groups deciding for themselves what they think the best course of action would be to help the poor, oppressed minorities. Now admittedly I'm a bit fuzzy on how exactly to ask every single LGBT+ (out and closeted) in Russia what they'd like us to do on their behalf, so maybe some degree of guesswork and "some action is better than none" is inevitable. But this really shouldn't be about us, or Stephen Fry, or George Takei, or Dan Savage, or anyone else outside of Russia and how outraged we are. To a certain extent I resent how all of this has come to be about what WE think. Not what LGBT+ Russians think about all this. There are LGBT groups, organisations, charities, in Russia, including at least one I've heard of recently whose mission is to provide legal aid and who are therefore now themselves likely going to be going to court about their activities. They would have a much better idea about how a boycott of the Russian Olympics, or of Russian goods, or whatever, might or might not actually and materially and measurably improve the lives of LGBT+ people in Russia, today - this week, this month, this year.

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