Reflections on Sochi: Bystanding and Boycott

Posted by Ariel Vente on August 22, 2013

When there is injustice in our world, do we stand idly by and watch it happen? When we hear stories of innocent citizens being targeted by laws meant to oppress and destroy people, do we act? When do you speak up? When should you care? Should you act when it only concerns you?

The last month, on Facebook, I’ve been bombarded with postings and petitions for nations to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. What has people up in arms is the belief that Russia has imposed some of the most extreme, oppressive laws against LGBTQ people. To clarify, according to the website

“A law was passed earlier this summer that levies a fine of up to 50,000 rubles (about $1,500 dollars) on any individuals, and up to 1 million rubles (about $30,000) on any organizations engaged in “propaganda of non-traditional relationships to minors”. Non-traditional sexual relationships were informally defined by the lawmakers as those that cannot lead to the production of offspring. What constitutes propaganda is also unclear.”

Despite the vagueness of the law, in Russia there are very public cases involving imprisonment and violence toward LGBTQ people. The stories from news agencies describe an oppressive government that has turned a blind eye when there are crimes against LGBTQ people. There are assaults and murders that are being ignored. A Russian member of parliament even had the audacity to suggest that there should be a law that allows gay people to be whipped in public. Simply disgusting and deplorable!

Should other governments respond? Absolutely. We already know what results when there is silence from governments. As a Queer identified person, am I personally invested in this issue? Absolutely.

Understandably, there is anger, controversy and passion from LGBTQ people and their allies. People are calling for a boycott of the Sochi games until these anti-gay laws are stopped, and the oppression of LGBTQ people is eliminated. There are numerous petitions making the rounds to support a boycott, and one petition even asking for the International Olympic Committee to move the Sochi games back to Vancouver, site of the 2010 Winter games.

We absolutely cannot ignore what is happening in Russia. Persecution of LGBTQ citizens needs to stop. However, one cannot call oneself an upstander, when one ignores the truth within our own nation. Dare I say, boycotts are forms of action that do not look at systemic change, but rather, these actions enable people to judge the laws of another land without reflecting on what is happening in our own backyard.

I am reminded of Pastor Neimoller’s famous poem “First They Came…” in which he regretfully speaks of not standing up against Nazi persecution because those that were persecuted (i.e. Communists, trade unionist, Jews, Catholics) were not directly connected to him. Similarly, Maurice Ogden’s poem “The Hangman” also describes a situation in which citizen stood idly by as The Hangman comes to town and executes people, without the protagonist speaking up. In both poems, at the end, there was nobody left to defend the main characters.

While what's happening in Russia is disgusting and absolutely needs to be stopped, some food for thought for those who are thinking of signing petitions...

Did you sign a petition to postpone the 2000 Sydney Olympic Summer games because of the Australian governement’s treatment of the Aborigines?

Did you sign a petition to postpone the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer games because of the Chinese government's abhorrent Human Rights record?

Did you sign a petition to postpone the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic games because of the treatment of First Nations people in Canada? As previously mentioned, one of the suggested solutions to this “Sochi issue” is to move the Olympic games back to Vancouver. Ironically, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have given failing grades to the Canadian government for the continued mistreatment of Aboriginal people. According to Amnesty International: “indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis” (Amnesty International Canada, “Matching International Commitments with National Action: A Human Rights Agenda for Canada”, 9). Now knowing this, would people still call on the IOC to move the games back to Vancouver?

Realistically, we cannot fight every single case of injustice in the world, but at the same time, we cannot ignore what’s right under our noses, particularly when these cases of oppression are so ingrained systemically. The question is: do we only sign petitions when they are relevant to us; when we personally identify with a cause? When we strive for a world of justice, do we only fight for ourselves where our focus so narrow, that we do not see the bigger picture? I would expect people to fight for my causes, to fight for me, but the expectation is for me to also take a stand for others, particularly those who have been silenced. For the consequences of not defending others is made apparent in “The Hangman”:

"And where are the others that might have stood
Side by your side in the common good?,"
"Dead," I whispered, and sadly
"Murdered," the Hangman corrected me:
"First the alien, then the Jew...
I did no more than you let me do."
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky,
None had stood so alone as I
And the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there
Cried "Stay!" for me in the empty square.

Topics: Human Rights, current events, In the news, Social Justice, LGBTQ, Personal history


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