Boycotts


When I was a member of Memorial University’s newspaper The Muse there was one annual meeting I learned to dread. So much so that in later years when my friend Seamus and I were editors (I believe, though it could have been the folks who came after us, my memory gets hazy for many reasons), the newspaper abolished that meeting for good or for ill. I talk of course about the infamous student newspaper “Boycott List”. If you were ever a part of a Canadian University Press newspaper in the eighties and early nineties, you would know exactly what I’m talking about.

We were all idealistic students and we wanted to make a change in the world, and frankly what better vehicle to promote such change but by boycotting products, governments, companies etc. which were doing bad things. The arguments for who ended up on this list would drag and if my memory serves correctly, this meeting would be quite heated.

The question you should ask is whether these boycotts from a small student newspaper worked. After all there were many folks on this boycott list that would not be caught dead advertising with a student newspaper.  I am sure that Shell and other companies of their ilk were shaking in their boots that they might end up on our lists.

I do not believe anyone of us had any notion that our small printed vehicle was about to change the nature of freedom in China. However, we wanted to make a statement, we wanted to say something to the world and speak out on the evils that surround us, and we wanted to infect the student body with these same thoughts.

The reality is that boycotts and boycott lists have never been as successful as we want them to be. Many western countries, for example, boycott the Burmese government and supports a free and democratic Burma. Yet over the years very little has changed. If anything, one might argue, the Burmese government leaders have thrived at the expense of their oppressed people.

However, everyone points to the case of removing Apartheid as a situation where boycotts did work. Like with Burma, I remember thinking that that was a situation that would probably not be ended in my lifetime. But it did and the world has moved on.

So now we come to China’s hosting of the Olympic Games and boycotts are front and centre again. Do we boycott the Olympic games? Do we show China that the rest of the world does not like its record in Tibet or other human rights abuses?

This all raises so many questions, are the Olympics more about the politics or about the athletes? What about the athletes themselves who have dreamed from childhood about entering the Summer Games with their country to the adoration of the crowds, their families, their countries and their peers? Is it right that we place sports and competition above the real pain of humanity? Indeed, what about the marketing and commercial machine that we call the Olympic Games in the first place? Are we perhaps persecuting China? All the countries in the world have skeletons in their closet and we’ve let most of them host the Olympics, is this new level of protest a bit too much?

While I did not believe in boycott lists for The Muse at the time, I do believe in the original reason for why they existed. I believe that journalists and media above all have the responsibility of bring forward ideas, thoughts, information that i counter to popular discussion. Whether the boycott for the Olympics is a good idea or not (and maybe I’ll explore that a bit further on this blog at a later date) the amazing amount of publicity given to the plight of the Tibetan people, China’s support of Darfur and more can never be taken back. We will be heading for a summer of Olympic discontent, but the people of China now know in no uncertain terms that the eyes of the world are indeed watching and not necessarily on the beauty of their facilities. They are quite aware that their actions do carry weight throughout the world.

I once thought Apartheid would be an institution that would live into the 21st century. I now believe that change for good is something for which we as humanity all strive. The problem is that our belief in what is “good” is so disparate at times. However, when all in a country realize the evilness that might be apparent, change will happen.

Now back to the boycott lists at The Muse. Did they actually do any good? Please remember I am now looking back at all this with the imperfect lens of human memory. Those lists created a lot of bad blood. Many wanted journalists to be impartial and we were being preachy. However, now, a decade later, I attribute those boycott lists to how I view the world, the way I question the motives of governments and companies and the way I choose to allow my money to participate in the free-market economy.

So yes, I think the boycott lists worked for me, whether any of the student body picked up on it, well, that I have no clue about, but I do doubt it and I think in that sense, the boycott lists failed.

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