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Cultural boycotts are ineffective and wrong

25 July 2014

12:57 PM

25 July 2014

12:57 PM

Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead has been at it again. Two years ago she was petitioning against a dance company from Tel Aviv, this year it’s an Israeli theatre company that’s set to play the Edinburgh Fringe. Both companies are ‘guilty’ of being in receipt of state funding. So, we have another letter and another long list of high-profile signatories calling for boycott. However, we all know – as Lochhead must know – that a boycott won’t, of course, happen (it’s about being seen to take a ‘principled stand’, d’oh).

The nature of Incubator Theatre’s production is irrelevant – I gather it’s some ‘film noir-type hip-hop musical’. Suffice to say it’s not a political work, but circumstances have inevitably rendered it a political hot potato. More than 50 cultural figures have joined Lochhead in protest, with one, theatre critic Mark Brown, saying that the company have nothing on their website opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. This, he feels, makes them complicit.

That, and the fact that they are partly funded by the Israeli ministry of culture. As it happens, the company are also in receipt of funding from the Beracha Foundation, which seeks to promote Jewish-Palestinian co-existence as one of its stated aims. In other words, Incubator are like every arts company the world over in trying to get by on whatever funding is available.

That said, there is a tide of blood rising amid the rubble of Gaza. And this is a difficult post to write, because I do feel some emotional tug towards the call to boycott (to ‘do something’). Palestinians are being discriminated against in so many humiliating ways. The basic right of freedom of movement is denied, and now they are being killed in their hundreds. What is to be done? Something, for sure, but not this.

There are various writers I’ve read over the years, including persuasive campaigners like Naomi Klein, who support BDS (which sounds like a sexual practice but actually stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and it’s specifically targeted at Israel). When asked why they don’t target worse regimes that don’t even pretend to be democracies, they say that targeting Israel is about employing a practical tactic that might work in a particular situation, in the same way that it eventually worked in South Africa (which is the model they always cite).

Why ‘yes’ in this instance and ‘no’ in other instance, I’ll leave you to ponder yourself, but I will, and can say this about cultural boycotts generally: on balance, no. Free speech and free expression are not practical tactics, but abiding principles. Please don’t compromise them by denying artists, thinkers and academics – or anyone – the freedoms you enjoy. You do know two wrongs don’t make a right, don’t you?

Let’s not forget that cultural boycotts are usually an ineffective posture. An ineffective posture that comes at a high cost for the individuals caught in the middle. In other words it’s a very blunt instrument. Isn’t it the case that the blanket cultural boycotts targeting South Africa ended up trying to shut up artists and musicians that the boycotts were meant to help?

It’s easy to condemn white musicians who played lucrative concerts to white audiences in Sun City (and I do; they’re complete arseholes – that’s you, Queen, and you, Elton John). But what about the black musicians who played and recorded with Paul Simon when he broke the blanket UN boycott and defied the ANC? Listen to those black musicians. None of them were in favour of voluntarily shutting themselves away, or of giving up the chance to record Graceland, or of having lucrative careers outside South Africa as a result – as Ladysmith Black Mambazo did. Artists, Simon has said, should never be the tools of politicians, merely to do their bidding.

With Lochhead, what sounds well-meaning really isn’t. Here is a writer condemning other writers and artists to silence. But then sections of the Left have never lost sleep sacrificing individuals for some greater cause, as long as they’re not casualties themselves. If you were truly liberal you would think twice. And when you see artists and writers protest against fellow artists whose countries they disapprove of when they themselves take funding from their own governments whose domestic and foreign policies they, too, often reject and attack, it simply doesn’t feel right.

I’m not against economic sanctions. And I’m not against directing one’s ire towards governments. How many of us would be? But the arts, generally, elevate the notion of the individual in society. The free exchange of ideas among individuals must never be a casualty. In the end, even if we feel conflicted, we must uphold that abiding principle. It’s precious. It’s a basic human right.

Fisun Güner is the visual arts editor of The Arts Desk

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