From Sochi to "Blurred Lines": Why Boycotts Are Bullshit

Like most thinking people, I have a complicated relationship with Robin Thicke's racy summer anthem Blurred Lines. Love that bassline. Hey-hey-hate the lyrics and video.

But I won't stop listening to it. And neither should you.

The problem with boycotts is they can often have the reverse of the intended effect. Yet with demands to boycott everything from the Sochi Olympics to the novel Ender's Game to the entire state of Florida after the George Zimmerman verdict, people continue to insist abstention is a prescription for change.

Boycotts can certainly be powerful. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in the '50s reversed racial segregation on public transportation in the city. The United Farmers' Workers' grape boycott in the late '60s revolutionized conditions for migrant workers. But saying you plan to effect change with your boycott is kind of like saying you're moving to Hollywood to become famous. Only your mother will believe you. And she will likely be disappointed.

The above boycotts worked in part because they had enough mass to disrupt a system (40,000 African-Americans refused to take public transit on day 1 of the bus boycott). Without the numbers, boycotts are usually a bunch of individuals patting themselves on the back for avoiding a Walmart or turning off a song ("No, Robin! I do not want IT") while the rest of the world carries on in ignorance.

I'm not suggesting women should put on some tan panties and accept that in 2013 the most popular song in North America makes a '50s housewife seem empowered (at least they had aprons!). The most effective advocates engage with something, rather than back away, and use their opponents' tools to beat them at their own game.

Last week three university students in New Zealand released a parody video of Blurred Lines. In Defined Lines, the clothed women objectify men wearing white skivvies by shoving money down their pants and serving them cake on the floor while singing lyrics such as "You want a box gap?/Show me your six-pack/Want a landing strip?/You better get ripped." The video is powerful because it uses Thicke's own formula and platform to subvert his message. While it's easy to tune out lectures on female objectification, it's hard to ignore the visceral strangeness of seeing clothed women grope men in underwear, while the reverse barely elicits a blink.

The song's catchy tune should be seen as a gift to activists everywhere. In Halifax, a rewritten version titled Ask First has replaced Blurred Lines on dancefloors. According to Katie McKay, who appears in the video, DJs play the "remix" at clubs and people belt out the lyrics ("Ask first/consent is sexy/shows you respect me") in probably the only example of activism being cool on a Friday night.

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Similarly, while activists have called for athletes to boycott the Sochi Olympics in protest against Russia's new anti-gay laws, the louder option is to go, compete and stage protests that are impossible to ignore. Because unless the majority of countries stay home, which they won't, athletes' boycotting the Olympics will give Russia exactly what it wants: a smooth event the most passionate voices cannot interrupt from overseas.

Indeed the protests from within have already started. At the world championships in Russia last month two Swedish athletes sported rainbow-coloured fingernails while competing, and Pride House International has called for a hand-holding campaign for athletes, coaches and spectators attending the games.

David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians told the CBC, "Imagine what would happen if they (LGBT groups or athletes) smuggled banners into one of the stadiums. What are the Russian authorities going to do, arrest people right in the middle of the Olympics?"

Nothing is more antithetical to activism than silence. Consider the backlash against a recent day-long boycott of Twitter. The campaign was a response to the rape and death threats feminist blogger Caroline Criado-Perez and her supporters received on the social media platform after she successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on the U.K.'s £10 note. But the Twitter initiative handed victory to the trolls. The lesson? If your tweets are vile enough, you can force feminists off Twitter!

Luckily, not even Criado-Perez herself agreed with the logic and tweeted: "I choose 2 #shoutback." And I'm glad some feminists stuck around. Beyond rousing a public apology from the boss of Twitter U.K. and forcing the company to include an abuse button on its latest iPhone app, they also changed the conversation. On the same day some were boycotting Twitter, the hashtag #inspiringwomen trended on the site, bombarding users with bits of female accomplishment such as "Ada Lovelace was the first computer scientist. There'd be no Twitter without her." That's a powerful message.

Activists often forget their work starts with changing people's minds. The job of an advocate is to make his or her message impossible to ignore, which means engaging, not boycotting the enemy. I'm more likely to listen to a message about respecting women delivered over a catchy baseline than from a scowling feminist demanding I turn off a song.

*This blog originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen