This post last week by NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni didn’t get a lot of traction, but it caught my attention because it illustrates an approach to protest that is fairly widespread.
Bruni describes a campaign/fashion line by Alexander Wang, Principle 6, which refers to Principle 6 of the Olympics charter:
Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race,
religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic
Olympics participants/spectators are to buy clothing with a “P6” graphic as a visible reference to this principle. According to Bruni, this is a way “to get spectators and athletes in Sochi to register their opposition to outrageously repressive, regressive anti-gay laws in Russia without running afoul of one of them.”
Bruni supports this campaign, in other words, because it offers a way for people to “register opposition” without running the risk of being fined or arrested for violating the law they want to protest, which is what could happen were they to wear rainbows or some more obvious pro-LGBT sign.
(We’ll set aside for a moment how unlikely it is that masses of foreign spectators would be ejected from the stadium and thrown in jail for wearing rainbows. To me it seems much more likely that, rather than risk international opprobrium while in the media spotlight, the Russian government would just carefully remove footage of rainbows from its domestic broadcast and call it a day.)
In other words, the entire logic of the campaign hinges on the assumption that its chosen iconography is unintelligible enough to the average Russian (police, security officials, people on the street) that it will pose no risk whatsoever for people to wear it. In which case, what influence could it possibly have?
It’s understandable that many people have sympathetic feelings about LGBT rights in Russia. (Obviously I’m one of them!) One wants to help but most likely doesn’t want to risk health and personal freedom. This is absolutely normal. This is one reason why most people aren’t protesters and activists. Risk is scary, and each of us has to decide on our own how much and what kind of risk we are willing or able to take on to support a given cause.
So Bruni suggests the best idea for supporting LGBT folks in Russia is buying unintelligible designer clothing and donating a tiny percentage of the profits to LGBT organizations (and let’s not forget that receiving foreign funding is also suspect under current Russian law, so the campaign actually poses a small amount of risk to them*). But if avoidance of risk is the main advantage your political tactic has to offer, I’m going to be a little skeptical about how seriously you’ve thought through the issue. If your campaign’s primary goal is to be unthreatening, it seems awfully unlikely that it will have any impact whatsoever on the repressive government it’s supposed to be pressuring. Buying one’s way to a clean, righteous conscience is popular and easy for anyone with some cash on hand. But let’s not pretend it’s a form of protest.
*By all means, donate to LGBT groups. Many of them happily accept foreign donations and are putting the money to good use! But maybe instead of a $125 beanie, some portion of the proceeds of which will eventually get sent abroad, you could just…send them $125?