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Shutting Windows: Against Cultural Boycotts

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There's a group of people you don't understand. Maybe they have different views from you, or they dress differently, or eat different foods. Maybe they live in another part of the world or have different religious beliefs. Maybe you suspect that you wouldn't like them or that they are somehow less than you. Maybe you're even afraid of them.

What's the solution to this problem? What should we do about these dreaded, feared "others"?

According to those who believe in cultural boycotting, the solution is to ignore them. Keep those people as far away from you as you can. Don't engage with them. Sure, that will solve everything.

Why attempt to get to know that which you already suspect you dislike or disagree with?

Let's analyse this with an example. People such as actresses Emma Thompson and Miriam Margoyles have recently demanded for the Globe Theatre in London to uninvite an Israeli theatre company, because they argue that including an Israeli organisation implicitly means that the Globe is "associating itself" with Israeli policy.

This is hugely problematic. For one thing, no single organisation can represent an entire nation or its policies; no groups are monolithic. So the Habima theatre company does not stand for Israel or for its government any more than the Globe stands for the UK and its government. If the Royal Shakespeare Company performs at Lincoln Center in New York, this does not mean that Lincoln Center is endorsing the UK or its government. It simply means that Lincoln Center appreciates the RSC and would like New Yorkers to have access to it. Who could argue with that?

The same, of course, is true of individuals within an organisation; a given actor in Habima may or may not believe in, say, the settlements, but keep in mind that that actor is not performing at the Globe because of those viewpoints, but rather because of his or her acting skills.

Another issue here is that if there is a problem between nations, if one group is upset with another, or if one group is ignorant of another, what better method to deal with this than knowledge?

And what is one excellent source of getting knowledge? Exchange, particularly cultural exchange.

It is in part through cultural exchange that we can learn about others. We can read literature from other countries to learn something about life there. We can make recipes from ethnic cookbooks in order to find out what another group eats and how they celebrate. We can attend performances by dance troupes or theatre companies, we can listen to music, we can study history textbooks, we can look at pictures, we can watch films or television programmes. Works of culture serve as a window, which we can look through in order to find out more about a particular person or group.

In short, we can gain access to another world, another mind, by experiencing something of their culture. We bring that person or that group closer to us in this way and we might learn that actually we have some things in common. We might learn that we were wrong to judge them the way we did. We might realise that we didn't really know what they thought or felt about a specific matter.

If we instead decide that cultural boycotting makes sense whenever we disagree with a particular group or don't like those people or their actions, then we are saying that we have no urge to learn, to gain access, to get closer. And how much have we lost then?

While one play - or one book, or one performance, or one song - cannot represent all people or all views, it does provide a window into some aspect of one group or one culture. Shutting the window serves no one.

Shutting the window leaves us sitting at home alone, by ourselves, ignorant, hating and fearing what is outside without ever daring to take a peek.

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