Jay Menard, a regular commentator on London issues and ideas, posted what I thought was an important blog on Sochi and flying the rainbow flag at City Hall. Jay’s points, of which there are many, can be read here. and I ask that you please read his whole post before reading my response.
I believe 100% that Jay is authentic in his statement that he is not a homophobe nor does he hold any prejudice against anyone in the LGBT community. I also completely believe that he is not only tolerant and accepting but teaches that tolerance and acceptance to his children. Something we should ,and can, all aspire too.
But there are a number of things with Jays post that I’d like to use to stretch my understanding by challenging some of his ideas. Jay points out that “I have a few concerns, starting with the fact that we are politicking the Olympics and forcing our athletes, for whom this has been the pinnacle of their athletic lives, to subjugate their accomplishments to a narrative in which they may want no part.”. On the surface this may seem like a reasonable point but we cannot escape the fact that the Olympics are inherently political by the very fact the athletes wear the colours of, and compete on behalf of, the countries they represent. Countries begin and continue as political entities in a political world for good or ill and we cannot escape the fact that when we cheer our hockey team over others we are cheering for us over them. It is a political and national act that is better than us vs.them across a battlefield.
Also the idea that athletes “subjugate their accomplishments to a narrative in which they may want no part.” is also an interesting one. Using this logic then do athletes, by wearing the colours of Canada, subjugate themselves to the shames of our past, such as the way we treated and still treat our first nations, as well as the current argument in Quebec around religious symbols being worn by government workers? Aren’t our athletes, by wearing our colours, supporting our abandonment of the Rio agreements? I’m not quite so sure it’s as clear cut as Jay argues. An athlete, by wearing our colours represents, whether they want to or not, everything that our countries flag and colours represent good and bad and they understand that, or should, when they put on the uniform.
Jay goes on to challenge us with “I question where are the cries to fly Chechen or Georgian flags in support of the atrocities and violence propagated against those nationalities by Russia? Where is the call to support the itinerant workers who have been abused in the name of ensuring these Games went off on time? Where is the empathy for the native Sochi residents who are now displaced and homeless?”. Some important ideas here but there may be an important one that Jay may be missing. Jay is right, we should be aware of these other issues at home and abroad, but I’m not sure I understand that by flying a flag on one issue we are diminishing others? If by wearing a green mental health ribbon am I excluding breast cancer or remembrance day? Does choosing to support an issue necessarily mean that I don’t support others? Are we being exclusionary when we fly a Canadian Flag or the flags of the provinces or territories because someone may come from another country? I’m not sure that’s the case and don’t agree that by supporting one issue, in the face of obvious prejudice in the country that is hosting the games, that we forget or exclude other issues that are also important. One only eclipses the other if we allow it to do so.
Further in the post Jay goes on to say “And when the Olympic torch is extinguished, do we take down the flag? On February 23rd, will tolerance and love be reinstated in Russia? Is our protest tied only to the Olympics or do we continue to protest until understanding and compassion are the norm? Is this opportunism and show or is it a deep-rooted, ongoing battle?” and also “ Or maybe I’ve seen too much symbolism turning into slacktivism. It’s easy to stick a ribbon on our lapel, attach an image to our Twitter avatar, or fly a flag and feel like we’re doing something. And if flying a rainbow flag in City Hall’s backyard is going to make some people feel they’ve made a difference, then more power to them. As I said, I’m not going to be offended by it.” . I wonder though if we don’t often, or always, start our tolerance and understanding at a surface level and deepen it through a broader acceptance of how people live, love, and grow. Is calling someones support “slacktivism” perhaps an easy way to dismiss the beginning of a broader acceptance? After all if enough slacktivists display enough twibbons ,pins, or ribbons then maybe there wont be any room for bigots left to spread their hatred. Perhaps i’m being a bit idealistic but it’s easy to dismiss some people as only being surface deep while pointing out the things we may have done for the cause. I worry that in doing so we do ourselves and our community a disservice by turning some off who may be just getting started.
Jay goes further and says something I believe in and agree with at a fundamental level. “I prefer to live a concrete example of love, compassion, and respect in reality. Every day.”. Amen brother Jay, amen. I love symbols and believe in them. I believe in the symbol of the maple leaf on red and white not only as a symbol of where we have been but where we aspire to be. I believe in the symbols of pink and green ribbons as symbolic of the suffering and perseverance of some over adversity many of us will never face. I also believe in the rainbow flag, not only as a political statement, but as a rallying cry for the world Jay teaches his children to build. A world of tolerance, love, and understanding. Those are words and symbols I’m proud to see associated with my cities seat of government and with my countries athletes competing in another country that struggles with these ideals. So fly the rainbow flag and raise it at home and wherever we go because by doing so we, at the surface or deep down, say something not only about our own capacity for love and tolerance but maybe provide a light for those , in London or Sochi, they may not have that right now.