It’s a delicate business, this boycotting. The best of people wants justice to prevail, starting anytime. Starting last week. Starting now. Good will: we could start there. But good will is a complicating business.

Boycotting a country is a bit like taking the hippocratic oath: maybe, if you withhold your little something, maybe nothing bad will happen. Or maybe it will stop happening. Or, at least, in the great merit calculator in the sky, your withholding will by an increment of one act not undertaken tip some kind of balance. And if everyone withheld their little somethings … It is a kind of blue box metric. Nobody knows if our household recycling will save us, or save some other life form, but at least we’re doing something. Or at least we can persuade ourselves that we’re doing something. Better than nothing.

It probably is better than nothing.

The moral mashup of grievance politics is complication itself. Then add a history. Add five contending histories of the same place, all those details so inconvenient to an unblinking moral high ground renter. How far back to go before the statute of limitations kicks in, before ‘this place now belongs to us because it once did’ overlaps and prolapses and collides incontrovertibly with someone else’s ‘we were here first’? Nation states aren’t honest, authentic stand ins for tribal, ancestral endurances, but they’re being shoehorned into that phantom function.

Anglo North Americans have a tangled garden of broken myths – a pile you could call ‘America’ for short – by which we adjudicate our little interventions in the troubles of the times. We didn’t invent misanthropy, nor are we the first to enthrone misanthropy as a stand in for conscience. But we’re young, by the standards of those we’d stand with if we could, and our calculations tend to be young cultures’ calculations: strident, simplifying, surface tension certainties. Stay away from those you disagree with, elevate your disagreement with anger and certainty, get everyone else to do it your way: the new conscience, the new tolerance, the new inclusivity. The weapons-grade remoteness.

Staying away from those one finds morally transgressive makes it easier to be right, or can do. That’s true. Staying home is a good thing to do, yes. Provided it is indeed your home. That’s an important detail in all of this. Home, for Anglo North Americans, is by the scorpion’s tail calculus of ‘who belongs where’ a tormented sum of misfit principles in search of absolution. Most spandex solutions are convictions in search of absolution. ‘Title’: the root word of ‘entitlement’. Laying claim to a place in order to avoid transgression of another place: that’s a hard row to hoe.

Sometimes you stand in the crucible of your convictions, sometimes in the shadow of them, sometimes in the ashes of them. Being right is a winning streak. It isn’t an identity, it doesn’t seem.

And then there’s the matter of ‘people’, as in: there are people on the other end of your boycott. A democracy is an inefficient thing. There are all kinds of opters out in a democracy, all manner of shades of compliance and noncompliance. There’s every chance that there are people on the other end of your boycott who see things your way. But a boycott is more inefficient yet. It is a blunt edged thing. These distinctions are the early casualties of a boycott. Stay away, hex or vex the bad guy states, and you’d never meet the vague allies that are working on their theocracies and their jittery democracies from the inside.

Sometimes you contend with strangers best not by dispelling their strangerhood but by learning it, respecting it as a given, as naturally occurring. One mark of a truly cultured people is how they are with strangers in their midst. Strangerhood is a chance for the very best of the etiquette of the psyche to appear. It doesn’t always go that way, but it can. No longer speaking the shorthand of kinship and familiarity and shared opinion and tribal history, we can speak the complicated, prone-to-mistranslation longhand of standing on ceremony. Which is pretty hard to do when you stay away.

If on occasion you don’t stay away, you’re the occasion for the host to wonder again about some of their ways.

Sometimes you’re the stranger.

Stephen Jenkinson