Remembrance, conscience and conformity

By Jill Segger
November 1, 2014

Red, white, purple or any combination thereof. The hue of the poppy we wear should be the choice of an informed conscience. To be coerced into a symbol, for whatever reason and by whatever means, immediately invalidates its significance.

The pressures to wear a red poppy are considerable. This year, the centenary of the First World War, members of the armed forces are much in evidence in our streets and squares, promoting the British Legion Poppy Appeal and the moat full of ceramic red poppies at the Tower of London is a spectacular sight, prominent in the nation's consciousness.

To refrain from wearing the red symbol is sometimes erroneously seen as offering an insult to past and present service personnel. Wearing a white poppy may further inflame those who think in this manner. The Green Party MP Caroline Lucas wore both red and white poppies when she appeared on the BBC's Question Time this week (30 October) and my colleague Jonathan Bartley also wore a white poppy on the Sunday Morning Live programme in the previous week. The ITV news presenter Charlene White has been criticised for her decision not to wear a poppy on air. I have seen no other broadcast departures from the norm.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether this is evidence of a firm conviction, or a fear of appearing to manifest the disrespect which many are ready to impute to a conscience differently oriented. It is also worth considering how many politicians or other public figures would dare to appear in the public eye with an empty or alternatively adorned lapel. However, the number of people who have asked me either the meaning of the white poppy or where they might obtain one, does indicate that there is a small but significant shift away from the convention which, in 2010, Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow described as “poppy fascism.”

For me, the red poppy is closely aligned with a military-oriented model of remembrance. Others will find no problem with this and I respect their conscientiously held opinion. But the British Legion's 2014 campaign slogan of LIVE ON as a “ simple and memorable way to link our twin commitments to the memory of the fallen and the future of the living” does not, for many people, seem an entirely adequate response to the horror and the pity of war.

Sixteen million human beings died in the 1914-18 war of whom 7 million were civilians. A further 6 million were listed as missing, presumed dead. The 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' installation at the Tower may be a powerful visual reminder of the almost 900,000 British military fatalities, but in focusing only on these, it reinforces the very nationalism which was the cause of those four years of slaughter.

If we would remember well, we need to approach the catastrophe which is war with humility and repentance. How are we to learn not to kill? How may we best step back a little from the conventions which entrap us in static and well practised emotion but offer no challenges for a transformed future? What part, however small, may each one of play in mapping out a new way?

Advices and Queries, a small book of challenge and discipline dear to Quakers, reminds us: “Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions.” So whatever your poppy choice, let it be an outer sign of your conscience and not the semiology of unexamined conformity.

* More on remembrance from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/remembrance

------

© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.