Taking a knee, white poppies, conscience and coercion

By Jill Segger
October 21, 2017

Respect for freedom of conscience and tolerance of dissent are among the hallmarks of a good society. Voltaire wrote “To find out who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.”

There is a type of authoritarian mindset which, uneasy about accommodating difference, broadcasts its indignation and issues edicts in preference to engaging with the possibility that others may have arrived at their convictions as the fruit of the long, and often difficult, process of conscience being formed by experience.

Donald Trump has fulminated against players in the American NFL who have chosen to 'take a knee' as a respectful protest against the killings of black Americans by the police. To kneel during the National Anthem rather than standing or sitting, is deemed by the President to be an insult: “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”, he tweeted.

Framing courage and patriotism in this manner is, at the very least, questionable. Many US veterans have spoken out to make clear that this was not the ground of their service. These men and women are the survivors. How many have had their lives taken over the last century because they enlisted for complex social and economic reasons which had little to do with the agendas of armchair orators?

Here in the UK, we are approaching the season of remembrance in which a similar agenda is advanced. The wearing of a white poppy is gaining ground as an increasing number of people come to realise that this symbol is not an insult to those who have died in uniform and that it should not be taken as an affront to patriotism or integrity. However, despite it being worn by people from across the political spectrum, it has been described this year as a component of “a left wing political agenda.”

Those are the words of Richard Kemp, a former army officer who takes to the media at this time of the year– just as I do – to present a point of view. I respect his take on the wearing of red poppies although I disagree with it, because this is a mark of democracy. Any debate around difference should be conducted with civility and those taking part need to be well informed.

The symbolism of the white poppy is inclusive. It calls to remembrance all those who have been killed by wars. In doing so, it reminds us of the vast and cumulative failures of policy, diplomacy and politics which plant and water the seeds of war. The focus of the red poppy is exclusively military and its choreography manifests little of repentance for those failures which have taken the lives of so many military personnel and civilians over the last century.

In wearing the white poppy – and let it be noted that a great many people wear it alongside the red emblem – we commit ourselves to the work of peace. Part of that work is education and the Peace Pledge Union's white poppy school pack has been welcomed by teachers. But this openness to differing views and recognition of the importance of framing our response to remembrance in accordance with the informed conscience, is not a comfortable area for some. Richard Kemp has called it “indoctrination”. That it opens up a space where his view that “The red poppy, Remembrance Sunday and everything around it – these are institutions of the state and that is our tradition. It is right that schools should sell red poppies and take part in this”, may have to shed a little unexamined privilege, seems not to have occurred to him. Nor, apparently, does he see that selling white poppies does not preclude the selling of red ones. The conjunction: 'I hold correct views; you are indoctrinated' is not an approach to learning that I would wish for a child of mine.

I choose to wear a white poppy. I eschew the red not only for the reasons I have laid out above, but also because it is sponsored by arms manufacturers including BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin. I do not turn away from the work done by the Royal British Legion in supporting and caring for those maimed by war although I deplore the deficit displayed by the war-making state in this regard. Every November, I give to the work of the RBL though I no longer wear their proffered symbol which for me, is now tainted.

When symbols – whether they be flags, anthems or poppies – become idols, they lend themselves to a fearful mentality which insists that there can only be one way. This is as foolish as it is wrong. Where no law has been broken, coercion shows only a failure to convince.

Whether you choose red, white or empty lapel, whether you elect to stand, kneel or sit, may peace be with you, and may you be with peace.

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© 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.co/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.