Pilloried for not wearing a poppy – the nasty case of Charlene White

Illustration from the Arnold Bennett story, "The White Feather", published in Colliers' Magazine, August 1914
Illustration from the Arnold Bennett story, “The White Feather”, published in Colliers’ Magazine, August 1914

The racist abuse hurled at Charlene White, an ITV news presenter, for choosing not to wear a poppy on air is symptomatic of a worrying trend in contemporary society – the privileging of symbolic gesture over substance.

...or else?
…or else?

As White points out, the poppy is just one (albeit the most iconic) of an increasing number of solidarity tokens with the downtrodden and unfortunate: “I wear a red ribbon at the start of December for World Aids Day, a pink ribbon in October during breast cancer awareness month, a badge in April during Bowel Cancer Awareness month, and yes – a poppy on Armistice Day.” She goes on to argue that in her view, wearing any such symbol on-air compromises her professional neutrality as a news reader. It’s an excellent point and in fact I feel it would be desirable if there was actually a ban on people in public roles where impartiality is desirable wearing any of these symbolic objects.

I don’t say this as a leftie with some grudge against the military. My father was an RAF officer and I support the professionalism of those in the armed forces and the ongoing work of the Royal British Legion. I regularly wear a poppy and attend Cenotaph memorial ceremonies. But every year the social pressure to wear one ratchets up, until this year we had Google pilloried publicly because their poppy was not deemed big enough, and a film crew castigated for daring to film on Remembrance Sunday. While the poppy, with its patriotic and military associations, has generally been favoured by the Right, those at the opposite end of the political spectrum can be equally dogmatic about being seen to support their own favoured causes. Anyone declining to participate finds themselves not so much criticised as bullied into compliance, and their protests that they prefer to choose which worthy causes to support, and keep such decisions private, only provoke escalating, vicious criticism.

But wearing a token is the cheap and easy face of activism. Many, probably most, of those who do so are sincere in their commitment. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to feel you’ve done your bit by putting a banner on your homepage and wearing a wristband. By privileging such superficial gestures over thoughtful, sacrificial activism, we cheapen them until they become meaningless. And we have now reached the absurd and tragic point where people declining to wear a poppy commemorating those who died in the First World War are treated very similarly to those who were handed white feathers in the street to shame them into joining up.

Frankly, I’d prefer to see the poppy scrapped altogether than have it traduced in this way, and I suspect many veterans of both world wars would agree with me. A gesture of support that hasn’t been freely given is an empty gift to receive. One that inverts the values that veterans fought and died for is even worse. It is an obscene parody of the original impulse to learn and remember.

The increasing glorification of the military is also a disturbing trend. It is often associated with the growing power of authoritarian regimes, and with the approaching anniversary of 1914 it seems likely to escalate. It’s worth remembering that violence and sentimentality are more closely linked than we might like to believe. The man who beats his wife one night is often the one crying into his beer the next about how he just lost control because he loves her so much. Both ratchet up the emotional tension and make a reasoned response far more difficult.

The armed forces do a difficult, messy job with dedication, professionalism and great personal sacrifice, for what they at least perceive in most cases to be the good of humanity in general (I realise that is in itself a highly contentious statement but that’s another argument). However, the same could be said of police officers, humanitarian ambassadors, social workers in child protection, fearless news reporters and even some frontline hospital staff. Are we to reward them with an untouchable symbol of solidarity as well? In many case the absolute opposite is the case – we vilify and persecute them mercilessly and publicly whenever things go wrong.

The solution is not necessarily to stop wearing poppies, but to do so with humility and thoughtfulness. We are often reminded that people died to preserve our freedoms. That has to include an element of conscience and choice in our political statements. If we say that poppies are not political, we’re deluding ourselves. As soon as someone can be called a “black c__t” for not doing something another person thinks they should have, we’re dealing with politics.

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