The Civil Society Review editor, Bertie Harrison-Broninski, takes us through the moral dilemmas of poppy-wearing.
In Britain, it is commonplace to wear a red poppy in November as an act of war ‘remembrance’. Some, however, object to the Poppy Appeal and The British Legion, believing their messaging to be overly jingoistic. Many believe these organisations implicitly support war as righteous, rather than treating it as avoidable tragedy. Some choose to wear a white rather than red poppy, to symbolise an internationalist form of remembrance that is committed to peace.
People have asked me why I wear a white poppy: the truth is that I’ve found that a little harder to answer this year, despite the above.
It’s been a year in which I, like many others, have been deeply inspired by the protests around the world for democracy, human rights, self-determination, the environment, and the abolition of prejudicial institutions and systems.
I’ve witnessed how the language of pacifism becomes easily weaponised by reactionaries to suppress such movements; critics of Black Lives Matter and the Hong Kong protests, for example, have used the rhetoric of nonviolence to whitewash their opposition to activists’ demands. Despite studies demonstrating the American BLM protests were largely nonviolent, Republicans have continued to use this line to denounce them.
There are colonial overtones to this. Historically, Christian and Quaker missionaries in British colonies often verbally condemned British violence against indigenous peoples, while still viewing their own religion as a means to ‘pacify’ supposedly aggressive native populations. In doing so, they continued to benefit from and exploit British violence while harming cultures and people that were foreign to them. The intersecting histories of Christianity and imperialism have normalised the idea of pacifism as hypocritical, condescending, a means of keeping people in line, while stigmatising it as a principled opposition to militarism.
The history of the white poppy in England is mired in similar discussions. The British No More War Movement, which first proposed a white poppy for peace, collapsed in the 1930s after it refused to support leftists in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascist General Franco. After communists and anarchists left the movement, what was left of it merged into The Peace Pledge Union, who produce white poppies today.
The Peace Pledge Union has historic ties to Anglicanism, and has remained fairly Anglocentric despite its stated disdain for treating veterans or war victims of one country as different to another. The absolutist pacifism shown towards the fascists in Spain in the ‘30s continued as the PPU attracted further criticism for supporting appeasement towards Hitler.
This stuff is complicated: the PPU did admirable work supporting refugees and conscientious objectors during these wars. Their criticism of British bombing in Germany speaks to a clear moral truth: German civilians, including children, did not deserve to be slaughtered from above, caught in the cross-fire of a conflict between higher powers.
Yet George Orwell raised an interesting point in his famous denunciation of the PPU and other pacifist movements in 1941:
Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively, the pacifist is pro-Nazi.‘Adelphi’, October 1941
We cannot hold everyone to the same standards: context matters. It would be totally inappropriate for an English protestant to judge Jews in Nazi Germany for enacting violence against their oppressors. Though perhaps less extreme, Orwell’s statement rings true for critics of Black Lives Matter who denounce the protests on the basis of occasional violence. You cannot maintain a moral high ground through lofty rhetoric of nonviolence (especially if you are white), you are simply siding with white supremacy.
So what does this mean for conscientious Brits today, who want to partake in remembrance while dodging these moral hurdles? This question has dashed through my mind when people have asked about my white poppy wearing this month.
For those who believe that Britain grossly under-remembers our own history of state violence, warmongering and colonialism, not wearing a poppy at all feels like a cop-out. Wearing poppies incites conversations about our history and our political behaviours, conversations that the cultural left is rightly pushing for the public to engage in more often.
Too often however, the red poppy seems to support the censorship of these conversations: a seeming statement of support for the actions of our government. This becomes problematic in a contemporary as well as historical context too: Britain is still heavily implicated in global arms dealing, and supportive of nuclear proliferation.
The solution must be a cultural rebranding of anti-war thinking away from Anglo-Christian pacifist idealism, and towards a commitment to justice. The central notion must be that people fighting for their own lives or human rights are opposing violence, and that people with more privilege are not in a position to play moral judge and jury. To condemn people fighting persecution is to engage in that persecution: we must understand that just like colonial missionaries, supposed pacifism can be an act of violence, culturally and materially. We have to stop equating state militarism with protest or even revolution: they are clearly very different.
I don’t know whether it would be possible to rebrand the white poppy so that people associate it with these views, even if the Peace Pledge Union wanted to. Perhaps English radicals need yet another colour of poppy. Until then however, I will tell people that I wear a white poppy not just as an act of protest: but also as an act of solidarity with protest, all around the world.
Bertie Harrison-Broninski is the general editor of The Civil Society Review, and a trustee for Oxford Omnia. He also edits Freezine, and is studying for an MA in Investigative Journalism at City, University of London. Follow him on twitter here.