Joan Smith: The dead we honour won our freedom to disagree

 

Share

I suppose I should by now be familiar with the phenomenon of coercive compassion. It appeared quite suddenly in 1997, when anyone who didn't express extravagant distress over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was regarded as shockingly heartless. So there is a historical parallel for the ugly hysteria that's been whipped up about Remembrance Day this year, even to the point of involving Prince William in an unseemly row about last night's football match between England and Spain.

First, some background. The red poppy has been a symbol of remembrance since shortly after the First World War, when an American teacher, Moina Belle Michael, came up with the idea of adopting it as an emblem of the war dead. It was quickly taken up by British and French ex-servicemen and has been a means of honouring the fallen, and raising money for veterans and their families, ever since. Today, with British troops fighting in Afghanistan and in the recently ended Nato campaign in Libya, its potency as a symbol has been renewed. This year, the pressure to wear one has been greater than ever.

The Duke of Cambridge, who is president of the FA, was said to be "livid" about Fifa's decision to stop members of the England team wearing poppies during last night's friendly, while David Cameron denounced it as "absurd". Fifa quickly caved in, allowing England players to wear poppies on black armbands. Even the News Corp boss, James Murdoch, took care to sport a poppy in his buttonhole when he faced MPs on Thursday for a second grilling about phone hacking.

I don't doubt many individuals wear the red poppy with pride. What I don't understand is why they want everyone else to wear one, regardless of how they feel towards war and its horrors. I'm not a pacifist, but traditional Remembrance Day ceremonies make me uncomfortable, turning the dead into two-dimensional "heroes" when I know that many died in agony, confusion and despair. Increasingly, another tradition – the wearing of white poppies – has been revived, the number of white-poppy wreath-laying ceremonies up from three last year to more than 40 in 2011. According to Bruce Scates, professor of history at Monash University in Australia, the white poppy became "an alternative way of remembering" in the 1920s. It was also a symbol of civilians who died in the First World War, marking it out from the largely military nature of official ceremonies.

This year, coercion of reluctant red-poppy wearers has been joined by an outbreak of sheer nastiness towards the few who wear white ones. On Friday, a Daily Telegraph blogger described them as "sanctimonious prats" and mocked their eccentric belief that "there are better ways of solving conflicts than killing strangers". Whether expressing such graceless opinions is an appropriate way to mark Armistice Day, it's a vivid example of the intolerance that threatens to disfigure our remembrance of young men and women who perished in almost a century of wars.

If they died in the name of freedom, that has to include the freedom to think about war, suffering and sacrifice in different ways from the majority. It's perfectly possible to honour the dead – essential, I'd say – without bullying or abusing the living. Rancorous attitudes to dissent are not the most convincing evidence I've seen of decency and compassion.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game