Poppies, Remembrance and the Need for Disruption

It’s been interesting watching the argument over whether the England football team should be allowed to wear poppies for their international matches this weekend. The international governing body of the sport, FIFA, ruled that they could not have poppies on their shirts as this contravened their guidelines.

The FA, the British body, cried foul and argued that it would be offensive to the memory of those who fought in the wars if the poppies were banned.

As it turned out, a proposal by a Tory MP that they should be allowed to wear them as an emblem stitched onto a black armband.

What’s interesting is that there’s some kind of altercation over poppy-wearing every year. A figure appears on TV not wearing one. A newsreader says they won’t be forced to and calls it ‘poppy fascism.’

Thinking it about it today, it struck me that in some ways these transgressions are actually required for the act of remembrance to be performed properly.

Poppy-wearing has become meaningful only in its disruption. It is only in arguments about the violence of its absence that its meaning is renewed. If everyone wore a poppy, and nobody forgot to, no one would remember why they were really being worn in the first place. What this means is that the day we remember the end of the two great wars requires a person or body to be demonised. The energy from this opposition is then channelled into the revitalisation of the memory of the event.

We can think about this in relation to other symbols too. There have been a number of cases about the rights of employees to wear crucifixes, for example. What we can see from this is that these battles are, in fact, welcome to those who put great meaning by the symbol, because it’s only in the context over a fight about its absence that its presence is re-invigorated. Without the battle, the symbol dissolves into easy familiarity.

Ironically then, those who really want poppy-wearing to be remembered are actively looking for, and excited to find, people each year who forget. They need these transgressors as a sort of sacrifice in order to breathe life back into the memory of the event.

The question this poses then is whether symbols of remembrance are to be encouraged at all. If it’s only by transgression and the demonisation of a transgressor that they work to draw the act of remembrance back to life we need to ask if that is appropriate.

What we tend to find is the media going not for ‘poppy fascism’ but ‘offence addiction.’ They talk up how offended people will be if poppies are not worn. But again, I wonder if this it is more offensive for to the memory of those who died if they felt that people were only wearing them so as not to be caught out and cause the stir.

It is very possible to remember properly without physical symbols of remembrance. So while I think remembering is hugely important, let’s stop haranguing people who choose not to show they may be doing so with an external symbol.