How enforced ‘respect’ misses the point

As Armistice Day draws to a close for another year, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts on what the day means to me and on the increasingly sensitive subject of how the fallen should be respected.

Most people will be familiar with the excruciating pressure that television presenters and public figures are put under to honour their forebears in the ‘right way’ without cheapening the message by starting too early. One had only to witness the usually unflappable Gary Lineker desperately scrambling to clutch his poppy to his chest after it fell off during Match of the Day to realise that perhaps we’re starting to miss the point. After all, Lineker really can’t be blamed; he foresaw all too well the scathing tabloid condemnations that lay in wait for a respected presenter who, even through no fault of his own, failed to show ‘enough’ respect for Britain’s war dead.

But this uneasy pressure to be seen to be showing enough respect in the right way isn’t just restricted to our TV studios and public offices, it permeates all the way down to our streets and workplaces. Every year there emerges yet another ‘fuming cashier banned from wearing the poppy by shameful supermarket bosses’ or ‘war veterans livid at being refused permission to sell poppies in private retail outlet’. Those who choose to pay their respects to the war dead in a certain way get angry at those who don’t subscribe to their way, until the latter is invariably ‘shamed’ into a ‘climb-down’. In my own office, my meeting was abruptly hushed into silence at 11am and my attempts to quietly continue scrawling a few notes were met with disapproving ‘shush!’s and the frantic tapping of poppies and watches.

Is this really what we mean by respecting those who have gone before us? Does this tense, nervy atmosphere laced with a fear of being seen to be lacking in gratitude capture the Armistice day message we want to convey? I believe not. For me, honouring those tragic men and women who lost their lives in one of history’s greatest atrocities does not necessarily mean wearing a certain artifact or doing a certain thing at an agreed time. I don’t wear a poppy, but I have nothing against those who do. That’s their choice entirely. I feel like I respect Britain’s war dead by doing simple things like exercising my right to free speech or just by taking the time to learn about their lives through history books or elderly relatives. I appreciate the sentiment of collective observances like wearing a poppy or observing a silence, but when joining in with them becomes less of a privilege and more of a chore then the outcome actually runs counter to that which is intended.  On a day which is meant to be all about respect, why can’t we simply respect the rights of individuals to honour their ancestors in whichever way feels right for them? After all, such freedom of expression is surely what those men and women laid down their lives to ensure.

See also: Liberal Conspiracy on Remembrance Day and pacifism and Enemies of Reason on not wearing a poppy.

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1 Response to How enforced ‘respect’ misses the point

  1. Jalce says:

    Sorry, but I can’t go along with the idea that individuals can simply take or leave the mass symbolism of Armistice Day, and “honour their ancestors in whichever way feels right for them”. The whole point of poppies and mass silences is that they are not individual, but collective expressions of community feeling and public spirit . As you say, individuals might feel one way or another about the issue on a private level; but at a collective level, with the individual sentiments of millions of people being impossible to divine at any one time, such public spirit can only effectively be shown through some immediately-recognisable symbol or ritual.

    While you are obviously irritated by the social pressure of Armistice Day, you still seem to accept the underlying obligation to honour Britain’s war dead (albeit in a different, individual way). But if outward displays of respect for the war dead are to be a private matter of individual choice, I don’t see how the obligation of remembrance itself would make any sense. Except for the ever-decreasing minority of people who actually knew someone killed in that war, at a purely individual level there is no reason to honour a list of dead strangers killed almost a century ago in a cause that no longer exists. Even drawing a direct link between their sacrifice and ‘our freedom’ is highly dubious – if the ‘freedom’ in question means parliamentary democracy and free speech, Britain could easily have preserved both of these (in addition to her national independence) in 1914 by either leaving France to her fate or allying with Germany. But while the deaths of these men seem to count for little in terms of how much they benefited us as private individuals, at a collective level we can make sense of them, since our war dead were sacrificed in the perceived interests of the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, collective acts of remembrance necessarily involve a fairly rigid set of rituals and symbols as well as a great deal of social pressure.

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