Flaming Poppies & Floating Signifiers #poppycock

If language is slippery, visual icons are even more so. The sign of the cross is a comfort to some and a symbol of oppression to others. The remembrance poppy is neither legal tender nor a national flag. Destroying one as an act of … whatever, may be offensive as hell. But it’s not illegal.

At the age of 12, I was ‘volunteered’ on Remembrance day to stand up and read the famous Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields“. Unfortunately, I was terrible at reciting anything. I got to the line ‘We are the dead” and promptly fainted, which ruined the gravitas of the occasion.

Looking at the twitter feed commenting on the arrest of a man for posting a burning poppy on a Facebook page, I found it amazing that many of the tweeters had no idea as to the origin of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for the war dead. In fact, I’m pretty sure the insensitive asshole to posted the picture in the first place doesn’t have a clue.

Poppies have been used as a symbol of remembrance for deaths in war since the Napoleonic era. But it wasn’t until 1920 that pinning an artificial poppy on one’s lapel on Armistice day came into general practice.  At first, it only represented remembrance of the dead of WWI, then it accumulated the weight of the fallen in WWII. Then it came to represent all fallen warriors in all wars.

When I was young, I was taught that it was a neutral symbol of respect for the dead. It did not mean that you agreed with the causes over the wars that had been fought, or liked the policies of the people who decided to send those soldiers to war.

But symbols don’t stay neutral for long. And it doesn’t help that the same decision-makers who drape themselves in flags and send people off to war also tend to festoon themselves with poppies come November 11.

Symbols accrete meaning over time. They attract layers of signification like honey attracts flies. And often the original meaning is lost in time.  Think of how the meaning of the svastika  has changed radically over time. Some symbols can never be rescued from the evil duty some have put them to.

And now, Kent Police have arrested some tasteless idiot for posting a burning poppy on his Facebook page. One suspects he might have also posted text that was offensive as well.  This is a sad irony, considering that many of the men whose deaths we are remembering, lost their lives so that we could live in free societies where people could say things that were offensive to others.

Meanwhile, @bridgettj566 is very upset. A mother with two young children and a husband serving in Afghanistan, she is furious at this insensitive, offensive posting.  And who can blame her? How would you like some ignorant, adolescent prick playing fast and loose with the symbols that you feel bind your husband’s sacrifice to his nation? But the problem is… clearly the remembrance poppy means something different to her and her family than it does to the twit on Facebook. He’s piled his own agenda on to the symbol.

We can’t have laws that assume the meaning of a symbol is static and permanent or universal. Our semiotically laden world just can’t take it. That way lies totalitarianism, and that has been, over the years, what most of the war dead we honour by wearing those poppies fought to keep us free from.

And we have to be careful not to be hypocrites. We rightly condemn Putin for jailing Pussy Riot. We condemn the Pakistani legal system for putting a child on trial for burning a Koran.  How on earth is this any different?

If we say we believe in free speech and embrace a plurality of opinions, then we have to learn to find better responses than arresting some idiot for burning a poppy or posting a picture of it.  As Philip Pullman said: “No one has the right to spend their life without being offended.

We need to find more creative, more eloquent ways in which to respond to the willfully offensive acts of idiots. That, more than pinning on a poppy one day a year, would be a wonderful way to honour the fallen who sacrificed their health and their lives fighting for our freedoms.