This blog is a sort of semi-sequel to this one. If you have not read it, you may like to.
In a recent speech, the actor and comedian Stephen Fry expressed his frustration at the apparent death of the political centre ground. The problem, he feels, is that freedom of speech is under attack from both sides by the contemporary forces of ‘the new right, promoting a bizarre mixture of Christianity and libertarianism [… and the] “illiberal liberals”, obsessed with identity politics and complaining about things like cultural appropriation.’
Fry has been at the forefront of the battle for free speech for years, perhaps surprisingly courting controversy on a fairly regular basis, but whilst there are indeed legal limits to free speech in the UK (and we can talk about the ethics of this elsewhere), this is not what Fry is worried about. What Fry wants is freedom of speech without reply; freedom to offend, but not take offence. This is not freedom of speech. Indeed, it is not even really the main issue. Whilst ‘classical liberals’ like Stephen Fry decry the so called “illiberal liberals” for taking offence, they fail to realise that this has got very little to do with offence, taken or given, at all. Rather, it’s about whether our words and actions have the potential to cause unwarranted harm to others. This is why identity politics and cultural appropriation matter. In obsessing over freedom of speech, Stephen Fry and other so called ‘classical liberals’ ignore the identities and cultural backgrounds of BAME, LGBT+, working class, disabled, and other marginalised groups. In suppressing perspectives other than dominant ones, they prevent true freedom of speech.
Some things should not be up for debate, and things so intrinsic to a person’s very existence are among them. There are some things, though, that for the time being cannot be added to that list, but nevertheless belong there. Should we, for example, be offering expertise and selling arms to human rights abusers? Should we be recruiting child soldiers? Should we be turning Remembrancetide over to the twin evils of nationalism and militarism? Should we, as a society, be beholden to the narrative that these ideals are virtues? I would argue that the obviously correct answer is ‘no’ and that to suggest otherwise is barbarism. Many however, don’t simply say these things are good, but that they are not happening.
When, last year, I made a similar point during a discussion on ‘This Morning’, my co-contributor and opponent for the day, the author and former RAF pilot John Nichol, initially missed the point, then denied that such a narrative existed at all. On the subject of children wearing t-shirts that read ‘Future Soldier’, he exclaimed, “You can’t criticise a young person for wanting to emulate their forefathers!”, adding “there’s not a narrative that glorifies [war]!” But this is precisely the problem. There is always a narrative, dominant or otherwise. The question is not whether it exists, but whether it is good, true, and necessary. The example of young people wishing to be soldiers simply makes it clearer that we live in a highly militarised society, and in such societies, the glorification of war is inevitable.
To his credit, John Nichol was friendly and very encouraging. I had been asked, in what was my first appearance on live TV, to comment on the declining numbers of young people wearing the Royal British Legion’s poppy. I was nervous. I think that this showed in the opening few minutes. Added to that, and as I expected, TV turned out to be a platform not especially suited to the sort of nuance such a sensitive and complicated topic requires. Social media and mainstream online news sources turned out to be the same. Who knew?!!
My central point, which I flesh out a little more here, was that the Royal British Legion play into a wider narrative pervading our society. This narrative, like the concern for free speech as long as it sits within the dominant framework and has the right tone, encourages us to think a certain way. This is not a new or particularly bold claim. Antonio Gramsci, writing whilst imprisoned by the Italian fascist regime in the 1930s, called it ‘cultural hegemony’. Since then, hegemony has been the subject of innumerable academic papers, such is the authority it commands. But as with so much of academia, the concept fails to disseminate within society at large. This is not the fault of society, but of its leaders, media, and academia itself.
There is an inevitability to the Royal British Legion’s perpetuation of hegemonic narratives: for many years, membership was restricted to current and ex-service personnel. This is no longer the case, but the legacy of this, and the nature of their cause, is such that the vast majority of members remain heavily connected to the armed forces in some way. We should not be surprised then, when we see the poppy used alongside military symbols. Numerous studies have shown the power of symbols. In his much celebrated book Fast Food Nationfor example, Eric Schlosser found that ‘children often recognize the McDonald’s logo before they recognize their own name’. If the Royal British Legion are, as they claim, the ‘custodian of Remembrance’, they should take care with how their symbol is used. Pins such as this one, sold in the official Royal British Legion shop, and adorned with the insignia of the Royal Lancers, quite literally glorify war. The Royal British Legion’s annual poppy appeal has become the commodification of Remembrance and the celebration of war. Allowing the poppy to appear alongside any and every symbol, and even to appear on military equipment, cheapens it, and makes a mockery of the death and sacrifice of every person caught up in war.
We should learn how to identify instances of the poppy’s misappropriation, realising the role these play in the cultivation of the images of both the Royal British Legion and the armed forces. Rather than working together for the betterment of society, these organisations actually perpetuate a dangerous hegemony that costs lives, and invariably young and innocent ones. Such hegemony necessarily stifles freedom of speech. As identity politics has brought challenge to those who would stifle freedom of speech for marginalised groups, so we must find a movement to challenge the stifling of freedom of speech by the hegemony of militarism and nationalism inherent to the Poppy Appeal.