Imperialist poppies distress and offend the weak-minded: diluting the language of persuasion

A motion debated at the students union of the University of East Anglia (UEA) asserted that some people consider that the red poppy stands for the “imperialist nature” of the British army; it is “a political symbol with multiple offensive, upsetting and actively negative connotations” and “a celebration of the British Armed Forces and by extension the atrocities perpetrated by the British armed forces throughout history”.

I am just back from visiting the Somme and the Ypres Salient and fell into uncharacteristic rage on seeing this, as my tweets show:

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At one level, perhaps, we should not get too cross about this – if you can’t say stupid things at university, when can you? Perhaps a year or two at a decent university (UEA has long cast off its early nickname, the “University of Easy Access”) will remedy the ignorance behind the motion. The motion as carried does not ban red poppies for next year but merely provides that the union will order equal numbers of red and white poppies; the white ones apparently commemorate the “bravery” of conscientious objectors.

It is fair to say also that other and more intelligent people than the UEA students now have mixed ideas about the poppy, not necessarily out of any disrespect towards its original purpose of remembrance but because it has become an annual source of political and tabloid mud-slinging, with the moral worth of politicians and others judged by whether or not they wear a poppy, how early they put it on, and whether it is big enough.

One of the reasons why those young men died was to leave us free to make our own choices, and you rather undermine that by purporting to dictate whether people should choose to wear a red poppy. That is not what the students were doing, though their language implies moral outrage at the concept.  My distaste is for the language used by the UEA motion. It is not just the half-formed brains of university kiddies who come up with crap like this, and not just about poppies.

Let’s start with “imperialist”. It is an easy form of abuse, enabling its users to lump together all sorts of people and entities – the Roman Empire rubs shoulders with Mussolini; Constantine, Timur and Genghis Khan all fit into the same basket; the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent and Hitler’s Third Reich are all a bit like each other really; and as for the British Empire – that was the worst of all.

Like “elites”, the word “imperialist” seems to absolve its users from having to think what they are saying. “Imperialist” has a lot of syllables, it’s true, but once you have learnt to put them in the right order, shouting “imperialist” qualifies you as one of the gang; add “army” to “imperialist” and you are truly a thinker. To people who think like this, 18 year-old boys lying in bits in the Flanders mud carry the same level of implied opprobrium as General Dyer at Amritsar in 1919.

Let’s move on to “multiple offensive, upsetting and actively negative connotations”. All those rolling polysyllables must mean something.

Deciphering the gobbledegook, I think we get this: the red poppy worn as a symbol of remembrance for dead servicemen offends some students. Now it would be fair to say that quite a lot offends me: people being rude to me, the DWP withholding benefits from dying people because they should be at work, Nigel Farage, dog shit on my shoes, cold callers, that sort of thing. But other people wearing a poppy to commemorate the sacrifice of people who died for freedom? What sort of weak, stupid person gets offended by that?

It is not just “offensive” it seems, but “upsetting”. My old dog died this year and I was very upset and still am; people lose their jobs, their health, their partners or their possessions and are entitled to get “upset” about it, and we hope that we will have the robustness, the strength of character, and the support of others when that happens. But getting upset because someone else wears a poppy? You are not fit for this world if you are that pathetic.

I have looked at the students’ phrase, “actively negative connotations”, but it does not appear to mean anything, so I will move on. Even the Green Party manifesto would baulk at bollocks like that.

The last thing these people dislike about the poppy is a bit of mouthful:

“a celebration of the British Armed Forces and by extension the atrocities perpetrated by the British armed forces throughout history”

We can ignore, perhaps, the idea that the brave soldier who may step at any moment on an IED in some dusty Middle Eastern province belongs in the same category as, say, General Wade’s redcoats. Indeed, we can ignore the whole “by extension” thing which attempts to link everything to everything as a cop-out from actually identifying the cause of one’s complaint. We can leave that kind of debating device to Jeremy Corbyn.

Let’s focus on that word “atrocities” which, the brave drafter of the motion submits, is what British forces were committing for hundreds of years. I wonder if the UEA poppy-protesters could name, say, three events across the history of the British armed forces which could properly be called an “atrocity”. I have mentioned Wade and Dyer. There are others whose conduct dismays us now. The question though is not whether I could identify alleged “atrocities” but whether the motion-drafters who used it could do so. Or is it just an emotive word to throw into the mix?

Despite its wider (and still accumulating) associations, the poppy is inextricably associated with the dead of the First World War, and it must be assumed that the UEA motion had them in mind in deploring the alleged “atrocities” of the British armed forces.

atrocities1I am reading a book called German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial by John Horne and Alan Kramer. I picked it because it is important to understand why people went to war against Germany – not just nations but individuals. The events of those first few weeks became the subject of an intense propaganda war, which Germany lost – the reports from Belgium were powerful recruiting factors for people (especially those from the Empire) who did not have to fight, but chose to do so.

I wanted a properly-sourced study with tables and references – wouldn’t you, before making assertions about “atrocities”? Or perhaps not – perhaps instead just glibly assert that the British forces were guilty of “atrocities” in support of your self-publicising motion.

atrocities2What makes this relevant to my theme is not just the juxtaposition between “army” and “atrocity”. The propaganda used on all sides was extremely strong, depending on pictures like the ones here as well as words. Facts were quite hard to come by (despite strenuous efforts) because most of the people and places were by then behind German lines.  Some of the language and pictures were so emotive that editors made deliberate decisions to tone it all down for fear that apparent exaggeration would actually weaken its credibility and impact. The choice of words matters, and matters very much.

Are they worth powder and shot, these dim little creatures? Does it matter if some wretched students want to strut on the campus stage? I think it does. We are in the “post-truth age”, an empty expression which seems to imply that truth no longer matters – we shrug our shoulders and fail to notice that the whole of public discourse has been cheapened. You can distort the truth without telling a lie – just throw in a few barely-understood terms like “imperialist” or “atrocity” and watch your puppets jerk in predictable indignation.

These people will grow up to work on the Daily Mail where there are no boundaries between lying and journalism, or on the Guardian where, suffused with indignant self-righteousness, they will paint everything in Guardian colours, quite unconscious of the slant they give to everything with a few misleading words.

What you or I may think about poppies is neither here nor there. The self-serving misuse of language does matter.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in First World War, History, Words and language. Bookmark the permalink.

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