A 1928 caricature of Robert Lynd.
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Robert Lynd: In Defence of Pink

In this article, first published in the New Statesman in 1936, Irish essayist Robert Lynd responds to an attack on the colour pink by G K Chesterton, saying “as a lover of pink I cannot let this pass without a protest”.

This article by the Irish essayist Robert Lynd (or “Y Y” as he was known in the NS) first appeared in the magazine in June 1936, as a response to an essay by G K Chesterton.

In his new book of essays, As I Was Saying, Mr G. K. Chesterton makes the admirable suggestion that, now that so many people have begun to express their political opinions by wearing coloured shirts, shirts of various shades ought also to be manufactured. This would provide a means of self-expression for those who are only “Rather Nazi or Not Quite Communist.” The Rather Nazi “might express his doubts by having his new brown shirt fade faintly into the old field-grey.” Having made this very sensible proposal, however, Mr. Chesterton makes an exception as regards pink, He would allow no pink shirts to be put on the market. A pink shirt to him, it is clear, is as a red rag to a bull. He denounces pink in such terms as no colour surely has ever been denounced before. “Pink,” he says, “seems to me the essentially false and negative colour; because it is the dilution of something that is rich and glowing or nothing... Pink suggests nothing but the horrible and blasphemous idea of wine with too much water in it. Pink is the withering of the rose and the fading of the fire; pink is mere anaemia in the blood of the universe.

As a lover of pink I cannot let this pass without a protest. Pink is a colour that mankind, or the English-speaking part of it, instinctively chose as a symbol of perfection. We speak not only of “the pink of perfection” but of “the pink of fashion,” or “the pink of elegance.” Many a soldier, writing from the Front, kept up the spirits of his wife and children by signing his letter: “Yours in the pink.” Mr Chesterton, if he had been censor, would presumably have crossed this out and substituted: “Yours in the blues.” Then there is the pink of the huntsman – a misnomer, perhaps, but this merely proves how deeply men of heroic mould reverence the colour. And how could any one fail to reverence the colour in a world in which year after year spring announces her arrival in the pink of the almond blossom, and summer her arrival in the pink of the wild rose. “Pink,” says Mr Chesterton “is the withering of the rose.” On the contrary, it is the colour of the true, the original, rose – the rose that bloomed in the Garden of Eden. The rose did not turn red till after Adam sinned. Pink, again, is the loveliest colour of the carnation: deeper shades are vulgar in comparison with it. In the years in which I sued often to be still awake at dawn, what an entrancing spectacle were the pink clouds in the eastern sky! And what child is there who has not been entranced by the echo of that colour in the lustrous hollows of shells? It is no wonder that parents choose pink and blue as the two perfect colours with which to decorate the cradles of their adored infants – bows of pink ribbon for a girl, bows of blue for a boy. There is no colour in nature to surpass it. Even in the matter of wine, pink calls up the image not of watered claret, but of that charming-looking, if not so charming-tasting, wine, vin rosé. Pink the colour of anaemia in the blood? Why, it is the colour of health among the so-called white races, who, as has often been pointed out, are really the pink races – at least, the one that has painted the map pink is.

I can honestly say that, in my opinion, the best thing that could happen to the world would be that it should become pinker and pinker. I should feel much happier about Nature herself if I felt that she was gradually turning pink in tooth and claw. If we much have revolutions, I should prefer pink revolutions to red revolutions. As a child, I was afraid of the Scarlet Woman: if I could have thought of her as the Pink Woman, I should have rather liked her. I certainly prefer people whose sins are pink to those whose sins are scarlet. There is too much red in the world. I do not know whether any nation at present flies a pink flag, but I have a notion that pink will be the colour of the international flag when the war-drum throbs no longer. Mr Chesterton may not join in the chorus, but how rapturously the rest of us, from Tokio to Vancouver, will sing – nay, roar – our anthem, “Keep the pink flag flying.”

Mr. Chesterton’s hatred of pink, I imagine, is largely the result of his having been born in a country that has worked extremism out of its system. The beauties of moderation are conspicuous only in a world of immoderate man. The moderate man is apt to congratulate himself on his moderation – to become smug.  And, when one meets a man who is not only moderate but smug, one cannot help wishing that he would get rid of his moderation as a means of getting rid of his smugness. (As a matter of fact, smugness is not confined to the moderate: it is equally common among the extremists, the heretics, and the unconventional.) Still, there is something very revolting in the smugness of a man who is both moderate and successful, and moderate men have an unpleasant way of being successful. At the same time, consider what a world we should be living in if the majority of people had not learned the art of being moderate. The temperate man may at times seem dull, but how infinitely boring, in nine cases out of ten, is the drunkard! A happy marriage of give-and-take may seem flat, but the more passionate life of a wife-beater or a husband-slapper is in the end even more tedious. Immoderate people are exciting to read about, but who would send his son to be educated by one of them? We do not glorify immoderate bank-managers or immoderate doctors. In nearly all our relations in life, we like people to be pink. We say of So-and-So: “He’s a white man,” but what we usually mean is: “He’s a pink man” – a man pinker than ourselves, and so to be trusted.

It is obviously, however, in political rather than in moral matters that Mr. Chesterton abhors pinkness. “There is,” he says, “a merely pink humanitarianism which I dislike even more than the Red Communism. It is not so honest: it is not so genuinely angry or so justly angry; and it is ultimately every bit as negative and destructive of the strong colours of and definite shapes of any great historical culture. It will not weaken civilisation the less because it is too watery to burn in the night: for you cannot set fire to a town with pink torches or pink artillery. This cold and colourless sentimentalism none the less threatens the world like a slow and crawling Deluge.” As a pink humanitarian I read these words with a lively concern. I have grown pinker and pinker with the years, but I had always thought until now that, little good though I could do, I was at least – in political maters – harmless. I have never blinded myself to the fact that in politics I am a wobbling sentimentalist, but, as I have never had a vote except in a strong Tory constituency, I have comforted myself with the reflection that I could do no injury to my fellows. At times, I have even become self-satisfied – smug, if you prefer it – in my pinkness. I have said to myself: “If only everybody were as pink as I, all this nonsense in the world would end in a week. If only everybody wobbled like me, how well everybody would get on together!” Many people, when they see a statesman wobbling, lose confidence in him. That is the moment at which I, on the contrary, renew my trust in him. I like to see a Conservative statesman and a bit of a Liberal, a Liberal statesman a bit of a Conservative, and a Socialist statesman a bit of both. I should trust Mussolini and Hitler more if they occasionally wobbled. It is their death-like rigidity that appals me. Oh, for a few pink corpuscles flowing through their veins! How much better a time the Abyssinians and the Jews would have!

Possibly, my love of a blending, a moderation, of colours is due to the fact that I grew up in a country in which the political colours were, in Mr. Chesterton’s phrase, “rich and glowing.” In the Ireland of my youth, orange was not permitted to be blended with green, and green was not perceptively diluted with orange. At the same time, there were visionaries who looked forward to the day on which these colours would be miraculously interfused. I am not a painter and do not know what the result is when green is mixed with orange, but I should not be surprised to learn that it was pink. The Irish Free State has not gone so far as to fly a pink flag, but it has at least abandoned the pure green flag, and made room for a strip orange united to the green by a white band of peace. This is surely an example of pinkness in politics – which is disquieting, perhaps, to Mr. Chesterton, but it is inspiriting to me. It is a symbol of compromise, and compromise seems to me the third most beautiful thing that ever came out of the mind of man. If I love pink, it is probably because it is the colour of compromise and the colour of hope. It is not for nothing that Nature brings in spring with the almond blossom and summer with the wild rose. Here Nature is our schoolmaster, bidding us to dilute our angry red if we would enter into a world of sunshine. That is why my whole political philosophy may be summed up in the phrase: “Strike me pink.” And, in my dreams of the future of the world, my profoundest hopes might be expressed in the phrase: “Strike all the world pink!”

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.