Yawn. It’s the wretched poppy debate again. It comes up every year, although this time it’s marginally more interesting as FIFA is the premier poppyless bastard rather than poor old Jon Snow. (Although, as Giles Coren cogently asks on Twitter, “what diff whether these joyless overpaid spit-roasting thickoes wear a mark of Remembrance or not?”)
We’ve all heard all the arguments. People should be free to choose; those who don’t wear poppies are heartless bastards; poppies glorify war; they’ve become a social obligation not a genuine act of remembrance… and so on. I was talking about this on the radio this morning, just as I do every November.
And, every year, I say pretty much the same thing. I was clearly on autopilot. This time, the producer even joked that they looked forward to having me on again in twelve months. (For what’s it worth, I’m in the free-to-choose camp.)
However, the debate should really be broadened to include other “sympathy tokens” — such as Aids ribbons and Marie Curie Daffodils — and indeed, other manifestations of sympathy.
As a nation, we are way too mawkish. We seem to be constantly wailing and gnashing, as though sympathy and grief are the only wellsprings of collective expression. Perhaps they are. Every time someone famous dies, complete strangers tweet their condolences. It’s hard to go to a sports fixture during which there isn’t a two-minute silence. If you go out not wearing some sort of badge or wristband, you feel underdressed.
Why do we feel the need to advertise our sympathy? Of course we all care! Only a sociopath could fail to be moved by the death of a 21-year-old in Helmand. We all know people who have suffered from either Aids or cancer. But is it really necessary to show the world that you sympathise? Are we really working on the assumption that most people are heartless bastards who have to be shamed into giving? Probably. Indeed, not wearing a poppy is to invite being labelled a pariah.
There’s a kind of grief fascism at work here. Once it was the Queen who was rudely forced to show us she cared; now we all are. The consequences of obligatory public grieving and sympathising are all too obvious. It renders these acts as pure tokenism, things we ought to do rather than things we want to do. Sympathy and grief are best expressed privately, rather than publicly and in competition.
To paraphrase Smashy and Nicey, we should all do our bit, but shouldn’t like to talk about it.