The Significance of the Poppy | Jake Scott
It wasn’t long after the BBC “banned virtue signalling” amongst its employees that certain vocal elements began to ask if that included the poppy. Of course, such a question provokes instinctive reaction from most of us, usually along the lines of “what an absurd thing to say” which, I’m pleased to say, was the overwhelming reaction. But, this didn’t stop some of us missing the point. Case in point, the fashionably stupid Femi Oluwole:
Dear @bbc,— Femi😷 (@Femi_Sorry) November 2, 2020
Why are your presenters wearing poppies?
Your rules ban “virtue signalling no matter how worthy the cause”.
If presenters can support war-related campaigns on the news, surely they can show they believe in equality for black & gay people? Or is that against BBC values? pic.twitter.com/OTjcGHgc7C
Now, “rationally” speaking, there really is no inherent meaning in a poppy flower; but this is the point. As I have said before, a great degree of use can be found in that which has no inherent purpose. The wearing of a poppy does something more than simply “virtue signal” – it reaffirms our place in a greater community than simply that which is here, today.
The actual poppy flower, it must be remembered, was chosen because it grew in the battlefields where millions (literally, millions) of young men fell in the First World War. As such, it was chosen for its symbolic importance, because it connected us both to our fallen boys, as well as the fallen boys of the other side; in using it, we sought to reach out across the great divide that the war had revealed and widened, and help us to remember why the war was fought and, more importantly, why it should be avoided.
But symbols alone can be forgotten in the constantly visual world we inhabit, so their original meaning must be animated and carried forward by myths and rituals, in a trinity of memory that helps to bind us to the generations long gone. Wearing a poppy the year round is generally seen to detract from its significance because, and this must be remembered, it is in the scarcity of its use that its significance is recognised. In other words, when a symbol becomes ubiquitous to the point of ordinariness, it is no longer a symbol.
So, we must choose our wearing of it carefully. And that is why we wear a poppy on (and near) remembrance day, in order to remember the sacrifice made by thousands upon thousands of young men in the First World War – and, now, men and women in every war since. You might ask what they were sacrificing themselves for, but the truth is you cannot judge the moral virtue of sacrifice in the outcome, purely in the motive – and it is the motive of laying down your life for a community that you truly believe in that we recognise on the 11th November every year.
It was written by Terry Pratchett that a man dies twice: once when he passes away, and a second when his name is last spoken. Of course, the untold numbers and endless lists of soldiers who have fallen makes it impossible to speak their names, but the least we can do is remember them, and the act of remembrance is to honour that memory in as dignified way as possible – two minutes that are dedicated to them, not to ourselves.
So no, wearing a poppy is not “virtue signalling”, because virtue signalling is concerned entirely with the individual who does it, as a method of adorning oneself with accolades and proving their own moral worth. Instead, remembrance is about others, and entirely so; we ask, every year, for each person to take two minutes to pause, reflect, and remember those who are no longer with us.
Instead, poppies are a symbolic way of affirming our relationship to an enduring community and, through memory, ensuring that community and its martyrs are not forgotten.