Once more with feeling

On poppies, moustaches, and the problem with powerful symbols

This is the time of year we come together to remember — firstly the eminent folly of Catholicism, and then, a few days later, something more profound: the millions upon millions, millions whose totality will never be fully reckoned, who laid down their lives in the two great wars of the twentieth century.

Remembrance means difference things to each of us. Pacifists see 11th November as a sober reminder of the brutal price of war. Many of them will consequently choose to wear a white poppy — and it’s worth remembering how many veterans share this sentiment. Those who knew Britain’s war years may remember individuals, individual lives lost and tragedies borne. Others use Remembrance Day as a wider commemoration of our armed forces — a thanksgiving for the sacrifices they have made, and continue to make, on our behalf. Still others focus on the only individuals who are still regularly conscripted.Each to his own. Remembrance should never be a diktat.

But herein lies the problem. Poppies have moved from a voluntary gesture to a PR necessity, and their new ubiquity has not been matched, I don’t think, by a concomitant increase in remembering. From late October ‘til the end of November, poppies sit proudly on the lapels of every businessman and politician in the country. Recent suggestions that the Remembrance Service is totally apolitical are, to be frank, laughable.

There is an ever-growing cult of the poppy, as Jon Snow once observed in decrying ‘poppy fascism’. Does that make us remember more, or better?

Laurie Penny has written illuminatingly on this topic. Whether you agree with her pacifistic position or not, the thrust of her argument — that poppies are losing their meaning — resonates.

If wearing a poppy becomes non-negotiable, are poppy wearers still doing it because they care, or because they are told to? Aren’t we in danger of paying lip service to this most serious of causes?

Lip service

Talking of lip service, it is ‘Movember’, and millions of British men are paying literal lip service to charity. Movember, if you have been living under a rock (or, perhaps, in Turkish Dalston), is an attempt to galvanise men behind men’s health issues, most prominently prostate cancer, the third-biggest killer of British men. Men are encouraged to grow a moustache, and to solicit sponsorship for their efforts.

Well, amen to that. Just like The Heart Truth and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Movember (or, as some prefer, ‘Novembeard’) is a laudable attempt to increase disease awareness and raise money for deserving charities. Nevertheless, these efforts are problematic.

Many men I know who are taking part in Movember have only a vague understanding of its meaning. A friend I quizzed (who is fundraising) did not realise that the Movember appeal fund dealt with diseases other than prostate cancer. Many, too, are not actually fundraising. One might argue that their contribution is still valuable: another moustache on the street means a little more awareness, and a key objective of the Movember campaign is encouraging more men to have prostate examinations (though it is worth noting that the NHS does not run a national screening programme for prostate cancer, since men at high risk are generally in close contact with their GPs).

But when does this just become tokenism? And if that tokenism pushes other charitable causes out of people minds, is this desirable? Cancer research, which takes the lion’s share of the Movember harvest, is an astonishingly well-funded disease area. Suicide, usually associated with depression, is the second-biggest killer of 15-24-year-olds. How many young men, currently cultivating their moustaches, know that? And casting further afield, one could consider how charities delivering foreign aid or fighting climate change are impacted. Movember is reaping the benefits of choosing a powerful symbol, but is it too powerful?

It may seem as though I’m pouring cold water on a harmless bit of fun, but I have encountered a certain self-righteousness when it comes to Movember. It is a much milder equivalent of what has derailed the Poppy Appeal: when a symbol outgrows its message, that message risks becoming lost.