Last night I came across a page on Facebook that made me think a little deeper about what democracy – and freedom specifically – mean. The page in question is ‘Make it illegal to burn flags or poppies’.
I knew what would greet me when I clicked onto the page and was unsurprised to see a list of racist, right-wing comments from a variety of people. Many of them had flags and EDL/BNP logos as their avatars. One person I clicked on had a photo of a map emblazoned in the St George’s cross, with the words ‘fuck off were [sic] full’. This angered me, being the bleeding-heart liberal that I am, but it forced me to confront some of the ideas behind why I was angry. As someone who has war veterans in my family, and as someone who is patriotic about my country, Britain, shouldn’t I be in favour of their proposal?
I’m not narrow-minded enough to assume that all people in that group are nationalists, or racists. The girl who joined the group, which led to my discovery of the page, is not, to my knowledge, either of those things. Clearly, and rightly so, there is deep offence at such an insensitive act such as the burning of a poppy, which has become a national symbol of honouring and remembering those who have laid down their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today.
But there lies the irony of this group. Wars have been fought in the name of our freedom; the freedom to vote, the freedom to live in a liberal democracy, the freedom not to be treated as inferiors because of our different races and religions. The freedom to live in a society where we can be whoever we choose to be, not that this is always a good thing. We must accept and respect the right of groups like the EDL and BNP to exist, as much as it pains us. Countless people laid down their lives to protect these freedoms, and we cannot pick and choose which freedoms we want and discard the others.
I find flag burning and poppy burning offensive myself. But ban it? No. Never. I do not agree with the desecration of such symbols, the same way I did not agree with Pastor Terry Jones’ Qu’ran burning. But to make such acts illegal is against the very core of what a free, democratic society means. If you make such acts illegal, where does it end? Ban all flags that aren’t British or English flags? Ban dissent? Ban criticism of political parties? Ban any questioning of why we are in Afghanistan? The slippery slope leads us to an authoritarian, dictating end where free and critical thinking is illegal.
Love of country must be about more than a symbol; it must be an idea, an idea of Britain that does not discriminate, an idea that includes and unites the best of all religions and cultures and races that make up our society. Respect for veterans is about more than just a poppy on your lapel. It’s about gratitude for what they have sacrificed for us and the free lives they have allowed us to lead. Just as burning a flag is a meaningless, albeit insulting, gesture, to outlaw flag burning and poppy burning is much the same. Using coercion and the strong arm of the law to counterattack these people gets us nowhere – rather it pushes the anger underground and makes a mockery of our democracy. We must use argument against such extremists, just as I have tried, hopefully, to use it here against the extremist elements of that Facebook page, and deconstruct their hate.