Making the signal: virtue and conflict

By Jill Segger
November 5, 2020

As we approach Remembrance Sunday, the usual arguments over poppy colour have been a little less strident as memorial celebrations are subject to lockdown this year. However, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation of the white poppy as an exclusive, disrespectful symbol remain in some quarters. The responsibility to explain, in an irenic manner, is the charge of those of us who choose to wear it. And this in itself, is an illustration of how important it is to be free to ‘signal’ our deep convictions in ways which make possible the gracious airing of difference and thus the path to greater understanding.

The decision of the BBC to permit its presenters and anchors to wear red, white, purple or black poppies this year is welcome. It is to be hoped that the empty lapel will be equally acceptable. This is where the closed door should be accorded the same dignity as the lampstand – a grace long overdue. To make certain symbols indispensable and their absence a disgrace is to walk close to idolatry.

The alt-right trope ‘virtue signalling’, used to devalue, mock and disempower, picks at a fear most of us have of appearing to be self-righteous. But no one can model what they do not see, nor is pointing the way the same thing as claiming arrival.

That we should strive to practice virtue in all our dealings is obvious. Behaviour which models high moral standards binds us together, protects the vulnerable, curbs the excesses of power and offers the path to a just and compassionate society. If we speak, write or act in a way which obscures or devalues virtue – whether calculated for advantage, or out of fear – we enable the opposite of justice and compassion. It is right to question the motives of those who would have us act in this way.

This weekend, we are called to remember those who have been robbed of their lives by war. It is right that we do so. They belonged to many nations, cultures and faiths. They were not all in uniform but all were victims of the ongoing failure of politics, diplomacy and vision which leads to war. That failure descends through the generations in fear and bitterness, sowing the seeds of future conflict. Some would prefer that we narrow the gaze to our own. The white poppy represents a different gaze.

It is a time for us to reflect on our deepest anxieties and strongest convictions and how we are to handle them. No one can doubt that there are strong convictions playing out in the United States right now, nor deny that they are ruinously divisive. We cannot afford to be intimidated nor permit ourselves to be blinded by the techniques of division employed by power

But to reflect on these anxieties and convictions with integrity we must not leave certain founding binaries unexamined. “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light.” For anyone alive to nuance and to the complexity inherent in responding with integrity to very different situations, there is no contradiction here. But there is a real danger that adhering exclusively to one of these premises may fuel abuse of those who have a different understanding.

So long as we are willing to examine our motivation and keep the eyes of conscience clear, we will be able to stand for our beliefs – moral, spiritual and political – without fear and without aggression. Being as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves is a good template.

The secret place and the light displayed make equal demands on our discernment. So I believe – because revelation and the recording of humankind’s evolving relationship with the Divine did not come to an end with the last full stop in the bible – that two short passages from our Quaker tradition are also valuable here: “We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in”. (17th century Westmorland Friend, Francis Howgill)

The other is “Let your life speak”, from Advices and Queries, the closest document to a catechism possessed by the Society of Friends.

A moral stance will not be explored if it is not seen. Make the signal.


© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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