Tag Archives: pacifism

Remembrance and Resigning

(Welsh word of the post: tân, fire, as in ‘Tân yn Llyn‘.)

Poppy season is here again. As usual, I’m wearing a white poppy and have pinned one on my Guider’s uniform for the last time. It’s the last time because I’m resigning from my role as a Brownie leader – because Girlguiding have gone into a partnership with the British Army. (If you agree with me that this is a bad idea, sign the petition here or write to Amanda Medler, the Chief Guide, at Girlguiding, 17-19 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0PT.)

On a blue fleece garment, a white poppy has been pinned over a cloth tab with three badges on it: a Guide Promise badge, a camps and holidays licence badge, and a 10-year long service award.

White poppy over my badge tab.

There’s been a lot of discussion about white poppies this year (and bumper sales). There always is, but because of the nice round number – 100 years since 1918 – I seem to be hearing more than usual ‘thank you’ and ‘what a splendid sacrifice’ and less than usual ‘war is terrible’ and ‘never again’. On Twitter I said that my white poppy is indeed attention seeking, as accused by Johnny Mercer:

It isn’t because I don’t know what happened, despite periodic accusations against young people. It’s because I know what happened, and I stand with those who tried to prevent it and never want it to be repeated.

Against a background of increasing militarism, it seems especially important to wear a white poppy as one kind of public protest, and to leave Girlguiding in another kind of protest against the normalisation of military involvement with youth groups. Whatever ‘leadership opportunities’ the army might be offering, they don’t, in the words of a Quaker document also written in 1918, constitute “the opportunity of full development“.


WW1 resources: ‘Watford’s Quiet Heroes’ and ‘Conscience’

Lots of people are talking about World War 1 at the moment, with anniversaries of things rolling around all the time. Quakers are no exception, and some of the Quakers stories from that time, especially of Conscientious Objectors, deserve to be better known. To that end, lots of resources are being produced, and I want to review two of them here.

Watford’s Quiet Heroes is a 30-minute film which tells the stories of three men from Watford who refused to fight. It’s aimed at 11+ and intended to be accessible for use in schools, but also makes good viewing for adults. Each story is told straightforwardly and with a sensible balance of archive material and modern links and reconstructions. (Disclaimer: I was involved in a very minor way in the archive research and am credited.) For those who know Watford, the combinations of archive photographs and modern images are perhaps particularly striking – the ‘I go along there all the time’ effect – but the contrast between old and new, and the link to the past created by the combination, should be equally effective if you don’t know the area.

I was particularly struck by the varied attitudes taken by the tribunals to people claiming to be COs, and by the clear description of conflict between positions taken by the armed forces and by the government of the time.

Conscience is one of two school resource packs put out by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Conviction is aimed at 11-16s, and Conscience at younger children – so when I had a chance to try it out with my Brownies, girls aged 7 to 10, I thought we’d give Conscience a whirl. We only had one evening, and spent a bit over an hour on the material, so left quite a lot out. As befits a school-focused resource, it had lots of written activities which didn’t fit well into a Brownie meeting – I reworked these so that we did more moving about and talking. For example, we began with a game (based on ways of doing a true-or-false quiz) in which I asked girls questions like “Would you help someone?” and “Would you hurt someone?” and they moved around the room to indicate their answers – “I would” at one end and “I wouldn’t” at the other, with plenty of room for doubt in the middle and no penalties for changing your mind as we discussed things. (Questions like ‘would you hit someone?’ tended to get lots of ‘no, never’ to begin with and then lots of ‘sometimes’ as we thought about really irritating siblings, people who bullied you, and they reflected more honestly on their behaviour.)

We also talked about who helps you make moral choices and the stories of Albert French and Howard Marten. A lot of girls struggled with the idea that Marten didn’t refuse to fight because he was afraid to die – because they’d be afraid to fight, I think – but the fact that he was sentenced to death and didn’t change his mind helped to clarify that. It’s a feature of Marten’s story which makes it especially useful for this kind of discussion.

Overall, I hope both resources will be taken up widely. The DVD in particular would be good for a wide range of audiences, not only schools, and although Conscience and Conviction look easy to use in a school setting a small amount of tweaking for your group would make them accessible to lots of youth groups, including children’s meetings.

P is for… Pacifism

I happened to say the other day that pacifism is one of the few things left in my life which I really feel I take as an unexamined dogma. Almost everything else I’ve examined – in a philosophy classroom, in a Quaker Meeting, in a discussion in a pub – but to quite an extent I’m a pacifist because I was raised a pacifist, because I’ve always been a pacifist, because I think some people need to be pacifists.

That last one comes closest to being a reason. I’m a pacifist – a position I’ll freely admit is idealistic – because I think that some people need to hold on to ideals. There are ideals which others hold which would hurt me too much to contemplate (I can’t even try and imagine a world in which everyone has a job and is paid a living wage for it, because to think that such a thing is possible and also know that you are only time away from the disgrace of being on JobSeeker’s is too much to bear). I let living wage and citizen’s wage campaigners hold that vision for me. Meanwhile, I can imagine a world in which co-operation is more common, competition less valued, and physical violence a genuine last resort, used reluctantly in love. Furthermore, I can imagine a world in which we take the path of unilateral disarmament. I can’t quite imagine how we’ll get there, but I can hold onto the vision that it is possible.

When you say you’re a pacifist, people who aren’t tend to try and ask you hard questions, like ‘but wasn’t it right to fight the Nazis?’ and ‘what would you do if someone was attacking your sister/daughter?’ I do not have simple answers to these questions. In relation to the second one, I don’t have a sister or a daughter, and somewhat resent the implication that my father or brother should be stirred to violence in order to protect me. Why is this question always gendered that way? (Oh, hello there, patriarchy.) I read recently that Howard Marten, a Conscientious Objector in the First World War, replied to a question of this kind that like anyone else, he didn’t know what he would do in such a circumstance until it arose. All I can say is that on those occasions when I have been attacked or robbed, or felt that I was likely to be, I have tended to stay calm and quiet and try and keep moving out of the area. I’m not sure whether this is cowardice, common sense, or feminine socialisation, or a little of all three.

I tend to reject the historical premises of the first question. Why assume that Nazis were inevitable and we have to choose whether to fight or let them act as they will? My limited understanding of the historical situation is that Nazism arose from ancient roots which happened to flourish in the economic and political circumstances which were created by the previous war – which in turn was not inevitable but created by previous circumstances. Perhaps that kind of hatred is like knot weed, able to survive as a tiny piece or deep underground, and then regrowing from that piece when the conditions are right. Like knot weed, it should be cut down – but a political view is not a person, and physical violence may not be the way forward. In any case, I cannot know what I would have done if I’d be alive then, and I’m more interested in asking what we can do new.

At this juncture it’s traditional to tell the story about the boxer who was a CO. He’s in prison, and some of the other guys are asking him why he’s a pacifist, since he’s clearly not afraid of fighting. He asks them why they think war will work, and one of them says, “Sometimes you can only change someone’s mind with violence.”

“Okay,” says the boxer, and swings for him, landing a punch square on his jaw. The other guy comes back at him immediately, but the boxer catches his fist and says, “Hang on a minute. Tell me, did that change your mind?”

(I believe this is a true-ish story, but I don’t know where it’s from and I have retold a retelling from memory with attention to story rather than fact.)

I can tell that this post is rambling now – I have written the next paragraph two or three times, each time with totally different material, none of it really about pacifism. I can’t really find anything else to say. Why am I a pacifist? Because I think that war is wrong.