Abolish the Cross of St George

Prison officers have been banned from wearing St George flag tie-pins. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, suggested that the symbol could be misconstrued by Muslim or Arab prisoners… because the St George cross was a symbol of the crusaders. (via Popinjays and drunken blogging).
Another classic case of people not thinking things through before they try to help. Their statements are problematic in so many ways.
The first mistake is to equate an individual with the institution. A prison officer wearing a St George tie-pin (for cancer research, by the way) is not the same as the institution endorsing the crusades. Likewise, a teacher who wears a hijab does not convert the whole school to Islam.
Second, cultural symbols have different meanings depending on the person who chooses to wear them. One woman’s proof of mysoginy, is another’s statement of modesty. One man’s blood-stained crusade memorabilia, is another man’s gentle nod to Freddie Flintoff. In this sense, the St George Cross represents the corinthian values of friendship and fair play. If someone claims to be wearing the cross for those reasons, they should be granted the benefit of the doubt.
Take these thoughts a stage further, and they become more controversial. While we should allow badges to take on a personal meaning for the individual who displays them, symbols which represent a country or a community must have a shared meaning, and that meaning should be something that the entire population can subscribe to.
To emphasise the point, I must draw attention to a common flaw of logic, which ascribes attributes of the majority of citizens, to the country itself. Its an easy shorthand, but when we discuss national identity, it is unhelpful and wrong.
When Anne Winterton MP was condemned for saying she was ‘thankful’ that Britiain was predominantly white and Christian, she was condemned as a racist. At Clive Davis’ blog, Laban Tall said:

… would you consider a Kenyan pleased that his country was black, or a Jordanian proud of his Arab nation, to be loathsome?

My response was to agree: If we want to condemn Anne Winterton’s attitude, then perhaps we do indeed have to condemn a Kenyan’s pride in “black” or a Jordanian’s pride in “Arab”. They are welcome to take pride in their own ethnicity, but should they be ascribing that ethnicity to their whole country? Describing a whole country as “white” or “black” is an arrogant anthropomorphism on the part of the majority group. Calling a country “white” or “black”, I said, is certainly not referring to a country’s soil, trees, or borders… so it seems to be inherently racist to those individuals with the minority complexion.
Labelling a country Christian falls into similar discriminatory problems. According to the 2001 UK census, 72% of people claim to be Christian. This means that there are vast swathes of the population who are not Christian. Since church attendance in the UK is only 7%, and since parents respond to the census on behalf of their children, I would suggest that the proportion is much higher than the 28% yeilded of the census.
The numbers are not really the point, however. Even if there was only one non-Christian in an entire country, it would still be discriminatory and offensive to ascribe a religion to that country. A state is a different thing to its citizens. It is certainly not the sum of its parts. Calling the UK a Christian country is preposterous and wrong. It is therefore ridiculous that our national flags should be Christian crosses. These symbols co-opt millions of people into an ideology which they categorically reject.
So it is with other countries: Abolish the Scottish Saltire and redesign the Union-Jack; pull the asymetrical crosses off the Scandanavian flags; yes, pull the crescent moon off flags from Mauritania to Malaysia; and yes, pull the Star of David from the flag of Israel. I have no quarrel with Christian states, Islamic States and the Jewish State, save to say that they are figments of the imagination, which are an insult to demography and democracy. Let the individuals practice religion freely, and let them display the symbols that their conscience dictate. But let the state and its badges be secular and inclusive.
Back in the UK, a man is formally scolded for wearing a national symbol, in support of a cancer charity. But the suggestion that we change the national symbols themselves is met with a silent dismissal. Paradoxically, the one place where the St George cross should not be – up our flag poles – has become the only place where it is still acceptable.

7 Replies to “Abolish the Cross of St George”

  1. “One woman’s proof of mysoginy (sic), is another’s statement of modesty”
    I am very interested in this concept of “modesty”. What does it actually mean? I would argue that where “modesty” in female dress has any currency, we automatically have a misogynistic set-up.
    On another note, I would also like to respond to the following:
    “One man’s blood-stained crusade memorabilia, is another man’s gentle nod to Freddie Flintoff. In this sense, the St George Cross represents the corinthian values of friendship and fair play. If someone claims to be wearing the cross for those reasons, they should be granted the benefit of the doubt”
    I am not sure whether I actually agree with this. Your argument harkens back to a disagreement I had once regarding my right to use an equestrian phrase and not be labelled a fox-hunting pony-riding snob by people with working class chips on their shoulder.
    I think it raises an interesting question about where meaning comes from. The meanings we ascribe to cultural symbols come from the associations we have with them, and are not something we can just choose, or legislate for. Meaning is free-flowing, dynamic and anarchical. Some of those associations may be personal to the individual, and some may have a broader currency, a shared meaning if you will.
    I might, for instance, be terribly upset by seeing a red bus, had I once been knocked over by, or mugged on one. But to argue that red buses or their likenesses should not be on display in public for fear of upsetting me would clearly be nonsensical. It’s an extreme example, but personal meanings are just that, and they are and should remain the problem of the person who has them. Shared meanings on the other hand, should be, I believe, acknowledged and accepted, by those who wish to display a given symbol.
    The St George cross (a bit like Burberry) has for me, and I believe many others, associations with uneducated angry people, who do not tend to engage very much in thoughtful analysis before lashing out, and who therefore might be dangerous to my personal safety. It also has associations for me with drunken aggressive football louts who have no empathy or regard for their fellow citizens, and a bad attitude towards women, and it also has an association with the BNP. And that is quite before we have started on England’s shameful foreign policy and behaviour in the world for the last millenium. (We could arge that this association is outdated, supplanted by the union flag but even if we did, there are still the former associations I have mentioned).
    I know, therefore, that if I wear or display the St George cross, I myself might be associated with such things. If I know or believe that these type of things are the predominant associations people have with the St George cross, then to wear it implies either an endorsement of these meanings, or a lack of respect for the people who share those associations, or a breathtaking ignorance of the shared meanings in the culture in which I live.
    I think the strong association between nationalism per se and aggression, racism, unfair play on the global stage, and low empathy kind of outweighs any thoughts of friendship and fair play, and is rather an argument against nationalism.

  2. Clarice,
    You reserve the right to use phrases that others may assume to be snobbish, without being so judged. Do you not then have to grant other people the right to wave St George Flags, on the off-chance that they don’t subscribe or deserve the BNP label (or whatever) you ascribe to them? Was that not the basis of your argument over equestrian phraseology?
    A person can choose to display and defend any symbol they wish. My whole point is that it is precisely because people interpret symbols in different ways, we should not choose as our collective symbol something that alienates vast swathes of the population. A Christian Cross falls into this category, as would a Star of David, a Crescent Moon, a Swastika, a Manchester United Emblem, or the Labour Party logo.
    I think we’re in agreement, aren’t we? (except of course, over the correct spelling of mysodjyny – sorry about that).

  3. Roberto
    I believe we are in agreement, but my mind is “bloggled” by all of this complexity.
    I reserve the right to the novel use of phrases that a small minority of others, whose views I disagree with, may assume to be snobbish, without being so judged. I’m happy to be questioned on it, for the sake of clarity where it is required, so long as no unfounded assumptions are being made. The assumptions in question to which I objected were that people who refer obliquely to the riding of horses a) ride horses themselves b) are privileged c) disrespect the under-privileged, d) support fox-hunting and e) that the privileged themselves are to be held responsible for their privilege (even though that is the opposite of the very meaning of privilege), no matter how they use it. I do not believe that these assumptions would be shared or successfully defended by the majority of people, therefore I do not feel the need to be sensitive to them in my choice of phraseology.
    I do not feel the need to grant prison officers the right to wave/wear the st george cross, since the associations with that symbol are, I believe robust and widespread, constitute a “shared meaning”, if you will, and are based on real and observable uses of the symbol, not on unfounded assumptions, and therefore deserve sensitivity.
    I do agree that a person can choose to display whatever symbol they like, but the instruments of our institutions and authority such as prison officers should not be displaying symbols of racism or aggression towards prisoners. I think that’s dodgy. What they do in their own time is another matter, though I don’t think we should have racist or aggressive prison officers at all.
    None of the symbols you mention would be suitable as a collective symbol, no, but I think I was trying to point out that our collective symbol has been sullied with unpleasant associations due to its use and appropriation by aggressive and divisive groups of people. If we changed the English flag to something else, some other collective symbol, there’s a good chance it would have the same fate as the St George cross, owing to the types of behaviour/attitude that seem to be correlated with nationalism, as I mentioned. Can there be such a thing as national collectivism which could avoid those pitfalls?

  4. I share your conception of what both these symbols mean. But the point of the original article is precisely that different people see the same symbols in different ways, and any attempt to define for other people what the symbols mean is going to get us into problems for obvious reasons. The only way out is, as you say, to engage with them. Asking a cricket fan why he wears a cross of St George will yeild a different answer to asking someone at a BNP rally. Famously, the swasika means different things too, and even fast food is not immune.
    Faced with someone telling me they are liberated by wearing the Niqab, what right do I have to tell them they are mis-interpreting their own symbol? It is tantamount to saying I know what’s going on in their own head, the very definition of oppression, I think. Similarly, what right do I have to give them a symbol that they already reject? I don’t think states or groups can have that power over the individual, and I’m looking for a way to reconcile these disagreements over meanings. This reconcilliation – allowing someone their definition of a symbol – is essential for the multicultural project.

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