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.