Is equality law making us less tolerant?
IS IT any coincidence that the level of tolerance in British society appears to be diminishing as the volume of equality legislation grows?
The sight of political and religious leaders of widely differing beliefs and opinions standing shoulder to shoulder at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday was a welcome contrast to the disputes and division which have marred this year’s poppy appeal.
The decision by the Hollister store in Southampton to ban a model employed to wear its clothes from wearing a poppy, except on Remembrance Day itself, was to say the very least a public relations gaffe which, one hopes, has cost it some lost custom.
On the other hand, Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow did have something of a point when he complained of “poppy fascism” in response to criticism over his refusal to wear a poppy on-screen. He insisted that he had bought a poppy which he would wear privately but felt it inappropriate to wear symbols when reading the news.
One may find this approach a bit on the precious side when applied to the remembrance poppy – a symbol, certainly, but one intended to be universal – but there is an inescapable logic in his view that the freedom for which the nation’s war dead fought must include the freedom not to wear a poppy if one chooses.
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Harder to justify are the protest by a section of Celtic FC fans against the temporary addition of a poppy to their players’ shirts and the burning of poppies by an equally small Islamic group in London.
These protests were plainly calculated to cause offence and are rightly now the subject of investigation, although both also, arguably, involved an element of legitimate protest, albeit inappropriately targeted at the poppy emblem.
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Perhaps most worrying of all was the retaliatory attack in which a poppy was painted on the wall of a mosque in Southsea, near Portsmouth, despite its members having nothing to do with the protest in London.
I was proud to wear a poppy throughout the period leading up to Remembrance Sunday, whether privately or at work, despite the fact that I believe, for example, the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war to have been entirely wrong.
I don’t regard the fact that I did so as a suitable matter for protest by others, just as I made no protest about those who did not wear one. If, on the other hand, others think the poppy is a legitimate target for protest then that is their right too, provided they remain within the law.
But the more the law focuses on our rights in terms of equality the less we seem willing to exercise tolerance in respect of those who cause us offence – whether, in this case, it is by wearing a poppy or by not wearing one.