AIDS ribbons and poppy-watching

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This image did the rounds on social media yesterday. At first I paid little attention to it but by the fourth or fifth posting I was curious as to what it was about. I read and re-read the two captions about the Work Programme, assuming that there was some glaring misrepresentation of the figures tailored to each leader. Unable to see any, I felt a little dumb. Then someone shared it explicitly pointing out what we were supposed to be looking at – the AIDS ribbons.

The ribbons are, of course, a way of both raising awareness and of remembering those affected. Reading some of the comments, however, it is pretty clear that the ribbon has become an expected accessory around this time of year – much like the poppy in late October/early November. I did buy a poppy this year but it fell off within ten minutes and (having made my donation) I didn’t feel the need to replace it. I understand that many have a problem with the poppy as a political symbol; I also understand that it simply doesn’t cross the mind of many to buy one. I have zero problem with these positions (and zero problem with the teenager who posted a burning poppy on his Facebook) – it’s what freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are about. Yet ‘poppy-watching’ has become a feature of the period, with twitter accounts and countless topics of forums devoted to discussing who is and (more frequently) who isn’t wearing one. Presumably the proponents of this believe that they are ensuring due respect is paid to those who ‘died that we might live’ – I think that while such respect is important in human terms, it shouldn’t be reified. It’s something we should personally reflect on – why did these people fight, why did they die, what was at stake? This reflection undoubtedly leads to innumerable different conclusions and many of them do not fit nicely with the mystification of the armed forces which is such a core tenet of poppy-watching. It’s easy to stick a poppy on because you’re supposed to; it’s far more difficult to separate respect for human life and human sacrifice from a sceptical approach to authority and war. For me, part of my respect for men like Harry Patch is to attempt in my own small way to understand the function played by the armed forces in modern society and to question (and oppose, if necessary) it. This includes opposing the uncritical, unengaged stance which the ‘respect’ is supposed to take for many. So while I understand and appreciate the importance of the poppy for many, I am wary of the symbol becoming the object of discussion rather than what it is supposed to symbolise.

Much the same can be said of the AIDS ribbon. In this image, the implicit (but barely so) assumption we’re supposed to make is that the evil coalition don’t care about AIDS while noble Labour does. I’m not even sure of the ‘rules’ around AIDS ribbons myself – I’ve not worn one so far this year and I’ve barely seen anyone else doing so. This hasn’t stopped the point-scoring. Yet I would wonder how many people sharing it pay any attention to Government policies and funding regarding HIV and AIDS, not only here but around the world (it’s the third-biggest killer in low-income countries but not in the top ten in the so-called ‘First World’). Tackling HIV/AIDS involves political choices regarding austerity, taxation, developmental aid, poverty, culture and more. None of these are things which can be summed up by whacking on a ribbon for a week each year.

Now, one very interesting aspect of this was that it was overwhelmingly gay men who seemed to be sharing the image. Some of the responses I saw believed Labour’s mass adoption of the ribbon to be a cynical response to the Government’s reported plans to rush through legislation on gay marriage. This is how quickly identity politics gets absolutely absurd. At PMQs yesterday they ‘discussed’ (in the facile, braying manner typical of PMQs) the flooding hitting the country, the Leveson enquiry, unemployment, welfare, the rail system, tax avoidance, the Middle East and the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. As a gay man, however, I’m reduced in the eyes of many to being impressed by the coalition’s policy on gay marriage but liking Labour’s red ribbons. All of the other stuff, much of which has a far more tangible impact on my daily life, is unworthy of comment. It’s supremely facile and patronising. It also fails to understand the global reality of HIV/AIDS today, which is that it is far from being a ‘gay disease’ and disproportionately affects women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course the gay community has a unique, tragic history with HIV/AIDS but in viewing the red ribbon as an identification with ‘us’ we ultimately do the cause (and ourselves) a disservice. Indeed, many of the people sharing this image would undoubtedly be outraged if HIV/AIDS was referred to as a ‘gay disease’. Whatever the history, the disease is not ‘ours’ to be used as a weapon deployed to curry our favour. As a gay man in the UK you’re far more likely to die of circulatory disease, cancer and respiratory disease than of HIV/AIDS and just as the former three unite everyone to ‘stand up’ against them, we should hope for the same response to the latter, free of our own rush to offence.

We’ve come a long way when AIDS ribbons are seen as signifiers of being ‘good’ but what ultimately matters are actions and understanding. Going down the path of ‘ribbon-watching’ does nothing to help these things and if we find ourselves doing that we should pause and think about why. What does the ribbon mean to us? Why is it so important that we see people wearing it? What do we do in our own lives to further the aspects we value so much? This seems to me to be a far more thoughtful and respectful response to the symbol, which should never ever become the point of the discussion.

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