When do symbols stop being political?

by @edent | # # | 4 comments

I am a civil servant in the UK - this is my personal blog. As part of my job, I have to follow the Civil Service Code which, among other things, says I'm not allowed to be political at work.

Political Impartiality

You must:

  • serve the government ... no matter what your own political beliefs are
  • comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities

You must not:

  • act in a way that is determined by party political considerations
  • allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.

That's probably a good thing. I should execute my duties without regard to my personal political feelings. If an elected official asks me to do something, I shouldn't refuse or undermine them if I voted for a different party.

If I turned up to work wearing a t-shirt saying "Vote for the Whig Party!" I'd probably be sent home.

But what if I wore a badge which said "Votes For Women" and displayed the suffragette colours? Now that women have the vote, is the symbol still political?

Well, the suffragette flag has done a tour of civil service buildings - and senior staff have happily posed with it.

Undoubtedly there are probably still a few people who think extending the vote to women was a bad idea and should be rescinded. But that is so far outside of the mainstream that I don't think a complaint would be upheld.

What about other political symbols?

I'm proud to wear a rainbow lanyard at work. It is a sign off allyship with my LGBT+ colleagues (other acronyms are available). It is a visible sign that as an employer - and as an individual - we will stand up for equal rights, and tackle homophobia and transphobia.

Is that a political symbol?

The USA banned the flying of rainbow flags from its embassies. Some modern political candidates can be quite open in their desire to roll back equal rights. It is a political symbol, right?

A quick conversation with some of my gay and bi friends found a split opinion. "Pride is a riot - and the rainbow flag is a symbol of political protest" said one. Someone else thought it was so mainstream due to rainbow-washing (where companies use Pride as a marketing tool) that it was meaningless.

Another pointed out this part of the Civil Service Code:

You must carry out your responsibilities in a way that is fair, just and equitable and reflects the Civil Service commitment to equality and diversity

(Emphasis added)

Equality is a political position. But it is one which is (fairly) mainstream and thus has the appearance of neutrality.

But nothing is truly neutral.

My personal political views on universal suffrage and gay rights may happen to be reasonably mainstream, but I've chatted with people at work who are uncomfortable wearing a rainbow. Some because they think people will think they're gay, some because it might be seen as appropriation, and some because they don't believe in the cause behind it.

Thankfully the latter are rare.

But it doesn't escape my mind that symbols have meanings, and nothing is truly neutral.

🏳️‍🌈

4 thoughts on “When do symbols stop being political?

  1. Neil Lawrence says:

    I still think extending the vote to people with beards was a bad move 😉

    1. Nigel Metheringham says:

      I suspect it started with votes for those with beards. Extending it to the beardless was a later move, of debatable soundness.

  2. Seems you’re doing well with a post a day and getting the drafts published. Keep up the good work, I’m enjoying reading your thoughts.


  3. Marcus Downing says:

    There are some jobs - such as yours - that I'd have to think twice about accepting, because of the risk that I'd find it hard to set my political views aside. If I worked for a government with a policy I strongly disagreed with, and was asked to personally be part of making that policy happen, I don't know whether I'd stand up for my beliefs in violation of the rules, or act like a professional and give in to peer pressure. There are obviously some examples where refusing to do your job is just being an arsehole at work, and other examples where just doing your job is objectively evil. I'm lucky enough to live in a reasonably civilised country where the latter are in a minority, but they still exist.

    This isn't theoretical. Had life and history taken a slightly different turn, I could have ended up with a job at GCHQ / NCSC implementing tools for spying on British citizens, something I now believe to be very wrong.

    I don't know how other people reconcile this conflict. For example, since Trump's election, many good people in the US armed forces are in constant danger of being ordered to do something that runs counter to the oath they swore, something that undermines rather than defends the principles and safety of the US. How do they balance those competing demands? There will always be politicians you disagree with, whatever your political position, and that's fine and to be expected; but the current president is an extreme example. Is there a point where they'd refuse orders? Or is the chain of command powerful enough to override their morals?

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