Peace de Résistance

The peace symbol has turned fifty! And while we are not any closer to world peace than we were at its birth, the fact that it is now a universally recognised sign (with its own Unicode keystroke, hexadecimal 262E) is a just cause for celebration.

Ironically, the symbol was not created as a peace sign. It was designed by an English anti-nuclear activist named Gerald Holtom for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose first president was Sir Bertrand Russell. The symbol is a combination of the semaphore flags for "N" and "D", representing "nuclear disarmament". The sign made its debut during the Easter weekend in 1958 when nuclear protesters marched from London to Aldermaston to oppose the perceived British eagerness to join the nuclear arms race (Britain carried out a series of nuclear tests, code-named Operation Grapple, in 1957-58). The "peace" buttons adorning the sign during the march were made of fired porcelain, symbolising the fact that clay would be among the few human artifacts to survive a nuclear inferno.

The metamorphosis of the symbol from nuclear disarmament to peace protests, is due in part to Martin Luther King, Jr, who borrowed it for the American civil rights movement. It became closely associated with peace when a freshman at the University of Chicago brought back one of the porcelain buttons from London, and convinced the Student Peace Union to embrace it as their symbol. As America got itself embroiled in Vietnam, the popularity of the peace symbol shot up overnight, with even conscientious objectors in the military chalking the sign on their helmets.

In the history of human symbolism, one cannot overstate the importance of simplicity, and the role it plays in public acceptance. Cases in point include Churchill's "V" sign for victory (also adapted as a peace sign by the hippie movement), and the clenched fist sign popularised by the Black Panther Party as a symbol of defiance. The peace symbol falls in the same category (with proportions more flexible than the similar Mercedes-Benz crest, it can be drawn accurately even by a child), and this explains why its popularity has eclipsed the Judeo-Christian peace symbol of a white dove carrying an olive branch.

Unfortunately, because the peace symbol is closely identified with its political pedigree, it has not crossed the line of establishmentarian acceptance the way that doves are released in a symbolic gesture at the Olympics, or "extending an olive branch" has become a mainstream diplomatic expression. On the one hand, it has drawn the ire and mockery of the war-baiting fundamentalist right-wing, who (using a creative stretch of the imagination) describe it as the "footprint of the American chicken", suggesting that protesters are cowards. On the other, it has made in-roads into the world of advertising and commerce, and is increasingly visible as a fashion appendage, in part because the symbol was never subject to copyright (the CND continues to believe that a symbol for freedom should be free for all). However, as long as the sign is continued to be used (and worn) in the spirit in which it was designed-- to make an individual statement against mutually assured destruction-- publicity for peace will do less harm than good.

Everybody's talking about ministers,
Sinisters, banisters and canisters,
Bishops and fishops, and Rabbis and Popeyes,
And bye-byes, bye-byes.
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance.

John Lennon, Give Peace a Chance

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BBC acknowledges the 50th anniversary after you :-)