What’s in a Flag?

If I had been looking for an example to describe a lilliputian dilemma, the phrase I decided to have title this blog, I would’ve done well to have chosen the “great debates” nations go through to change their ultimate symbols, their flags. It’s the sort of example where there isn’t truly a bad outcome, yet one where passions run high, and debate occasionally runs through to apocalyptic scenarios if change happens this way or that. I’m guilty of these passions myself, and am guilty of raising the topic far too many times with my friends in Singapore, for whom changing the New Zealand flag was not exactly vital world news.

What’s in a flag? Why the radically opposing views, to the extent that votes were sharply split between non-voters, pro-change and protest votes? And how does a nation decide on a flag when everyone seems to conceptualise of a flag in a different way?

For a flag is not viewed uniformly. I think first of our flag at the United Nations. I think of it flying outside our embassies and on our ambassadors’ cars in fifty capitals, and I think of it flying on the Beehive and sewn onto our soldier’s sleeves. Our Prime Minister first thinks of the flag being waved by thousands as the All Blacks play the Wallabies, and my friends think of it in their bedrooms at universities around the world. Others think of it as a sticker on their laptop, a patch on their backpack, or a profile photo on Facebook.

I do think of our flag in these other contexts, but after thinking of it in the international context, as a symbol of our country to the world. My international upbringing, and the fact that I currently live overseas, leads the international portrayal to be the one to come first to my mind. This situation will likely be reversed for other New Zealanders; indeed, many may find it incomprehensible that I first view what is fundamentally a domestic symbol in an international context.

Effective symbols must unite the different backgrounds that everyone, even those under one banner, inevitably have; they must take the variety of contexts that individuals’ backgrounds lead them to conceptualise of the symbol in, and look good in all situations. This is not an easy task. And I think it’s also the reason why so many of us in this country, amongst our friends and in our own families, have struggled over the past months to understand others’ points of view. For my part, I will admit that I cannot understand the perspective of wanting to keep our current flag with the Union Jack on it. I can conceive that others’ life experiences, and others’ mental visualisations of the flag, may lead to that conclusion; but because I don’t have those experiences or visualisation, I cannot actually understand that perspective. Some people very close to me cannot understand my support for the so-called Red Peak, and likewise I cannot understand why a logo-like flag could be preferred over it.

These debates and misunderstandings—in fact, not misunderstandings, but inabilities to understand—happening across New Zealand aren’t a result of the way that this flag referendum has been run. The process has been fine, in my opinion. No, these inabilities to understand are simply the result of the difficulties in choosing a single symbol that must conform best, on average, to the multitude of mental conceptualisations of the flag that four million New Zealanders have. Should we be surprised that many weren’t happy with the four shortlisted designs? I suggest not. Should we be surprised that the vote was split many different ways, including indifference and protest? Again, probably not. And should we be surprised if, at our first attempt, we don’t change our flag? No. Symbols are complex, they function through one’s own lived and thought experiences, and to find one that a majority of us prefer over the status quo is a task that should be expected to take time.

We will have referenda on the flag in future, and it might not be surprising if it does not succeed even at the second try. But merely having the debate, having the issue in the public mind for stretches of time, increases the likelihood of convergence in those conceptualisations of symbols. The longer people discuss, debate, and think about the issues, the more—gradually, yes—there will be subtle changes in opinion, just as polls have shown change in flag preferences since the debate started earlier this year. Over years, perhaps I will come to conceive of the flag more at sporting events than the United Nations, and perhaps others will come to see the vitality I see in the Red Peak. Gradually there will become more overlap in thinking and conceiving of a flag to represent this country, and as time goes on so therefore will the likelihood that we will get both a new flag and a flag that will best serve us.

“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object”—this describes my idea of the point at which people must be when there is convergence on a single symbol. Only when those metaphorical hearts speak in a similar way, and in ways that people cannot fully find words to describe, will there have been enough convergence in views of the symbol that there will be sufficient support to change the flag. I fully agree with Rowan Simpson on his reasons for supporting the Red Peak, for instance; but I feel that by having to explain in detail all the aspects of the flag that make it desirable, the inexplicable strong feelings that some have towards it are somehow lost. Only when we cannot explain the strength of identity we feel towards one of the symbols is it likely enough to get the groundswell needed for change.

For the record, I will be spoiling my vote in the second round of this referendum. I desperately want a new flag for this country. But the blue and black Silver Fern with Southern Cross is not, for me, the one, precisely because it is so easily rationalised, and because it gives me no feeling of pride and excitement that I cannot explain. Nor could I bring myself to vote against the blue and black for our current flag, which I truly feel does not represent this country I know. Change takes time, especially when it comes to finding a single symbol to represent millions. If what’s in a flag are the experiences and aspirations of millions, we shouldn’t be surprised that the first four designs we are presented with don’t quite cut it. As much as I want a new flag, I’d rather wait for the right one.

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