Monday 6 July 2015

What makes a symbol?

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives.

Symbols are visual metaphors – we see something, and it evokes a set of pre-conceived knowledge. We see ☮ and we think peace, anti-war, pacifist protests of the 70s and 80s, and all the free love that went along with that. It’s a symbol that was used by British nuclear disarmament activists made from the semaphore signals for the letters N and D, later used by anti-war campaigners in the US, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, crossing national and cultural boundaries around the world. A simple symbol conveys a lot of information – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

A new flag is just another type of symbol – a visual image that should resoundly say “New Zealand” in a way that transcends language and geographic barriers. It should be something that we are proud of, something that when we carry overseas is immediately recognisable. When someone sees the flag, they should think “that’s a good country”. It should evoke some positive emotion, it should bring forth enjoyable memories, it should create some intangible sense that the country that the flag represents is of value. A new flag is as much a marketing exercise as it is about national identity.

In some ways it’s not too important what the actual symbol is, as long as it can be identified as uniquely New Zealand. That’s a good argument for why we should change the flag in the first place – the similarity to Australia’s flag does leave room for confusion, and from a branding perspective that leaves us in a dangerous place. Even with the status quo, New Zealanders do not proudly stand beside their flag – whether it’s at sporting events or when we’re selling tourism, the white fern on a black background features more commonly than our actual flag. For large swathes of the world and even large chunks of New Zealand, the existing flag evokes nothing. That’s something we need to fix.

Of course, symbols are not always independent or mutually exclusive. A flag is a place for multiple symbols to melt together, fighting for space on a limited canvas. The current flag perhaps uses symbols that do not exemplify New Zealand well, from the imperialistic vestige of the Union Jack to the naval waypoint of the Southern Cross (that we can’t even see half the time because of all the clouds). Most New Zealanders cannot relate to these symbols, and most foreigners cannot relate these symbols back to New Zealand. We’re long overdue for a rebrand.

For all the opponents who argue “why now?” the answer is that now is as good a time as any. We can postpone this indefinitely, but the longer we leave it, the longer our international image will be inhibited. We are lucky that we live in a country that doesn’t have the patriotic brainwashing of many others, and that we can even bring up the idea of changing the flag without being completely ostracised from society. The longer we leave the flag, the longer its legacy will last and the harder it will be to change. We have far better symbols than the existing flag, symbols that shout “NEW ZEALAND” to casual passers-by, symbols that New Zealanders are proud to show off to the world. Why should we continue to settle for a flag that poorly reflects who we are?

For all the opponents who argue that this process is costing too much, there’s no answer that will make them happy. Spend too little on the process and get accused of being undemocratic, spend too much and get accused of wasting public funds. How much is the right amount to spend? If we’re going through this process, it is far better to spend too much and get the flag right, than to spend too little and come up with a poor replacement. Let me be clear - we’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of politics and democracy, and sometimes compromises are not possible. There are indeed other important issues that need to be addressed, from poverty to housing to education. But our national identity is also similarly crucial, and getting this wrong has long lasting implications.

I don’t know what a new flag should look like. What I do know is that we have uniquely New Zealand symbols, from the Kiwi to the Silver Fern, that tell the world that New Zealanders aren’t far behind. When our young people go on their overseas experiences, I want a flag that makes the locals welcome the visitors with warm hugs. When our business people attend conferences and expos, I want a flag that makes people open up their wallets and trust that their money will be in good hands. When our team marches into the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, I want a flag that makes the crowd cheer louder than they cheer for any other country. We deserve a uniquely New Zealand flag to join our bag of symbols, a symbol that we can be proud of.

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