For whatever motive, Mr Key has opened a debate on our national flag. In my limited social circles it has been a bit of a non event. In the staff room, at dinner parties and in the various dodgy pubs and cafes I frequent it is not a great conversation starter. People are too busy getting on with their daily lives. The costly debate that Mr Key wanted to start has been a fizzer. In the broad context of human history it shouldn't be.
We have just acknowledged the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. I struggle with the terminology that has sometimes been used during past Anzac commemorations. "They fought for King and country and the flag" demeans the motivation of those Kiwis who fought in the world wars. No one would leap from a trench into a hail of machine gun fire or barbed wire for such abstract concepts. They went and fought for a variety of reasons.
Historical records suggest these included the desire for adventure and to be with their mates, patriotism, a wish to see the world as well as a sense of duty sometimes imposed by others. In many cases they were compelled to go. It is fascinating to listen to historical footage of old diggers. None refer to King or country or flag as a primary motivation for enlisting or going over the top. To deny this reality is an insult to their sacrifices. It invites a continuation of such myths and lends itself to future disasters. We fail to learn from history.
National flags and national anthems are a product of the 19th century. This was an era when the concept of national identity was forged. It was the era in which the national press first emerged in the form of newspapers. People began to travel more widely in their own countries due to railways. They began to identify with other people living within the same national boundaries rather than their local village or region. Politicians quickly exploited this change in perception, often painting other nations as the enemy. The horrors of World War I were a product of this new ideology of nationalism.
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Humans have always had a tendency towards tribalism. It is part of our evolutionary makeup. Nationalism fits this evolutionary urge perfectly. National flags and anthems are aimed at enforcing this urge.
The nationalist ideology that emerged during the 19th century has directly contributed to world wars, colonisation and the exploitation of indigenous populations. It has also contributed to various genocides. National flags and anthems are symbols of this destructive ideology that denies the shared humanity of all of us. It disregards the shared experiences of all humans as children, parents, workers and individuals who share the same emotions and experiences in our short existence on this planet.
Mr Key has given us a wonderful opportunity as a small group of various peoples living on several isolated islands in the South Pacific. We could create a flag we could all be proud of and that doesn't represent the historical divisiveness of nationalist emblems. A flag that included the international emblem of peace would signal the core value that our society aspires to.
Such a flag could also contain unique features of our society. It would send a statement to the rest of the world that in this age of globalisation we are serious about the concept of shared humanity regardless of national borders.
When our flag is raised at international events we could be proud because it sends a statement of our commonality with our fellow human beings rather than emphasising our differences. Our choice of design could be something all of us could be proud of. It could be a unique symbol of shared humanity that would be instantly recognisable on the world stage. If we are going to break with this short national tradition we need to emphasise human commonalities rather than national differences.
• Peter Lyons teaches at St Peter's College in Epsom.