Every nation has a unique flag to call its own, but when is it ok to use it? It seems fine when supporters proudly wave their nation’s flag during international sporting events, but often many will disapprove of this prolific nationalistic behaviour outside of the stadium. Is nationalism the new dirty word? If so why is it ok to have miniature flags planted in our snacks at parties, while sewing our nation’s colours on your backpack could be considered ultra-nationalist or even racist? Although nations have clearly defined protocols on how flags are attached to a pole, vehicles, in front of buildings or uniforms and during half-mast. It seems that the social conduct outside official events is a very different matter.
Even though national flags are directly tied to the sharp rise of popular nationalism in the 18th century, the practise of putting one’s symbols on a piece of fabric is far from recent. Empires of old used banners or standards to separate themselves from the enemy, and they often depicted the dynasty’s coat of arms that was in power. Since the rise of nationalism coat of arms have evolved into the type of flags we see today. Flags often convey a certain set of values that are connected to its design, which are often deeply intertwined with a nation’s history.
Tiny flags in food – okay. Flags sewed on your clothes – provocative. Flag protocol can be tricky. Picture: Nic McPhee, Flickr
The historian Eric J. Hobsbawmexplained that nations intend to differentiate themselves through their respective values and behavioural norms. These are instilled through the repetition of behaviour, which eventually evolve into traditions that are exclusive to a country. The national anthem or special celebration days connected to independence, the monarchy, or religion are all examples of traditions that are unique to every country. It is through these traditions that nations contrast themselves from others and through which they continuously develop their collective national identity. Flags play a pivotal role as they wave, and thus convey their symbolic message, all year round in plenty of places scattered around the world.
It is therefore not uncommon that flags are redesigned after a profound change of governance, or significant events that radically alter the sentiments within a country. John Key the Prime Minister of New Zealand wishes to hold a referendum on changing the flag in 2015 since he finds it is too often mistaken for Australia’s flag. This has consequently sparked a debate on how the flag should look and whether it should be changed at all. New Zealand is not the only country that wants to redesign its flag as on 3 February the Republic of Fiji announced that it would redesign its flag in order to get rid of old symbols that represent the bygone era of British colonialism.
In Time’s February 16, 2015 edition, three other examples preceded these two countries, as in 2010 Burma also changed its flag after it drafted a new constitution, Georgia after the Rose Revolution in 2003 and Rwanda after the horrifying genocide in 1994 in order to reflect unity. These examples show how flags reflect the political values existing in a country and underline the fact that flags just like governance are not fixed, static phenomena. The strong connection between a nation’s history and its flag explains flag burning as expressions of hatred towards other countries, or the reason why some people proudly plant one in front of their house.
England supporters form the St Georges Cross behind each goal. England vs Hungary at Old Trafford. Picture: Carey Baird, Flickr
How people react to practises connected to their national flag can depend on what kind of patriotic sentiments they have. However, it is not far-fetched to suggest that we all associate ourselves at least to a certain degree to the national identity we were born in. During our lives it seems likely that we have learnt a bit about our nation’s golden times and have been exposed to a number of celebrations of national traditions. It is therefore not unlikely that these events instil feelings of positive association towards the nation, or nations in the case of dual nationalists. This also means, that the symbols and positive feeling connected towards the nation can easily be exploited by various political parties.
Some national flags have been exploited by populist politicians in their rise to power. Others have been used by racist groups, which partially explains why some negative associations exist concerning flags. With nationalism being the new dirty word it has made some people sneer at the sight of prolific flag usage outside national events. International sport events, on the contrary, make some people burst with excitement resulting in a flamboyant display of commitment of people cladded in the colours of their nation. Finally, one’s approval of flags in party snacks may therefore have more to do with the tasty pickings than with one’s taste for flag display.