The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What's in a flag? - Part II: International Attitudes

Since the data used in my poll or in Quora did not account for international opinion, I ventured to make my own inquiry about the attitudes towards flags and national symbols worldwide.

Among other things that I found there was this survey by the Reputation Institute. Funnily enough, India outranks both China and the USA in terms of national self-image, and the list itself is topped by Australia. Most importantly,  note that none of the counties in that study put themselves below 50, suggesting that even with a perceived negative self-image, on average most people everywhere have a respect for their country.

I further analysed flag culture in two particular countries - the USA and Germany.


The USA is probably the only place in the world where you can find this:
Astounding, isn't it? So I looked in their official flag code, and here are some major differences I found vs. India

  1. Their brand of patriotism is a mixture of fanatic yet extremely informal affection
    The kind of devotion shown to the US flag rivals the respect shown to many religious symbols worldwide. Yet the depiction of the flag is not exactly reverent - you can easily find the flag on a bikini  as over a formal establishment.
    By contrast, Indians treat the Tricolour with far more formality.
  2. The US Flag code does not contain any penalties or enforcement provisions for noncompliance
    You can actually use flags as doormats or even burn them in protests without legal consequence. The concept of social conditioning or legal force does not seem to arise here.


In Germany, we see a different picture. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the present flag was adopted on 3rd October 1990. The colours and associated symbolism however, go back to the Frankfurt Revolution of 1848,  technically making it older than our Tricolour.

And yet, as Wikipedia says, 
In Germany the use of the flag and other national symbols has been relatively low for most of the time since the Second World War—a reaction against the widespread use of flags by the Nazi Party and against the nationalistic furore of the Nazis in general. The flag is used primarily by official authorities on special occasions or by citizens during international sporting events.
Indeed, Germans make a clear distinction between being "happy to be German" and being "proud to be German. As this video (start at 3:52) shows, most Germans take the former stance.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What's in a Flag? - Part I: India

In my continuous bid to understand the world through the study of stories and storytelling, I happened to hit a particular roadblock. Said roadblock was a concept that I found seriously difficult to understand, but without which I could not proceed in my studies.

Therefore, taking a cue from MCU villain catchphrase "Discovery requires experimentation" I decided to perform a social experiment… more like an opinion poll. The objective of the poll was to understand if public opinion associated a national symbol with the particular concept that I'm interested in. For my poll I chose the national flag.

Flags and banners have a primarily military origin, serving to distinguish between sides in a battle and various other military purposes. Nevertheless, national flags are the most conspicuous national symbols used worldwide. National anthems stand at second place and national emblems are used far more sparingly, especially in public.


I also included the answers (and comments) from this question posed on the forum called Quora, included some downvoted comments which I nevertheless felt were relevant to my question. This brought up my total no. of data points to about 50.


Here's a word cloud of the Facebook poll.

Here's the word cloud when I add the Quora data points

Now the above graphics are made out of raw word-count. Upon more detailed analysis, all the opinions/reasons could be reduced to 9 categories ranked in order of mentions, viz

  1. Collective identity (25%)
    National symbols are useful in transcending and redefining individual identity, by giving people a sense of higher purpose. This is not about the government or its machinery, but the social cohesion of the people.
  2. Intrinsic emotion (18%)
    People are moved by genuine filial/fraternal affection for the country and its citizens and therefore respect the national symbols spontaneously. This is best demonstrated during sporting events.
  3. Representation of cherished values/ideals (13%)
    National symbols are designed carefully to depict the core values and heritage of the nation, and respect for the symbols is a form of understanding and internalizing those values.
  4. Irrational (12%)
    Respecting national symbols due to any reason, especially emotional ones, is ultimately irrational. Nationalism is divisive and counterproductive, and ultimately causes more harm than good.
  5. Obligation to the state and its machinery (10%)
    The state and its machinery deliver important services to the people in the state, including fundamental rights and security. Therefore respecting the symbols of the state is part of the social contract between the state and its people, whereby the people recognize and thank the state.
  6. Result of Conditioning/Social Engineering (9%)
    Respect for national symbols is a learned behaviour, promoted by the state/politicians, often due to their own agenda.
  7. Neither Respect nor Disrespect (5%)
    National symbols are to be merely acknowledged, and are not worthy of either respect or disrespect.
  8. Enforced by Law (4%)
    In India, the
    Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act,1971 makes it a crime to disrespect the national flag and anthem. Hence the show of respect.
  9. Object of (religious) devotion (4%)
    Nationalism as a type of religion, and consequently National symbols are compared to sacred objects. Sacred objects should be respected irrespective of adherence to religion. 

Interested? Read more about international attitudes in the next post.