I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life but I have no trouble telling you the absolute worst one I ever saw. Its name was “Wilder Napalm”, and you’ve never seen it but believe me, that’s OK. It starred Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger (ask your parents) as pyromaniacs who could start fires with their minds. Dennis joined the circus. Someone drove a lawn mower a lot. The characters were one-dimensional, the plot was contrived, there was no emotional depth. The whole thing basically didn’t make sense. The only redeeming feature, which I’d find out years later, was that it was written by Vince Gilligan who went on to do the TV series “Breaking Bad.” Vince learned a lot about what not to do by writing Wilder Napalm.
However, there is one thing about Wilder Napalm that has always left me wondering if I’ve done it justice. The thing is, my buddy Koji got free tickets to see it because the film company hadn’t quite finished making it and they were screening it for a test audience. So, we went into it (1) having invested no money into it and (2) knowing it was not necessarily finished (we were quite scathing in our feedback, I can assure you). And so here’s what I wonder: Maybe the movie was fine, but because we hadn’t paid any of our own money to go see it, that influenced our view of the movie and made it easier to say we didn’t like it.
If that’s true, it means something interesting about our preferences. We tend to think that we “like” certain things; I like certain kinds of movies (dark, but not too bleak), particular books (smart but not too literary), guitar heavy sonic soundscapes, art that distorts but ultimately depicts reality, and big Aussie Cab Savs, preferably from Coonawarra. But psychologists know that our preferences are affected by lots of things that have nothing to do with our “taste.” For example, we like things more if we think they cost more; I can make you love the red wine I’m serving by telling you it cost $100 a bottle (you’ll like it more than the same wine in a $10 bottle). And it is not just how much they cost – it is also who owns them. You like things you own more than things you don’t own (as you know if you’ve ever sold a house; you can’t believe people don’t want to offer fair value on your great place, but then you can’t believe how greedy people are when you visit an open home). Finally, things become more appealing as they become more familiar. Despite love representing the match of two soul-mates, a really good predictor of a successful match is how far two people live from each other. Neither cost nor ownership nor familiarity represent inherent values or preferences; instead, they show that our minds continually change their interpretation of what we like as an object changes its relationship to us.
Which gets us to the flag. In New Zealand, we’re in the middle of an exercise to decide if we want a new flag. The whole process is pretty complicated, but basically there were over 10,000 entries, which a panel of eminent people whittled down to 40. Four finalists were selected, and we’re going to vote on our favourite of those, which will go up against our current flag in a second vote to decide whether we keep the Union Jack/Southern Cross flag that looks just like that of Australia, or go with the most successful of the “tea towel” options.
It all makes logical sense – you start with a large number and then whittle them down so that by the end you must have the “best.” Surely people have a good idea of what they like, and letting them choose among 10,000 alternatives will reveal those preferences. But a funny thing happened on the way to the flagpole. After the four finalists were announced, there was a general feeling that despite them having the features that people said should be on a flag (a “silver fern” or “koru”, and the Southern Cross), none of them were at all inspiring. In other words, we thought we knew what we wanted from a flag, but really we didn’t.
Then, #RedPeak happened. Overnight, a social media campaign sprang up around one of the “losers”. This flag didn’t have a kiwi or a fern or any stars, but the designer was able to articulate a story around the various elements. And suddenly, lots of people saw it as a flag, and could imagine it representing them. They realized that a flag doesn’t really work as a collection of known symbols, because then it looks like a depiction of that thing (“hey, look, a silver fern, there must be some All Blacks around here somewhere”) rather than (without wishing to sound overly pretentious) representing the infinite manifestations of New Zealand and its people.
Maybe you don’t buy any of that. But lots of people do seem to have suddenly realized what they wanted to talk about when it comes to the flag, except that now it is too late because we’re already locked into a process that is delivering one of a set of rather dull choices. We thought we liked silver ferns and southern crosses but actually we’re not so crazy about them. Red Peak is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has elevated the conversation in very positive ways and is going to have a huge influence on the outcome, even if it is not included. My guess is that whichever one of the tea towels is chosen, we’ll rally around the original flag, some people because they always liked it and some people because they prefer Red Peak or another alternative. Then, over the next 10 years, we’re going to see lots of these flags flying around us, and as we get more familiar with them we’ll slowly coalesce around one. Maybe we can all have our own flag. What’s wrong with that?
- I do have to admit that Jupiter Ascending, a recent film by the Wachowski siblings, is really terrible, and may be as bad as Wilder Napalm. I saw it on a plane so didn’t really pay for it either.
- While I’m critical of the process for selecting a new flag, I will not hear a word against Emeritus Professor John Burrows, who attended my wedding and is an all-round terrific person.