The Case for the Companion Flag; or, Pinpointing and Resolving ‘The Great Correctable Error’



Sec. 2

I’ve defined “sameness awareness,” but I need to make sure people know what sameness awareness isn’t.


It’s not achieved when we tell ourselves that people are alike in some ways, or that we are both different and the same. You’ve probably heard people say, “deep down we’re all the same,” or “we’re more alike than different.” In reference to some incident or misguided behavior, someone might say, “Well, he’s only human,” or “We all make mistakes.”

There’s nothing wrong with these sayings, but they’re not substitutes for sameness awareness. Sameness awareness happens only when we — as a moral actor or potential moral actor — have as part of our active awareness of the other in the run-up to forming an intention to act one or more of his or her human samenesses.

I think you covered this. At least, I thought you did.

Oh. Maybe so. Anyway, it’s worth emphasizing. Sameness awareness triggers an affective response — compassionate moral impulses. I don’t think repeating truisms and sayings does that.

The other thing that is not sameness awareness is when we, as moral actors, perceive a human difference in the other that we happen to share. Take gender. I could encounter someone and think to myself, “OK, I see his gray mustache, his age, his beat-up blue car, but I also see that he’s a man like me. This must mean I have both difference awareness and sameness awareness.” No. The fact that he’s a male and I’m a male doesn’t make my awareness of his gender sameness awareness.

Being male is a human difference, so seeing it in him is still difference awareness.

Exactly. The same goes if I perceive or already know that he’s an American like me, or speaks English, or is a Seahawks fan like me. The fact that we share these differences doesn’t change them into samenesses.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Sorry to slow you down.

No-no. You didn’t. Those are good clarifications.

Going back to the flag… Has it been flown or adopted anywhere, do you know?

Oh yes. Years ago, I set out to introduce the Companion Flag at various schools, universities, and conferences. I’d typically offer a flag at each venue, and most recipients (especially the schools) accepted and adopted it on the spot, formally or otherwise. Over the years, numerous individuals have expressed interest in promoting the idea and have adopted and flown the Companion Flag, too, although I don’t know the number.

I don’t sell Companion Flags, by the way. I want to make that clear. I’ve made a few and I’ve helped people find flag shops that are willing to make them. Again, one of the advantages of the simple design is how easy they are to make, or to have made.

Where are some of these schools, universities, and conferences?

There are several nearby, as you can imagine; but also, schools in India, Uzbekistan, South Korea, New Zealand, Mexico, Australia, Costa Rica, Peru, Malta, Russia (that was a conference), Israel (that was a conference, too), Japan… It’s quite a list. I presented at an NGO Conference at the UN, as well. That was in 2000. I know I’m missing a few places…


Yes. Canada and Mexico. Not every place adopted it, mind you. But the idea was well received, and several did. Here are some photos…

[Readers wishing to see the photos visit the Gallery.]

These are all from your trips?

Not all of them. Some are adoptions initiated by other people, Companion Flag Ambassadors.

Cool. This one with the buglers is awesome! It says, “Mann Public School. Discipline, Knowledge, Patriotism.”

Yeah, that’s in New Delhi. All thanks to a wonderful woman I met in Lucknow. She took the idea home with her and a month or two later, she sent me this photo.

Dear friends Jen and Winston Yeung introduced the Companion Flag at this school in New Zealand. (There have been so many wonderful ambassadors for this idea! It’s amazing and heartwarming!)

Is this the Smith Tower?


I thought I recognized it.

And here it is on top of the ____________ Building in downtown Seattle. …This one is a display inside the Hamilton International Middle School in Seattle. …Here’s the Companion Flag displayed in the rigging of a sailboat that sailed from Seattle to French Polynesia and back.

I like this one. A college professor in Japan had his students make miniatures host flags and Companion Flags. …These are students at a middle school in Peru. …These were taken during an adoption ceremony at a school in Malta.

Are you still traveling around, giving talks? 

No. I haven’t for some time.

Especially now, I imagine, with the Covid pandemic.

I stopped years ago. In 2008 or 9, my wife had a health scare and I decided it was time to regroup, go back to practicing law, and spend more time here at home.

Is she all right?

Yes. Thank you. She’s fine.

I haven’t lost enthusiasm for the idea; but right away the change had me looking at things differently. I began to pore over books and articles on philosophy and psychology, trying to figure out what it is about this project that keeps me so interested and focused on it. I had no history with flags or symbols, you understand, so what was really going on here — for me, I mean?

I was attracted by its simplicity; that much I knew. It fit a mental burr that I’ve had for years: the idea that there exists somewhere (in the ether, I suppose) some plain and elementary perspective about our human condition that (A) we’re not seeing for some reason; and (B) that, if we did see it, it would surely reduce to a great extent the horrors that we inflict on each other, “man’s inhumanity to man.” I guess my bias has always been that the degree of intra-species violence and cruelty in the human world is unnatural. That it’s being propped up by something out-of-whack, and if we can just put our heads together… You know what I mean?

Yeah, I think we’ve all had that feeling. It’s like, “Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute! Something’s seriously off here.”

But why I’m so convinced that adopting a new flag is part of this, or has a role to play, I don’t know. Would flying the Companion Flag in every city, town, and village where flags are flown really change things for the better? Substantively, I mean? Would it reduce suffering? I know it wouldn’t stop all violence and cruelty, but would it make a sizable dent? Would it save lives?

Like any symbol, its value is (and must be) instrumental. But how exactly would it work? What is the instrumental value of a symbol that, while solemnly and conspicuously displayed daily in every corner of the world, represents not all of what we are, but only those parts that are common to us? The experiences we share. Where does sameness awareness fit in in our day-to-day lives? Answering that question as best I can is Job One for me now.

I should have —

And it’s led me to undertake this “deep dive” into the psychology and philosophy of moral actions.

I should have asked this before. Did you come up with the Companion Flag idea?

I suppose I did. Believe it or not, it flitted into my tired brain completely out of the blue on a transatlantic flight in 1985. One moment my thoughts were who-knows-where; the next, I’m imagining a banner flying with the other flags of the world speaking directly to what we all have in common. And to the mere fact of those commonalities.

Under the circumstances, it’s kind of hard to say I “came up with” anything. It’s more like it came up with me; or at least that’s how it feels. Suddenly, it’s just there. Who knows how or why that happens?


After reading The Philosophical Baby by the psychologist Alison Gopnik, I’m convinced that these kinds of counterfactual ruminations happen to us all, like you said. The real question for me is why it morphed into a lifetime obsession.

I thought about this a couple days ago. It seems to me that what you’re trying to do here is discourage binary thinking — the idea that things must be seen one way or the other: either we’re all different or all the same when it comes to what matters.

That’s true I suppose — at least when it comes to moral actions. But the way you say it gives me pause.

How so?

I have an over-the-top fear of being — or appearing to be — prescriptive, of treading on people’s freedoms.


You know, like when a doctor prescribes a medicine…

When I say, “All of us are made up of both human differences and human samenesses,” I’m describing the world as I see it; but if I were to say to you or anyone else, “From now on, in the run-up to every moral action, you should develop both difference awareness and sameness awareness before acting, and not be satisfied with difference awareness alone,” that’s prescriptive.

But isn’t that what you want? Last time you said it’s incoherent for anyone to rely on difference awareness alone. I thought that was The Great Correctable Error.

It is. That’s my hypothesis. If I can prove it descriptively then people will, of their own accord, make the change. New parents, caregivers, teachers—they will model a new paradigm for infants and young children.

We haven’t talked yet about how difficult it is for adults and even older children and adolescents who’ve been raised under the old paradigm, the one you and I know, to address The Great Correctable Error. “Difference awareness only” has been with homo sapiens so long precisely because our non-conscious brains have detected and encoded it during infancy, making it a reflexive and hidden part of our lives. We repeat the error habitually and unknowingly, as though it were natural to us individually and collectively. The greatest hope for correction, therefore, lies with new babies, toddlers, and youngsters whose non-conscious brains are shown and therefore encode a different paradigm of coherence.

It can take decades, even centuries, to change an entrenched paradigm like this. I read somewhere that it took over 150 years for people to accept Galileo’s proof that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Telling someone they must believe this or that is not the answer.

Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying: “You cannot make another man do good, you can only create the conditions under which he will choose to do good.” I particularly like this for its embrace of individual freedom and the role of choice-making. The sobering truth is that, bracketing our conventional moral or ethical commitments for a moment, each of us is free each day to do good or ill by others—that is, within the scope of our physical and mental powers. And if not successful, at least to make the attempt. It’s true that others, in the exercise of their freedoms and within the limits of their powers, may act to prevent us, or impose consequences for our choices, but that does not negate the freedom we all have at the outset to choose our next step.

Gandhi’s quote applies here as well. “You cannot make another man…” [I would say ‘person’ today, or ‘man or woman,’ and I suspect Gandhi might have done that today, as well]


You cannot make another person do good; you can only create the conditions under which they will choose to do good.

This is what I’m attempting to do: but not by creating a condition so much as shining a light—one that’s been provided by the world’s leading neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers in the last 70 to 80 years—on an ancient, innocent, and truly understandable error, one that’s been buried deep underground in our species’ social unconscious for thousands of years. It’s those people, the scientists and philosophers, who have created the condition under which I believe, in time, the earth’s people will overwhelming choose to do good.

They created the condition by showing us the inimitable and automatic (i.e., natural) role of the unconscious human mind in shaping and steering our moral actions. It is a condition of self-understanding which (when taken at face value, the way we today take at face value Galileo’s proof that the earth circles the sun, and not the other way around) … renders the old paradigm false — and moral actions based on it incoherent and unintelligible from the bottom up. Despite what has always been modeled for human babies and children, and what we’ve always reflexively “assumed,” homo sapiens cannot rest assured that their moral actions will be coherent and intelligible from the bottom-up if based on difference awareness alone. To achieve bottom-up coherence and intelligibility, the content of one’s awareness of the other ahead of a moral action must include both difference awareness and sameness awareness, period.

And you’re saying that descriptively; right? That this demand for coherence arises in us because we’re innately social beings who rely on the principles of logic (cause and effect, time and space, and the rest) to communicate with others, and gain and preserve acceptability and survivability over time. Do I have that… am I close? 

Yes, that’s right. When I said before that each of us is free each day to do good or ill by others within the scope of our physical and mental powers, what I should have said is, “within the scope of our physical and mental powers and one mental guardrail.” I left off “mental guardrails” because we normally think of these as the prescriptions embedded our moral and ethical commitments, religious precepts, family and community values, cultural expectations, professional codes of conduct, laws, idiosyncratic needs, pressures, and desires of the moment, etc. These come up later in the moral action sequence (or causal chain) that leads up to our finalizing the intention to act and then acting. But the fundamental baseline coherence and intelligibility of our moral actions is also a guardrail in a very real sense — a prior one, and an innate one in all people! It shows up as something psychologists call a “gating feature”—meaning, our unconscious brains don’t even allow our conscious brain to waste time thinking about or entertaining in any way the possibility of our engaging in a ruinous incoherent and unintelligible social behavior. That’s why we never think of them.

So, the conditions you’re creating — or attempting to create — are (1) Introducing a new symbol representing everything human beings have in common; and (2) Like your title says, Pinpointing and exploring ways to resolve The Great Correctable Error.

That’s —

—Again, descriptively. It’s going to be up to people choose whether they want to fly the Companion Flag or have it seen by their children and grandchildren; and whether they agree with your hypothesis that these recently discovered affective reactions in our bodies and in our unconscious brains… What did you call them? Other-related…?

Other-related moral impulses. ORMI’s. That’s just my name for them.

Right. Whether these ORMI’s uncut what people have for centuries believed (or acted upon) in terms of ensuring themselves that their moral actions are coherent from the start.

That’s right. And I’m convinced, by the way, that they will. Socrates famously said, “Virtue is knowledge.” I think he equates “virtue” here with “skillfulness” — the way a great violinist is a virtuoso. All people with normal mental health… (This, again, is my hypothesis). All people, starting at about age three, naturally and instinctively seek to be skilled in the one role that we all play (and must play) to survive and thrive in the world: the role of a social being. Someone acceptable to likeminded others, and on that accounted (at least minimally) accepted. In other words, a fundamental first step in the instinct-driven project to become socially skilled is learning to recognize and avoid incoherent and unintelligible behaviors, particularly those that are incoherent from the start.

No idea looms larger in this project than our instinctual need to avoid such behaviors — especially when performing moral actions, as these (by definition) impact the well-being of other people. The motivation to avoid incoherent moral actions gains traction in all of us, as I’ve said, at around three years of age. It’s then that we begin to see ourselves as separate beings in a world teeming with other people; and, like them, we realize we have our own points of view, and we are destined for not only moral independence, but moral responsibility and response-ability. The idea that we would throw away one of the universal cornerstones of acceptability in the eyes of all other homo sapiens by intentionally engaging a moral action that make no sense or fails to recognize the full scope of human moral response-ability, is pure anathema.

Now, with that said, let me switch gears. If it’s OK, I’ll read a short story that I wrote years ago to highlight the role that “the content of a moral actor’s awareness of the other” plays in our intentional lives.

Sure. Fire away!

Ilhom Istamov had arrived early at the station. He was glad to have his book as he sat on the hard bench, waiting for his friend, Rushtam, to arrive from Samarkand.

The crowded waiting room stirred to life with every bell tone and announcement: “Attention. Now arriving on Track Two…”, “Attention. Now boarding at Terminal B, the bus to…” Happily, Ilhom had stopped listening. Letting go the tension that had built up over the long drive from the village, he was meeting the characters in his novel again, recalling one in particular with a fondness that approached gratitude.

An eruption of high-pitched laughter lifted him out of the story. It was followed by two rapid-fire utterances in a language unknown to him. Edging between the crowded benches were five African tourists — three adult women dressed in brightly colored clothes and head-wraps, a teenager, and a child of 8 or 10. The tall, slender woman in front held four plastic bags bulging with souvenirs, fruits, and sundries; her sinewy biceps straining as she lifted the bags high to avoid hitting the seated people she passed. Her skin was as dark as any Ilhom had seen, and the whites of her eyes and smiling teeth shone a stunning contrast.

Ilhom saw that she was leading them toward the empty spaces on the bench beside him. To make room, he would have to move his backpack. He decided against this. He looked down instead, pretending to read. Don’t sit here! he thought. That’s the last thing I need!

Ilhom hated Africans. His grandmother used to tell him the story of six black men, all brothers, who’d been hired by her father to work on a construction project near Mashhad. She and her mother had traveled to Mashhad that spring to live with her father at a temporary camp built for the families of workers.

When the black men and their families arrived, they mostly kept to themselves at the edge of the camp. Their children did not attend the camp school and were considered “off-limits” by the other children. Things began to go missing from the camp a month or two later. Although none of the articles were ever found in their possession, twice her father had asked the police to search their shacks. Rumors ran hard against them.

Ilhom’s grandmother recalled with bitterness the loss of her favorite doll, one her father had carved for her from a piece of hickory for her 5th birthday. “Ethiopians got it, sure as I’m sitting here” she told him more than once (Ilhom later would find out that the brothers and their families were from what is now Zimbabwe, not Ethiopia). When shortages caused by a labor strike in England brought construction to a crawl, her father fired the six brothers and evicted their families on ten hours’ notice. That night, a foreman and twenty armed men ringed their shacks while the African gathered their things and decamped. “Father was right. He was always wise in these matters. It was the only way to make sure that nothing else went missing.”

The woman stopped next to Ilhom, the shimmering threads of her green, yellow, and white dress impossible to ignore despite his pretense of reading. “Excuse me, sir,” she said in English. Frowning, Ilhom reached for his backpack and quickly placed it on the floor between his feet. He turned the page of his book, but it was pretense. His attention was on the movements of the woman and her entourage. When she sat at last, he felt the sudden warmth of her leg pressed against his, and her half-sweet perfume greeted his nostrils. This is too much! He sat for a minute or two (not quite sure why he was waiting), then abruptly grabbed his backpack and fled.

Two hours later Ilhom and Rushtam were driving north toward their village, enjoying shared memories and bringing each other current on all that had happened to them since Rushtam had left for the university. Just ahead of them, the slowing and roaring to life again of a large, silver tour bus punctuated the curves and switchbacks of the mountain pass that stood between them and home.

They crested the summit and had started down the other side when suddenly the bus began to swerve drastically, first to the left, then sharply to the right. The tall vehicle swayed precariously, its tires almost lifting off the pavement. Great clouds of dust and gravel flew up from both shoulders of the road. “His brakes are out!” Rushtam cried.

All they could see of the driver’s efforts to control the bus were brake lights that seemed grow brighter and more insistent with each passing, swerving second. Ilhom and Rushtam watched in disbelief as the bus swerved a last time to the right, sharply, broke through the barrier, and disappeared over the embankment.

Ilhom screeched to a stop. He and Rushtam jumped out of the car and ran to the gaping hole in the barrier. They stared down in stunned horror past a rising column of thick, black smoke. The bus was resting upside down some 30 meters below the road. The roof had been crushed in several places, and bodies – four they could see plainly – were strewn about the wreckage. Ilhom stepped then half-ran to his left and bent down, peering passed bushes and rocks. Through the black, misshapen holes that had been the bus’s windows human limbs (some seeming to move tentatively) were visible. Orange flames were jumping from the engine compartment and, below, a pool of blackish fluid spread quickly over the earth like the arterial blood of a whale.

Ilhom grabbed Rushtam’s shoulder. “Take the car, Rushtam! Go to the village and get help!” Rushtam nodded.

As his car’s engine accelerated in the distance, Ilhom was scrambling down the embankment, half-sliding, half-falling over loose gravel. He arrived at the bus with both hands bleeding, covered in dust. He stopped to survey the situation and heard the first awful moans from inside. Suddenly, the flames at the back of the bus exploded with a whoosh!

The fire had spread into the passenger compartment. Threads of black smoke began to rise from the rear windows like bubbles rising above a sinking hulk. The moans of the trapped passengers turned to weak cries.

Ilhom knelt by one crushed window frame after another, looking for a way in. He could see no more than a few inches into each blackened space before his view was blocked by crushed metal, twisted seats and seat backs, suitcases and boxes — a tableau of incomprehensibility. The urgency of the spreading flames worked a strange but effective antidote to the horror that greeted him: protruding, lacerated arms and legs, the faces of the dead behind sliding veils of smoke. Only one window seemed to offer an ingress, but the passage was narrow and black smoke poured out of it in rolling billows. Where did it lead? There were more cries. The flames grew larger. Ilhom plunged inside. . .

. . .Forty-five minutes later, the first aid crew arrived from the village. The distant wails of additional sirens from two directions lent little comfort, for by now the bus was completely engulfed, and the heat of the fire was so intense that no approach was possible within 10 meters. Undaunted, the rescuers started down.

Twenty-two minutes later, as the second aid vehicle was arriving, the serrated echoes of its siren filled the canyon walls. On a ledge well to the east of the burning hulk, protected from the heat by a towering boulder, one of the rescuers found Ilhom: with hands and face blistered and blackened, clothes shredded, the right side of his neck and his right calf streaked with blood, he was tending (as best he could) to the seven people whose lives he had saved: two of them his countrymen; five of them African tourists — three adult women, a teenager, and a child of 8 or 10.



Sec 1