No. 3. MISINFORMATION
The EU referendum campaigns were marked by a catalogue of fibs, porkies and whoppers.
On the Leave side (“Take Back Control”), campaigners promised that the £350 million a week that the UK supposedly paid the EU would go instead to the NHS (it was even emblazoned on the side of their tour bus); that the divorce from the EU would be swift and painless; that we could still set up better trade deals with EU nations while slashing immigration from them; that there was a plan; that there were sunlit meadows ahead.
While the Leavers were accentuating the positive, the Remain team (“Better Together”) were full of gloom and doom; their campaign was dubbed “Project Fear." They predicted a dire economic downturn; panic wiping trillions off global financial markets; the pound plummetting to record lows; a surge in popularity of the far right and a dramatic increase in hate crime. Ridiculous scaremongering...
Except that after the Leavers unexpectedly won the referendum, all that actually did happen (respectively here, here, here, here and here).
The Brexiteers became a swiftly-diminishing peleton moving in reverse, with much backpedalling: here, here, here, here and here, to cite a few examples. There was little celebration. No one was in charge. No one wanted to be (“you take control—you touched it last”). Nausea and unease swept the land, along with a new bitter-tasting phenomenon, especially keenly felt in Wales: “bregret.”
But it’s early days. Let’s see how Theresa May, the new unelected PM who doesn’t believe in Brexit and voted against it, gets on with implementing it.
Appearing to support something you disagree with, of course, is what politicians habitually do for a living, and why they are so unpopular. They rarely speak their mind—they’re trying to speak yours. You can tell when they’re lying, the joke goes—their lips are moving. Nixon didn’t know about the Watergate Hotel break-in. Clinton did not have sex with “that woman.” Blair thought there were WMDs. All governments lie, as rebel American journalist I. F. Stone observed.
An archetype of the species, or perhaps a parody, is would-be US president Donald Trump. He doesn’t exactly lie; he simply regards it as irrelevant whether or not something is actually true and speaks instead like a defiant 10-year-old: I am the best, I didn’t do that, it’s not my fault, they did it, I didn’t take it, it was broken when I took it, I’m not a liar you are, you’re ugly, a dog, a fat pig....” And so on.
Pathological lying is not regarded as a clinical condition in its own right. But it is a common feature of many people who suffer with some kind of psychological illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes a number of “personality disorders” which might describe the kind of inner world that could give rise to lying: the “borderline” might lie to avoid abandonment; the “histrionic” to be the centre of attention; the “narcissistic” to preserve a grandiose self-image. Perhaps the best-fitting DSM label for liars is “antisocial personality disorder”—the closest thing to what the layman might call a “psychopath”—which includes among its diagnostic criteria: “Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.”
Lies about immigration
One of the things politicians lie about in Britain, a lot, is immigration, a key issue of the referendum. They know it’s good for the economy—if the goal was just to maximise GDP, a purist neoliberal would feed the market with free movement of goods and services, capital—and workers. Such a person would advocate completely open borders.
But politicians know too that pandering to people’s fears and appearing “tough on immigration” is a sure vote-winner (as discussed in Part 2, Britain is a nation built on discrimination). So they play a peculiar game: with one hand, they hold up a stop sign—especially when the cameras are on. With the other, new arrivals are discreetly beckoned with a nod and a wink.
Governments similarly rarely counter the arguments against immigration, either. For example:
• Immigrants are a drain on the economy. Actually they tend to be young, fit and keen to work—they respond to demand, relieve skill shortages, and create new jobs. They are known to be net positive contributors to the British economy (one study showed a contribution of £4.4 billion between 1995-2011). Without them the demographic crunch caused by declining fertility rates and increasing longevity would be even more acute. Benefit cheats? If immigration stops, you’ll be cheated out of your most important benefit: your pension.
• Britain is “full up.” Really? Have you ever taken a train from London to Edinburgh and looked out of the window? Only about 1 percent on our land has been built on. Britain ranks 51st in population density, slightly ahead of Germany and Italy, well behind the likes of Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan.
• Immigrants are taking over. The public’s average guess at what proportion of the UK is foreign-born is 31 percent. The real number? 13 percent. And while about three-quarters thought immigration was a problem in Britain, only about a quarter thought it was a problem in their own local area.
• British culture is under attack. It always has been, shaped by outside forces for centuries. But it is large enough and robust enough to take what it likes and discard the rest. Culture is democracy. If chicken tikka masala is indeed Britain’s national dish, it’s because people like it. Of the immigrants to the UK in 2001, the leading country of origin was Australia, yet there was no debate over Britain being “swamped” or “flooded” by Australian culture.
On referendum day, the Daily Mail ran a lead article (“Day of Truth”) that lamented “a campaign characterised by mendacity.” What does it have to say about its own mendacity? The endless sensational stories over the years about supposedly idiotic EU regulations that were either very exaggerated or completely false? Did it report the analysis in The Economist that revealed the Daily Mail to be the clear leader in publishing stories about the EU that weren’t true? Such as Euro banknotes being responsible for impotence; or the EU demanding that cows wear nappies; or that the Latin name be used for “cod” instead of fish and chips; or that corgis be banned; or the one about EU immigrants being convicted of 700 crimes a week? (This of course is just a very small sample. And it’s not just the Mail. All the tabloids tell tall tales of asylum seekers stealing royal swans or donkeys from London parks and barbecuing them or councils banning hot cross buns from being served at Easter in favour of naan bread.)
In the 1930s, the Daily Mail was owned by Harold Sidney Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, reportedly a keen prewar admirer and supporter of Adolf Hitler and his annexation of Czechoslovakia; he wrote in the newspaper in praise of fascism, Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, too. How much of the discriminatory editorial content, politics and tone of today’s Mail is a reflection of the beliefs of the current owner, great-grandson of Harold, Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere? We don’t know, but wealthy press barons have a history of explaining away the problem of gross inequality with a simple message: blame the poorest, most desperate, most foreign.
Rivers of racism
Is one of the Mail’s former reporters, Brendan Montague, correct when he says in a 2012 article in The New Yorker that there is institutional racism at the Mail? There is certainly in its pages endlessly repetitive, disparaging, stereotyped negative characterisations of immigrant groups, asylum seekers and refugees—using words like “criminals”; “scroungers”; “dirty”; “barbaric”; “violent”: “cruel”; “deviant.” Isn’t demonizing faceless foreigners with an ever-flowing stream of cruel rhetoric by definition racist? Papers like the Mail and the Daily Express have been doing this for a century—articles about Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany used the same denigrating words as articles about refugees today.
There is much hyperbole, metaphor and repetition to convey a sense of threat. Stories that conform to the negative stereotype—“British holidaymaker burgled in Bulgaria!”—get published. Those that don’t get spiked. People ask: where are the moderate Muslims denouncing acts of Islamic terrorism? They are online, in cafes, mosques, in demonstrations—yet mysteriously absent from the Daily Mail. The moderate voices are muzzled—on both sides of the playground, only the loudest, most cartoonish, most offensive voices are heard.
Governments have been known to manipulate media coverage for their own propaganda purposes. A century ago American journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that society consists of two groups, a small, powerful, educated elite, and the rest, which he called the “bewildered herd.” And to keep democracy ticking over, in Lippmann’s view, the bewildered herd must be kept complacent, pliant and distracted by things like sports, soap operas, the fantasy of salvation through material goods. Occasionally, the bewildered herd needs to be sold on an unpopular action, invasion or war—with a highly sophisticated propaganda apparatus to demonize a supposed enemy and their supposed evil intentions. Writes Noam Chomsky: “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
The influence surely occurs in the opposite direction, too. Newspapers can frame a debate, or make or break a policy or a politician. Hence all the cosy chats with that guardian of British culture, Rupert Murdoch, the octogenarian Australian-turned-American overseer of an alleged phone-hacking, police-bribing empire that publishes The Sun and The Times. Murdoch might have more influence on the tabloids’ beloved “British way of life”—whatever that means—than EU figurehead/straw man Jean-Claude Juncker, yet this outside influence goes uncontested.
The tabloids have found that stories of fear and loathing are good for business. Why? As a species we have survived by being hypervigilant to danger and the British tabloid press overflows with a daily diet of things we should supposedly worry about: ebola, sars, swine flu, zika, the flesh-eating virus, killer food bugs, MMR, HPV, benefit cheats, hoodies, paedophiles, new age travellers, terrorists and a litany of other “moral panics,” the leading one being, of course: foreigners. Without a hint or irony or shame, the same pro-Leave newspapers that slammed “Project Fear” now join in the fearmongering about a post-Brexit world. If a tabloid newspaper were a person, he or she would be terribly, terribly worried about the world today, and probably never venture out into it very much.
The media and the government seem to be locked in a desperate dance, a series of pitiful vicious circles—a race to the bottom that assumes and panders to the idea that the public is inherently racist. The results are self-fulfilling.
The news today: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
No thank you. I’d prefer to live.
“But I will not lie to you. Britain needs immigrants. Young, hard-working, courageous and ambitious men and women with new ideas and ways of doing things have been bringing light and life to our land for centuries. Immigrants are a crucial ingredient of our thriving, vibrant modern economy and culture. Let’s welcome them.
“British people have a reputation for tolerance and fair play. Yet all too often government policy and certain sections of the media promote mistrust, fear and loathing. As long as new arrivals are stereotyped and problematised, with no attention paid to their integration, they are bound to be treated as unwanted by the public, too, leading to the formation of marginalised ethnic minorities who then suffer the additional disadvantage of being blamed for economic and social problems. Any government policies built upon the swamplands of racism and xenophobia are not sustainable. Such policies are irresponsible.
“We need to have an honest debate about immigration, numbers, management, border controls, and our responsibilities as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one whose empire was built on overseas plunder. I hereby call on the Prime Minister to set the wheels in motion for a new referendum. The topic? Immigration.”
NEXT TIME: No. 4. Polarisation
No. 2. DISCRIMINATION
The Brexit referendum, ostensibly about the UK’s relationship with the European Union, about sovereignty, democracy, the economy, also unleashed a fierce national debate about something else: the hot button-issue of immigration. For some, the word "Leave" was an instruction not just to the UK but to foreigners within it, too; a message to new arrivals, a giant metaphorical sign to be hung at ports and airports around this sceptered isle. Theirs was a protest vote; their internal rallying cry was: There are too many of “them” coming over “here” and “we” don’t like it (ironic fact: the U.K. has more citizens living abroad than any other EU country). The objections were primarily economic or cultural. If you live in a neglected, underfunded town with scarce resources, and your job has gone to someone from another country, or you can't get a doctor's appointment or a school place, and your home town feels crowded and different, your choice is obvious—it's a matter of survival.
Most people who voted Leave did not do so out of racism. But no opinion poll is needed to hazard a guess at the voting preference of those who are unabashed racists. Regardless, the Leave vote sparked a resurgence of racism across the land. There was a 5-fold increase in hate crime within a week. Synagogues, mosques, schools and community centres were vandalised. People were attacked and verbally abused in the street. Racists stood outside multicultural schools flicking victory signs and telling people who didn’t look like them to “go home.” Sinister notes—and worse—were pushed through letterboxes. Suddenly closet racists were out and proud, emboldened in their everyday conversations, not even bothering with the standard prefix of “I’m not a racist but....”
Not that racism was dormant prior to June 23. According to the Home Office, 52,528 hate crimes were reported in 2014-2015, over 80 percent of them racially motivated, and that was an 18 percent rise in a year. In general black Britons are chronically under-represented in the professions, and over-represented in the prisons. In the field of mental health, young black men are far more likely to be referred to secure psychiatric settings via the courts than their white counterparts; black people of African and Caribbean heritage are six times more likely to be sectioned than white people. In therapy consulting rooms, clients tell shocking stories of violence, oppression and abuse.
2. British government and media discourse
In the aftermath World War Two, workers were needed to rebuild a broken Britain. Immigrants began to arrive, especially from former colonial countries and allies in the Cold War, and were welcomed at first. But the mood quickly soured. Britain was to become the first European country to experience significant anti-immigration public sentiment, especially following the “race riots” of 1958. A series of restrictive laws followed, accompanied by much racial rhetoric that appealed to the electorate’s more suspicious, curtain-twitching side. This attack on vulnerable new arrivals—already under literal attack on the streets in many cases—was amplified by Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 speech in which he foresaw “rivers foaming with much blood.” (He didn’t mention the foaming river of xenophobia.)
Besides the cultural, scientific and personal benefits of immigration, there is evidence that shows immigrants to be net positive contributors to the British economy, too (one study showed a contribution of £4.4 billion between 1995-2011). Yet the focus is overwhelmingly on the negative impact. Political parties compete for the perceived electoral asset of “toughness” toward outsiders, a self-reinforcing stance that is further amplified by nationalist rhetoric, negative media coverage, the emergence of extreme right-wing groups throughout Europe and the expansion of the EU.
3. The legacy of scientific racism
The notion of a hierarchy of “races,” based on the presumption of specific, biologically-determined characteristics, emerged in the Renaissance, survived the 18th century Enlightenment, and continues unabated to this day. Racial prejudice indeed “may be as old as recorded history,” says science historian Stephen Jay Gould.
At the height of the colonial period, however, in the mid-19th century, racial thinking in Europe took on a new complexion with the advent of anthropological “research” that attempted to demonstrate white supremacy and thus justify colonial domination.
The publication of Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man (1871) by Charles Darwin proved to be transformative in furthering racist ideologies: Now, whatever their origin, different “races” could be viewed in fact as different varieties of human or even as separate species, each at a different stage of evolution, with “the European” at the top of the hierarchy and “the African” at the bottom. This was backed up with photographic “evidence” and new “sciences” like craniometry—researchers such as Samuel Morton claimed a racial hierarchy of skull size. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton championed eugenics—controlling breeding to preserve racial (and thus, by his logic, intellectual) purity.
The findings of “scientific racism” and Darwinian ideas about the “survival of the fittest” were claimed as justification for imperialism. Poverty, war, the late 19th century “scramble for Africa” and the genocide of native people by the West—not to mention 1,000 years of slavery—were all seen as the result of an inevitable, scientific, natural law, devoid of any moral responsibility.
A century ago, European control had expanded over 84 percent of the earth’s surface. The British Empire is over, but the remnants of the discredited, antique beliefs on which it was built, worn out notions of an inherent racial hierarchy with whites at the top, perhaps live on in some cobwebbed recess of the British psyche.
4. The legacy of colonial social engineering
For the Europeans, notions of racial superiority were a guiding principle not only in the urge to create colonies, but in the mechanics of their construction, too. A classic strategy of “divide and rule” was used: the colonised majority was broken down into a variety of political minorities. The nonindigenous subjects, such as the Indians of South Africa or the Tutsi of Rwanda, were first identified and treated as a separate race, then the indigenous natives were divided into many separate “tribes” or “ethnicities,” claimed to be based on pre-existing cultural identities. Whether they were “tribes” in Africa or “castes” in India, what were formerly loose or non-existent cultural identities became viewed as static, immutable, long-standing and often polarized groups, enshrined in law. Arbitrary racial hierarchies were reinforced and live on in attitudes today.
Says Mahmood Mamdani: “Britain, more than any other power, keenly glimpsed the authoritarian possibilities in culture ... Britain creatively sculpted tradition and custom as and when the need arose.”
5. Racism: part of human psychology?
There isn’t a great deal of writing or research on the psychology of racism, perhaps because it is such an emotive issue. But there is an argument that prejudice is a part of being human. Our survival has depended on a certain level of anxiety, vigilance and distrust towards the unknown, and an affiliation with the safety of the known. Malcolm Gladwell says we navigate through life with the help of “thin-slicing,” in which we use our senses, our experience and our beliefs to process a given situation very quickly, largely unconsciously, and take action.
Sometimes thin-slicing can be completely wrong, with disastrous consequences, such as when white policemen gun down an innocent nonwhite civilian like Jean Charles De Menezes. Last year in America, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police, with a total of 1,134 such deaths.
A number of studies have shown just how easy it is to create “in-groups” and “out-groups” based on the most meaningless of differences, and the hostility towards the out-group can escalate with depressing ease. Examples are the Lord of the Flies-like Robbers Cave experiment with two arbitrary groups of 12-year-old boys, Jane Elliott’s classic schoolroom blue eye brown eye exercise, or Saturday afternoon tribal violence between people who support different football teams.
Using the power of projection, the out-group is demonised: “we” are good; “they” are bad—deviant, dangerous, dirty, lazy (and any number of other aspersions). The more unknown “they” are, the easier it is to imagine them as devils. Racism—and concerns over national identity—are strongest in the least diverse parts of Britain.
This crude scapegoating of people from foreign fields, or “othering,” is vigorously and cynically exploited by poisonous politicians (Farage, Donald Trump, far rightists like Marine Le Pen), newspapers (the Daily Mail has been peddling xenophobia for a century), apartheid regimes (South Africa), dictators inciting genocide (Somalia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia), or western governments seeking to justify illegal overseas interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan).
The message used to be that the Russians were the primitive barbarians who want to take over the world. Now it is Muslims (the idea that 1.6 billion people—more than a fifth of humanity—speak with one voice or think with one mind is patently foolish).
Writes Mark Salter: “The ‘barbarian’ represents a rhetorical well from which politicians have drawn throughout the twentieth century and from which they still draw.”
“Race” is a construction: There is no basis for making sweeping assumptions about groups of people—positive or negative—based on skin colour. Farhad Dalal defines racism as: “The manufacture and use of the notion of race.”
But racist stereotypes are nevertheless hard to escape from; they are embedded in our culture. We unwittingly enact them, reinforce them, and hand them down. They are part of our social unconscious. They can be made conscious, and the othering, denigrating stereotypes and those who promote them can be treated with the contempt they deserve. But the history remains. No amount of whitewash will change that.
NEXT TIME: No. 3. Misinformation
No. 1: ALIENATION
All was not well in the Kingdom.
Times were hard. People were angry, a lot of them with good reason. After the global financial crisis and six years of government spending cuts, the age of austerity had sent a chill wind through the hills, valleys and high streets up and down the land. It was bleak, especially in the poorest, most neglected rural areas and forgotten, boarded-up English towns, far from Westminster. Unemployment was low, but zero-hour contract arrangements were increasing, and this green and pleasant land now had 1,000 food banks where previously they were rare. Depending on which study you believe, roughly a sixth, a quarter or a third of Britons were living in poverty. Meanwhile, in an already increasingly unequal nation, the richest 1% were getting ever-richer, ever-faster.
Whose fault was it? It must be someone’s fault?
The blame game
Human interaction can be a complicated dance around a “Drama Triangle”—the three points of the triangle are labelled persecutor, victim and rescuer. Where are you on the triangle today? And why? Are you a rescuer? Do you ever become so strident in your complaints on behalf of the victims that you become persecutory? Or do you need to be needed, so you do all that you can for the victim, who is as a result disempowered—a classic codependent relationship? Or are you a victim? Do your demands for help become so unreasonable that you become the persecutor and turn the rescuer into a victim? The roles can change in a second.
Whether within families, between work groups, cultural groups or even between countries, these roles are remarkably fluid and heavily dependent on the eye of the beholder. This was the case in the run-up to the Brexit referendum a week ago as the actors took up their positions on the stage:
• Is the millionaire politician or tabloid newspaper editor a rescuer who gives the disenfranchised a voice; or a persecutory opportunist who peddles fear and loathing of foreigners?
• Are the eurocrats a sinister cabal of power-hungry persecutors hellbent on annexing the UK, or—for all the EU’s many faults—rescuers who dilligently try to collaborate with their neighbours for the common good?
• What about big business—corporations, the banks, the entrepreneurs? Are they part of the problem, dodging taxes, exploiting workers, buying off politicians, rigging the system in their favour? Or are they rescuers, people who invest, create jobs, generate tax revenue?
• Are the victims Britain’s poor, the disenfranchised, struggling to get by in neglected parts of the country where budget cuts go deepest? Or do some see even them instead as persecutors, a kind of dysfunctional underclass of criminals, perhaps, “benefit scroungers,” or racist thugs?
• And what of migrants? Are they also the downtrodden victims, fleeing economic hardship or violence in their homelands, risking it all to come to the UK to search for a better life for their families? Or are they persecutors—“coming over here, claiming benefits"—and jumping the queue—“stealing our jobs, housing and women," “stealing generally," all while imposing their alien ways on “British culture"?
Something is rotten in the state of old Britannia. Whose fault is it? No one puts their hand up. Instead we point: left, right, up and down. It's obviously those people. No not them, they're good. Yes, those ones—they're really bad. It's all their fault!
How can we all have such differing opinions?
Me and my shadow
We like to think we’re fine upstanding citizens, we know how the world works and above all, we are right! There is no uncertainty, and we just don't understand other points of view—those people must be hopelessly naive, or ill-informed, or stupid, or spineless, or selfish. We find evidence that supports our view, listening only to the obviously common sense voices in politics, the media and among friends. Any evidence to the contrary is demonized, derided, ridiculed, ignored or denied. It's easier to see life in black and white.
But is there a voice of doubt? It might be a tiny voice. You can't bear to hear it.
The voice says, no, you're deluding yourself. It's not that simple. There are shades of grey. The voice says: maybe you are wrong. Maybe you are the bad guy.
The stance of your fiercest opponent, your most hated foe, lies within you. Why? Because you are a complete human being. Lurking in what Jung called our shadow are all the unpleasant or unwanted parts of ourselves. We might deny them, repress them, avoid them (or, in therapy, get to know them). But often it’s easier simply to disown them: to package them up and hand them over to someone else saying, “here, this isn’t mine, it must be yours.”
This is the Freudian defence mechanism of projection.
The virulent homophobe for instance might fear his own gay desires. The shaven-headed youth hurling racist abuse at a man on a tram might feel afraid and vulnerable. The man who flirts with a female friend accuses his wife of having an affair.
The city banker with the clever accountant pays little tax; her bugbear is “benefit cheats."
The public school-educated chauffeur-driven politician berates “the establishment.”
The racist newspaper proclaims without irony that eastern Europeans are “deeply racist.”
Bridge of hope—or wall of fear?
What we project onto who determines how we vote. If you fear the worst and ascribe bad intentions to others—immigrants and eurocrats, for instance—you might be tempted to vote Leave; if you hope for the best and ascribe them with good intentions, maybe you go for Remain. Of course it is much more complicated than that. But our projections have been fueled by this black and white, yes-no, in-out referendum, and all the associated marketing, campaigning and propaganda on both sides.
The choice has split my country in two. It feels at odds with itself. Since the referendum, old friends and family members have been falling out, hate crime and racial abuse are skyrocketing, and there is a slight air of menace on the streets of London. In therapy, clients talk of their existential anxieties. It feels like the end of the world as we know it.
No one is in charge. There is no plan. Everyone wants to know what will happen next.
There are wildly exaggerated fears of a dystopian future, of our land degenerating into the isolated pariah state of Anglia as portrayed in Julian Barnes' satirical 1998 novel England, England—a country that had “cut its own throat and was lying in the gutter”; where free movement to Europe gets withdrawn, and gunships patrol the Channel intercepting English boat people attempting to flee to France.
There is faith in humanity, though.
At our best, the Drama Triangle gets replaced by a healthier version. Instead of persecuting others you find your true power and use it wisely, for good. Instead of avoiding your troubles by co-opting those of others, you accept responsibility for your life and rescue yourself. Instead of feeling like a victim, you own and express your vulnerability.
In Greek mythology, when Pandora’s Box is opened, all the evil spirits are released. One thing is left behind: Hope.
NEXT TIME: No. 2. Discrimination
1. Diagnosing Trump