No. 4: POLARISATION
The nation is feverish. It is infected with a new plague—the first recorded case of Brexitosis.
Before the affliction, Britain was a largely peaceable nation. If they thought about the European Union at all, most Brits could probably agree that it was a bit meddlesome. And who were these people anyway? Yes—bossy, interfering, undemocratic and in need of reform. A union with you Europeans, fine, but we’d rather not have an “ever-closer union” thank you very much. We’ll shake hands with you, our neighbours, but no hugging or kissing if you please. What’s that you say? You’d like us to give up our 12-centuries-old currency for the brightly-coloured banknotes of the Euro? Gosh is that the time? We really must be going. Awfully nice to see you!
But then, suddenly, the supposed British tolerance and reserve were reversed. In an attempt to quell an uprising in the backbenches of the Conservative Party, David Cameron’s call-my-bluff referendum happened. A complex issue was reduced to an in-or-out, yes-or-no, old-Etonian-Dave-or-Old-Etonian-Boris choice and served up to nation of people starved of a voice. And how we all shouted! The veneer of politeness was stripped away, and long dormant furies and humiliations and aggressions were unleashed. Living rooms, public places and internet forums burned with acidic invective.
Britain started to be at war with itself. Its very name—the “United” Kingdom—came to sound ironic. We were no longer one people but two. We retreated from each other, to opposite corners of the ring. Leavers vs Remainers is a fight that took on a tribal quality, akin to Cavaliers vs Roundheads, Mods vs Rockers, United vs City.
The Remainers portrayed the Leavers as all kinds of things, but mostly as a bunch of stupid and/or old racists.
The Leavers characterised the Remainers as all kinds of things, too, but mostly as a naive, deluded, out-of-touch or uncaring urban elite that looked down on the working class.
Simultaneously, the Remainers suddenly cast aside any prior reservations about the EU and anointed Jean-Claude Juncker as some kind of beatified visionary. For the Leavers, the EU was no longer a mere bumbling bureaucracy but a sinister, power-crazed, fascistic regime.
The media stuck to their predictable, flame-fanning “we-good-they-bad” scripts.
Stories about the rise in racist attacks across the country after the vote, or the Brexit voters who regretted their choice, or the parallels between Brexit voters and Donald Trump supporters across the Atlantic seemed to further the redneck stereotype.
On the other side, one typical pro-Leave column described Remainers as “rich, metropolitan types” who “fear for their second homes in Tuscany and the south of France” and “fear they might no longer get dirt-cheap nannies and au pairs from Eastern Europe.”
On a recent Sunday, two consecutive stories appeared on a Facebook news feed on my phone:
• “Britain just got its first concrete sign that Brexit will destroy the economy” (Independent)
• “IMF 'clowns' forced to admit Britain’s economy is GROWING despite predicting Brexit doom” (Sunday Express)
In the tabloid world, what Nietzsche wrote in 1887 is true: “It is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.”
Research and polls generally suggested that these factors tended to correlate more with a Leave vote: being older, less educated, unemployed or retired, white, English or Welsh.
And these factors tended to correlate more with a Remain vote: being young, educated, employed, not white, Scottish or Irish.
But these are very loose, broad brushstrokes and anyway, as we know, correlation is not the same as causality. (There are innumerable absurd examples of this; there is for instance a very strong correlation between margarine use and divorce in Maine, or US highway fatalities and the volume of lemons imported from Mexico.)
But the need to stereotype “the other”—the enemy—is strong. When I wrote on the World of Therapy Facebook page that people who voted Leave aren't any one type; nor are people who voted Remain, one person responded: “We ARE two different groups of people. WE, are Patriots and believe in democracy. Whereas remainers are a bunch of bitter and twisted, racist traitors who don't believe in democracy. We don't need a discussion because we've had it and we won. So suck it up buttercup WE ARE OUT.”
Whose side are you on?
Human life falls neatly into binaries: male or female, night or day, yin or yang, good or evil, yes or no, here or there, this or that, crunchy peanut butter or smooth.
Philosophers through the ages have extolled progress through the resolution of two conflicting ideas. Dialectic exchange, or Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis model, goes something like this:
Person 1: “I think X.”
Person 2: “Oh yeah? Well, I think the exact opposite. I think Y.”
Person 1: “Y? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Person 2: “Are you calling me a Nazi?”
After a debate—or the building of walls, invading countries, ethnic cleansing, war—A and B find a way to integrate and resolve their positions: They agree on Z!
Person 1: “Yes of course—Z. It seems so obvious now.”
Person 2: “Remember when we used to fight about X and Y?”
Person 1: “It seems so silly now!”
Person 3: “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about Z. Have you ever considered A instead?”
Persons 1 and 2: “Oh f*** off!”
How do we make choices? Why do some people gravitate to X while others fall for Y?
Humans like to regard themselves as rational and logical, able to make conscious optimal choices. In practice, however, we are often more like wild animals. Heidegger said we discover our intentions through our actions rather than the other way round, and neuroscientific studies have reinforced that. Our first response to situations often is an immediate, unconscious, emotional one, occurring in a part of the brain called the amygdala—two little almond-shaped lumps that play a key role in the animal/mammalian brain. The human, thinking part, the cerebral cortex, then quickly has to come up with a rationalisation, like a PR manager left to explain why his rock star client trashed the hotel room. Neuroboffin Antonio Damasio says: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness.”
There have been some lovely experiments to illustrate how we retrofit our thoughts to accommodate or justify our inexplicable actions. In Festinger and Carlsmith’s 1959 research project, people were made to do a really boring task, then for a very small fee invited to lie about how interesting it was to new recruits—they happily did so. Surely they weren’t the kind of people that could be bought so easily; to resolve their “cognitive dissonance” they decided the task had actually been quite interesting after all.
To be at the mercy of the immediate, instinctive gut reaction—the emotional traffic light—is often to make irrational, definitive, ill-considered responses. Sometimes they can work in our favour. But sometimes not. By the time the cerebral cortex arrives on the scene, the damage might have already been done: you’ve tipped the salad bowl over the nasty lady’s head or run a red light or signed up for the pointless extended warranty scheme. Ideally the grey matter sketches in some shades of grey before it’s too late, allowing for more tempered, nuanced responses.
That primal, visceral first impression allows us to make snap judgments and decisions, navigate a complex world, and stave off the unbearable uncertainty of our existence. It can powerfully bind us—to a religion, a political party, a celebrity, a brand. It is not generally diminished by reason or logic. It can be a kind of love. It can also be a kind of hate for “the other.” Hate at first sight.
Christopher Hitchens, who saw all religions as incapable of standing up to any kind of rational scrutiny, wrote in “Letters to a Young Contrarian”: “It will very often be found that people are highly attached to illusions or prejudices, and are not just the sullen victims of dogma or orthodoxy. If you have ever argued with a religious devotee, for example, you will have noticed that his self-esteem and pride are involved in the dispute and that you are asking him to give up something more than a point in argument. The same is true of visceral patriots, and admirers of monarchy and aristocracy. Allegiance is a powerful force in human affairs; it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thralldom is honorable and voluntary.”
Western foreign policy since World War Two has a pretty dismal track record, dropping bombs on dozens of countries, invading distant lands overtly and covertly, doing deals with dictators one minute then demonising them the next--embracing Saddam Hussein, say, or calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist—buying or selling arms or anything else to or from practically anyone or doing or saying practically anything if it serves the dollar, with very little regard to decency or morality or honesty.
It’s not clear if this quote attributed to wartime US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasia Samoza was ever actually uttered, but it sums up American foreign policy: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” And Britain blindly follows America in its misadventures, as the Chilcot report showed, with a few notable exceptions like Vietnam (thank you Harold Wilson).
People who write books or publish newspapers or lead political or religious movements that promote xenophobia and division, often invoking as inevitable a “clash of civilizations”—eg. in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—are guilty of inciting violence and hatred and are responsible for much suffering. Can’t we give these eighth century, eight-year-old you’re-an-infidel/barbarian-no-I’m-not-you-are arguments the contempt they deserve? Are the Scots and the English suddenly to remember, I don’t know, the Battle of Flodden? And take up arms again?
This war of words has been going on between Muslims and Europeans ever since they first came into contact, in 732, each side denouncing the other as a means of justifying exclusion, discrimination and attack. Edward Said calls this “Orientalism,” a system of thought by which dominant powers establish versions of “knowledge” and “truth” about both themselves and those over whom they wish to exert power, creating a “drastically polarized geography dividing the world into two unequal parts.” The West and “the Orient” are constructed in the West as polar opposites, the former as rational, developed, humane and superior, the latter, a monolithic, homogenous “other”—barbaric, inferior, backward, aberrant, unchanging. The “other” is to be feared, contained, controlled or destroyed.
Western Islamophobes like to cite barbaric bits of the Quran as “evidence” of some kind of inherent barbarism despite their own religion’s sacred texts being filled with equally primitive imperatives that are just as comically irrelevant to today. In Britain, Christians often assert “Christian values”—these presumably no longer include a biblical call to cut off people’s hands or stone people to death or otherwise punish people who work on a Sunday, or have sex with someone they’re not married to, or have parents who aren’t married, or who are women who have had sex, or who talk in church, or defend their husbands, or who actually are just women, or people who are gay or disabled or who masturbate or eat bacon.
Those who regard ”Muslims”—1.6 billion people, almost a quarter of humanity—as a fixed, homogenous, united group of people who speak with one voice or think with one mind, need to get out more.
As the saying goes, blaming all Muslims for appalling acts of terrorism by Islamic extremists is like blaming all musicians for Kanye West.
It’s frightening how easily people can buy into loud, simplistic, aggressive, finger-pointing explanations as to why life is hard, especially when the finger points down, to the powerless, rather than up, to the powerful.
The best response to trumped up men—it is usually men—who try to peddle fear and xenophobia, whether they are a US president-to-be, a zealot with a cellphone and a megaphone, or the racist next door, is to hold up your hand and say, no, I disagree, I believe you are mistaken.
Carl Jung said that when we identify with one end of a continuum, we project the other end: I am good, right, well; you are bad, wrong, ill. But the bad bits are in us too. They are our shadow. The shadow keeps us grounded.
What happens next?
There are four possible outcomes in a conflict characterized by polarised postions, according to Wood and Petriglieri in “Transcending Polarization: Beyond Binary Thinking”:
1) a complete split or dissociation of the opposing positions, that is, the end of a connection or relationship;
2) a complete overcoming of the opposition, essentially, annihilation of one position by the other;
3) the possibility that no significant change takes place and the positions remain in a more or less stable relationship of continued strife;
4) synthesis, which is identical to neither of the two original conflicting positions but emerges from the tension and includes elements from both.
How will the Leavers and Remainers ever be friends again? Is there a cure for Brexitosis? Will the patient recover?
NEXT TIME: No. 5: Reunification
1. What is a psychopath?