tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

The EU referendum. How remain are winning the argument, but could lose the vote.

It's an impressive list, the worthies who support remain. Drawn from every walk of life, almost all economists, almost every leading world politician, the heads of world organisations, the vast majority of business-people, Nobel winning scientists, historians, the roll call goes on.

In my view, there is a comprehensive case for remaining. Where factual evidence is used to support the case, I find the benefits of membership stack up, and the risks of leaving are considerable. Rather than engage in an unwinnable battle of responding to this body of material, the leave side usually just responds with a simple, unsupported 'We disagree'. There is no body of material to back this up, and no endorsement from experts whose opinion we might be reasonably trust.

But this article is not about making the case. If you want that, this article by my friend Tim Mundy, is a good place to start. Whilst I don't agree with absolutely every word, it's a information led approach to understanding the benefits and consequences.

The leaders of leave, with a few slightly embarrassed honourable exceptions, represent oddly opposing fringes of UK politics, mainly supporting an exit to facilitate the sort of radical policies that the naturally centrist EU would prevent or complicate. Consequently, their campaign lacks any sort of coherent single narrative. As a group, they are such a perfectly clashing shower of fringe characters with wildly contradictory politics that they're forced to develop a form of Auto-Stockholm Syndrome as a means of coping with the awfulness of one another. It's car crash telly every time they come out together. With the debate so obviously one sided, the experts lining up so solidly behind remain, the evidence so overwhelming, the vote is a foregone conclusion, right?

But it isn't. Leave is ahead on some polls, and may be getting stronger. What the Hell is going on?

It's quite simple. We don't know how to debate any more. Merely having a compelling case will get you nowhere if you don't know how to make it in a manner that persuades others.

So why are we so bad at making civilised debate, and why is that having such consequences for this referendum?

We all think differently. Any large group of people will display contrasting political ideas, and differing visions of acceptable and appropriate economic systems. Throughout the majority of history, those people all intermingled. Not any more. No longer tied by the trade of their area, people move and socialise with a freedom that their predecessors could not have enjoyed. Social and employment groups, instead of being founded on the basis of limited employment opportunity or geographical origin, are now frequently constituted on the basis of value affiliation. We are far more free to pick a job that suits our skills and mindsets, and we are free to socialise with people we are comfortable around, instead of whoever is down the Working Men's Club.

The political effect of this is to homogenise the thoughts within distinct employment and social groups. It's not a sliding scale, either. When enough people in a group hold the same views, a sudden tipping point is reached where the group's identity becomes at least partly defined around shared views. This rapidly excludes other views from being tolerated, as they are now disloyal to the group's identity. Political pluralism within a group's discourse is completely shut down. Dissenters are forced to remain silent or face being ostracised. Favour within the group can be found by being on message.

After that tipping point is reached, instead of debate between ideas, the discourse assumes a pattern of re-enforcement and confirmation instead of challenge. It takes a brave or foolhardy individual to challenge the prevailing thoughts, as instead of allowing the point to be tested, the response to challenge is often either to ignore it, or to question the loyalty or motivation of the proposer.

Because most people's social groups are ideologically fixed, a contrasting viewpoint is seen as deviant and traitorous, rather than representative of a wider group of thought beyond the boundaries of the group. This is equally true on all sides of the debate. As true in the UKIP social clubs as it is in my native folk scene, and elsewhere. It is a common problem across society.

Once dissenting opinions are silenced, publicly affirming approved viewpoints allows members of the group to demonstrate their loyalty. Consequently, the sharing of on-message political discourse has assumed a ritual status within groups that trumps a rational view of the content. When we build social units based on ideological uniformity, the first casualty is the quality of debate. Facebook is a perfect magnifier of such traits, as the inhibition that many of us feel when criticising another's viewpoint is reduced when carried out online.

The practical consequence of this on the political scene is stark. Politicians will do what they have to do to win, which means giving us the confirmation we crave, rather than challenge our positions. Blaming politicians for the rise of populism is far too simplistic. They're stuck in a feedback loop with a society that no longer knows how to process dissenting viewpoints.

Because social structures demand confirmation and loyalty fodder, the referendum campaigns have provided it. Simplistic, one eyed, fawning, they ape the behaviour of a low ranking group individual, keen to demonstrate their loyalty.

Reading the literature, you'd be forgiven for feeling like both sides consider the other has not one single good point. This is madness. Whatever your views, surely it's clear that the EU is a far from perfect organisation, whilst leaving introduces elements of risk. That simple, undeniable conflict is a perfect starting point for actually weighing up the merits of withdrawal against remaining. But our modern social structures are frequently incapable of allowing doubt, as the structure itself is founded on ritualistic agreement. Social cohesion has taken precedence over reasoned decision.

A friend of mine, well considered, intelligent, came out on Facebook as a 'Leave', with a rational and well considered series of thoughts. Rather than engage them in debating the points he raised, the majority of respondents chose to characterise this as a 'Judas' moment, a betrayal unforgiveable and complete. And in a sense it was, for they had broken the rules of the social group, and challenged the basis on which these networks are formed.

In this poisonous referendum, a further factor comes in to play to translate this effect into a leave vote.

The group that now appear to be swing voters in the referendum are the poor. It was probably a given that the rich and retired would mostly vote to leave, and the young and working would vote to stay, but the poor turning against the EU in such numbers has surprised many. And they are utterly impervious to the remain campaigning. Can you blame them? When they engage with the debate, they are told they are racist, they are stupid, and that they'll make things worse for themselves. They're told this in a patronising manner by a section of society with more money and prospects. They either have no job, or more commonly low-paid menial work with little chance of meaningful progression. There is no chance of owning a house, and they feel little connection to the political scene. This referendum has put this group in the unusual position of kingmakers. What a chance! When you've been this badly let down by the system, a significant change is going to seem pretty appealing because you feel like you have little to lose, and you might as well stick two fingers up whilst you shake the tree.

Tragically, there is a strong case that the poor will get much poorer through an EU exit, but that case is simply not being made. Instead, they are told that they are stupid and racist. When you step back from your own feelings on the matter, how many people do you think will be convinced to come round to your side of the argument by telling them that they're racist and stupid, even if you think they are? And particularly when sharing the leave literature and viewpoints is fulfilling an analogous social role on their side of the debate. There's a significant weight of inertia to overcome to influence minds, and that's before matters are made worse by insults. Surely the point is to succeed in the debate, not lose in self-righteousness?

I passionately believe that if there were an actual debate on the matter, remain would easily carry it. I find the arguments, the statistics, and the independent analysis overwhelming. It is the lack of debate, the focus on the character of those who would vote to leave, and most sickeningly of all, the short-sighted and selfish use of the issue to establish pecking order in our own social hierarchies that is leading to the possibility of defeat. Every angry share of an article showing how leavers are 'idiots' and 'racists' will add to the problem, not make it better.

Even if you are entirely right in your assessment, shouting at them and applying offensive labels won't change their minds! I have never once seen a person convinced to change their mind on a matter of politics by being shouted at and patronised. People change their views when a friendly voice in a welcoming setting helps them rationalise the whole argument, listens to their side, and lets them form THEIR OWN opinions on the basis of fresh evidence or better framing of the topic. For a crystal clear example of how much better this method works, even with the most extreme of viewpoints, read the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the infamous Westboro Baptist Church after she was engaged with friendship and empathy instead of anger.

If you want Britain to stay in the EU, go out and talk to people. Even if they're rude to you. Even if you hate what they stand for. Take it on the chin. Sharing articles about how stupid and racist you think they are will harden hearts and grow the mountain to climb. Telling someone that directly is even worse. Create space where viewpoints can be discussed without offence being made or taken.

Yes, neither side has actually debated properly yet, but one side has no reason to. I believe leave can only win in the absence of reasoned debate. If you want to reverse this, it's time to start talking. There's no higher ground to be found in refusing to debate just because they won't. Instead, there's common ground to be found. I'm voting to remain, because weighed together, I find the prospect of being out considerably worse than remaining in, not because I'm an uncritical fan. You are not losing the debate if you acknowledge the many failures of the EU whilst rationally laying out how you believe an exit brings more and greater problems to the table. If we all took the debate, politely, and with some human understanding, to people we don't agree with, perhaps we'd find that nine out of ten wouldn't engage and we got nowhere. Perhaps that cumulative tenth person might end up swinging a close vote.

And perhaps we might learn a thing or two more about what we could make better to stop this level of frustration building up again.

"The infidel might have a good point, you know!" - Les Barker, the Church of the Wholly Undecided
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