So nearly two years ago (was it really that long?!) I went off on one about Brexit. And I still feel pretty much as I did then: that Brexit is a terrible mistake that will hurt this country hard and that the whole process from the referendum onwards has been handled catastrophically by most of the politicians involved in it.
But (and this “but” is going to go on a long time, so get a nice hot drink and settle yourselves down somewhere comfy).
There’s something else that’s equally, if not more, dangerous than just the financial and other implications of leaving the EU. Which is that during this whole Brexit palaver, we’ve lost some crucially important things: more than just our place in the EU, more than just whatever economic losses we may/will suffer as a result of that.
I think we’ve lost the ability to listen to others with a different view. This may just be me spending too much time on Twitter and the Guardian’s comments section, neither of which are hotbeds of calm, rational, well-thought out debate and discussion. But so much of what passes for debate in this is two sides shouting at each other, two sides who think they know what the other side is saying and responds according to that, not necessarily according to what they’re actually saying. Labels are flung at each other (“Remoaner”, “Brexiteer”, “traitor”, “racist”, “elitist” etc.) with wild abandon as if to do so immediately nullifies the other side’s arguments.
But no one’s listening to anyone else in the heat of these debates. None (or very few) of the remainers are trying to hear and understand why people voted Brexit. And none (or very few) who voted for Brexit are trying to understand why so many of us who voted Remain are so upset about what’s happening and would want to stop it.
There was an article in the Guardian before Christmas which addressed some of this. It was commenting in part on how the film It’s A Wonderful Life might have some lessons for us in these polarised times, about the virtues of not being self-righteous, so certain of your own views that you refuse to listen to others. And it also referenced a Twitter thread by the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce on why walked out of a Dylan Moran gig after jokes the latter made against people who voted against Brexit. The article’s point was basically that these binary divisions between Leave-Remain are simply unsustainable and damaging to the country. Predictably, the comments were full of the same old arguments about Brexit and, I’m slightly ashamed to say, Remainers making the same old “bigot”, “racist”, “stupid” comments about Leave voters. Very few of them were willing to take any step towards any sort of reconciliation with the other side.
(Stephen Colbert, the US comedian and late-night host, made a similar point in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in this video.)
The thing is, though, assuming Brexit happens, we are going to have to live together in whatever arrangement this country ends up in; there’s no way around that. And at the risk of sounding overly-simplistic, or like a politician vainly appealing for unity after spending years promoting division, we’re sooner or later going to have to somehow work out how to do that together, if only to try and make the best of a catastrophic job. And name-calling, self-righteousness and all the rest of it are only going to make that infinitely harder. Or, to put it another way: we Remainers may be proved right, but we’ll suffer for it as much as those who voted leave.
There’s something else we’ve lost as well, or at least badly messed up. I mentioned above both sides not listening to the other side, as if even to acknowledge any concerns, however wrong they may be, is to somehow give them a validity we believe they don’t deserve.
The flip side of this is the argument that if we don’t leave the EU, then the wishes of the majority (or that poisonous, incorrect phrase “the will of the people”) have been ignored; they haven’t been listened to because what they said hasn’t been carried out – even if no one can define what has been said.
But the referendum result hasn’t been ignored. The government has spent the last two and a half years trying, very badly, to implement the result. To listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to do what they say all the time. One can listen, but disagree or set out your reasons why you’re not going to do why they asked.
And to listen to someone who’s views you profoundly disagree with isn’t to necessarily say, “actually you’re right” as many Remainers seem to fear. Better listening, actually more respectful listening, might actually be to hear and understand the other’s point of view, and then explain why you disagree, why you believe them to be wrong. To take one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote: you can listen to someone’s views on the apparent dangers of immigration and still disagree with them, try and explain why you think they’re wrong.
But in the current climate, to do that is either to give something a dignity it doesn’t deserve or, from the other point of view, to ignore what they’re saying – even if you’ve spent time carefully listening to them.
What’s the way out of this? I don’t know. One frequent comment on that Guardian article that had validity was that it’d be a help if politicians did that.
But perhaps we can’t leave it to them; as the late, great Simon Hoggart pointed out, most politicians’ horror at “politicising” a terrible disaster or such like is mainly because they didn’t think to do it first; it’s almost in their very nature (a few honourable exceptions aside).
No, I think ordinary folks are going to have to do this. Perhaps they/we are: if you know where this is happening then please let me know in the comments! But sooner or later, someone’s going to have to let down their defences, take a step out of their self-righteous bubble and listen to and acknowledge the other side’s view, however wrong they believe that view to be. Because the alternative is that the divisions keep growing and growing until we reach a very dangerous place – if we’re not there already.
As Stephen Colbert put it, we’re in danger of overdosing on politics in a very unhealthy way – and it’s poisoning us.
(And if you are going to comment – keep it civil!)