For many people, Brexit is not a battle of facts, numbers and figures, and that goes for those on both sides of the debate. For many Brexiteers, this vote is about an expression of British identity. For many Remainers, the vote is, similarly, about an expression of a liberal, cosmopolitan identity. In fact, the people most passionate about the referendum on both sides are probably more enamoured with these ideas of identity than they are with the cold, hard facts of their case.
Those facts, in reality, are a secondary consideration. We are living, in some ways, in a post-truth media environment. The line between journalism and activism is often blurred. I think often those blurring the lines see themselves as doing a good deed – in presenting a single side of the story they see themselves not as spreading mistruth, but as correcting a flawed narrative.
After an incident of Islamist terrorism, many on the left will blame the attack on the West’s history of colonialism and war. This elicits a reaction from the right that people are in denial about “the nature” of Islam (insofar as a billion people can, collectively, have a nature) being violent. It’s not that people on the left don’t understand that passages of the Quran are used to justify these atrocities and that yes, there is some connection between Islam (not mainstream Islam, though) and them.
Rather, they see a regrettable reduction of these complex issues into “Islam = bad”, and worry about the effect that this reductionist view of the problem will have on ordinary, peaceful Muslims who don’t wish harm on anyone. Seeing the risk for each incident to provoke an Islamophobic reaction, they offer a counter-narrative that seeks to provoke reflection on the complexities of what’s going on. The internal truth of any one piece is secondary to the overarching truth of the narrative.
Of course, this form of narrative-focused journalism provokes an equal and opposite reaction from the right. Concerned about a namby-pamby PC-gone-mad narrative that they can read in leftist thinkpieces, they push back the other way, with rightist thinkpieces that are equally as narrative-focused, and assert that in fact Islam is “to blame” and that the left is too for being too afraid to criticise it. All this creates an atmosphere of shouty distrust, a vicious cycle of thinkpieces constantly reasserting the chosen side of the argument so as to try and create what they consider to be an overall balance.
The same is playing out with Brexit. Each side makes ever more ludicrous claims – both have invoked Hitler, for fucks sakes – and the only real loser is the public. George Osborne’s dismal treasury predictions were all worst-case scenarios – it seems to me that he massively overplayed his hand. Why not quote a smaller but more believable figure and say “look, this isn’t a huge amount, but would you rather have it in your pocket or not?”.
Trapped between two sides selling narratives, nobody knows who to trust. Back to the clash of identities. With the increasingly less believable claims emanating from both the Leave and Remain camps, people can’t realistically assess “the facts” because the obvious question then is “which facts?”. Instead, when facts fail we retreat to identity. Am I a proud, down-to-earth Brit or a cosmopolitan European?
The endless panopoly of experts telling people to vote remain are associated, rightly or wrongly, with the liberal cosmopolitanism of Remain. So, their views are discounted immediately by those who see this vote in terms. Similarly anyone talking about the fact that, actually, free movement of labour might be good for those at the top but not for those in low-paid, insecure jobs can be discounted as a “little Englander”. I’m fucking sick of it all, and I can’t wait for it to be over.