Reflections on the Brexit Referendum

(As ever here, un-proofed, unedited, and as is….)

The Daily Mash headline said it all. UK now officially assigned ‘clown country’ status.

The Mash has a habit of being spot on when it comes to the British cultural zeitgeist. For those not wholly familiar, it’s the Onion with more self-loathing (and all the better for it). Other than permanent joke status, Brexit has revealed a few interesting truths and brought some others into sharp focus. I didn’t want to write about it immediately. I have also been reluctant to take on the subject after a rather long hiatus from blogging (thanks damn promotion and extra responsibilities and adult shit). It’s a topic that everyone is currently doing to death (like a snuff film starring ‘Horizontal Breton Stripes’) whilst all the while doing greater justice to it than I will.

So yes, anyway, fear of globalization, the rise of nationalism in a world that is becoming post-national, sharp divides between interconnected cities and alienated hinterlands, the unintended consequences of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the need for the right to offend and therefore discuss openly – else the publicly enforced taboos of ‘liberal fascism’ drive up pressure that then needs to finds a Haider, Trump or Farrage shaped valve.

So… in no real order and with little to really stitch this together, some thoughts…

We live in an echo chamber
Almost everyone I personally know expressed ‘surprise’. Investment banks were briefing their clients the night before that there was no chance that Britain would leave. Let me spell this out; if you were surprised, then it goes a long way to explaining why it happened. The ever-decreasing levels of social mobility make our peer groups ever less diverse. Universities, where many of those who were ‘surprised’ met their partners are increasingly stratified and less mixed. We spend most of our time with ‘people like us’.

Our information sources, digitally and socially plough and ever-narrower funnel thanks to an ever-fractalised media landscape that allows us to pick from more and more niche voices. I gave up reading the Guardian and follow UKIP-ers on Twitter to try and combat this very danger. Increasing choice means that we increasingly choose ‘people like us’ and voices that we agree with. Which means the grievances of so many, their fears, hopes, aspirations and ambitions are ignored by those who have never met someone like them and who are in positions of political, economic or cultural power.

This is bigger than how many Etonions are in the cabinet; its how many London-raised-lefty liberal are in our professional classes. From Westminster and Whitehall to the figurative ‘Fleet Street’ and ad agencies of Soho. The problem is as much in the middle as it is at the very top.

I’ll repeat the point in clearer terms – if you are angry with those who disagreed with you in this vote- you are an undemocratic, unfeeling, narrow-sighted fool, lacking in empathy and have undoubtedly helped cause this problem.
Am I surprised? No. Disappointed? Terribly

Debate is in the gutter
People, particularly those who align on the ‘lazy left’/’liberal fascist’ end of the spectrum – and I count myself as a rehabilitated past offender – are not willing to engage. Discussion has in the past been about testing and exploring ideas, using the didactic to torture test ideas; there is good Orwell quote in one of his essays about totalitarian ideas never taking root in Britain because of a natural skepticism towards dogmatic beliefs and principles. This is no longer the case. Rather than discuss, people draw lines in the sand. Those who don’t agree with you are idiots. Empathy and exchange has been sucked out of public politics and I have no idea how we get that back. No longer do people disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it, nor the obligation to constructively debate it.

In all honesty, I find that the left is guiltier of this, with smug assumptive assertions that usually start with “Of course we all know…”
I have had more personally rewarding and intellectually illuminating conversations with those who’s view lie far to the right of my own wooly, social-democratic thinking. Drawing battle lines doesn’t help people to progress or to get to solutions.

Truth is now multiple, not singular
Following on from the death constructive debate – the idea that two (or more) sides engaging with a subject matter, will through that dialectic move towards greater knowledge and human wisdom. Instead there has been a collapse in the hierarchy of information. Which has given us Citizen Journalism and SBTV. Which is awesome. But it has also led to the frightening but correct assertion by Micheal Gove that  “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Fragmented media landscape, collapsing barriers to ‘broadcasting’ (including in its widest sense, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other digital soapboxes) and decreasing trust in established sources leads to a vertical suspicion that undermines facts and the idea of a singular truth.

This is post-enlightenment skepticism on steroids, where once the questioning was meant to bring us to a higher truth, but instead now is an ends in itself. Doubt is cast over everything and people believe nothing. Everything is equally  (in)valid, negating debate and leaving us with the mudslinging, as above, and meaning that a new definition of a ‘fact’ is ‘something you say to support what you want to believe or hear’. This was put to great effect by the Brexit campaign itself. But they were right, once people stop believing in ‘expertise’ they rapidly get sick of experts, as we are all one now.
(I blame the internet – after all this is me pretending I am an expert whilst I type)

A victory for voting and a defeat for democracy?
An X in a box, particularly for a referendum is not where democracy starts and ends. But hopefully this can provide new impetus to rehabilitate some of the other key bits. Civil Society is as important as casting a vote, and we need to get broader engagement as well as a high caliber of debate. The potential split of the Labour party could be a huge boost for this, as would a move towards PR. However those I have spoken to who from mainstream Labour and the Corbyn side are behaving like toddlers. The talk is possessive – lots of ‘our party’ ‘the people’. It sounds dangerously like the language of totalitarianism on both sides. Its not going to help get over the long-term decline in respect for politicians. Lets not forget if they were really greedy and self-interested, there are easier, less high profile and high-pressure ways to get ones snout in much bigger troughs. Likewise the press needs to raise its game. For all the issues with phone hacking and ethics, the UK press is one of the most vibrant in the world and is a key element of an active functioning democracy. With gutter debate, multiple truth and journalists in their own echo chamber we need Fleet Street to up its game and provide clear voices to provoke constructive debate and honest reporting that can begin to rehabilitate the quaint old notion of a ‘fact’. Never let a good story get in the way of a truth?

Currently resident in Singapore, I have to constantly defend the idea of democracy because we got the ‘wrong answer’. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that there is a ‘wrong answer’ in a popular vote, but I do believe that the rest of our public sphere needs rehabilitation

Remainers will leave
Whether geo-politically in the case of Scotland, rhetorically and culturally in the case of London, or literally in the case of many of those individuals who voted for their own transnational world view; those who see themselves as a citizen of the world as well as a subject of Britain will be making their own Brexits. The last category, the individuals who cause the spike in emigration searches, is in many respects the most worrying. It is those who are most mobile, most globally marketable and potentially most valuable to a Splendid Isolation global trading Britain who will be first out the door.

Conversely the influx that has made Britain so vibrant and has fuelled growth will stop. Whether the laws change or not, the rhetoric, no matter how many times Sadiq might say otherwise is that we are closed, and that is a dangerous position for a country who’s most important export in the 21st century is ideas

Wikipedia and the Ministry of Truth

There has been much attention in the press over a certain Wiki. The Wikileaks affair has raised questions over what counts as journalistic freedom, and what is simply sensationalism, revelation, or open-source espionage. I feel after such an expectant sentence, I should at least lay out my stall before I go on. I think the suppression of the website is outrageous, and gives America no leg to stand on when it turns round and tells China that it should allow greater journalistic freedom. I am inclined to agree with Clay Shirky’s post and position myself on the side of free speech with some reservation. I also think that just dumping a database of leaked documents online isn’t really journalism.

Traditionally great journalists have decided when to use a leak and when to hold, what is of interest and what will not only make mediocre news, but be detrimental for a more general interest. Now before I head down some mystic, quasi-rousseauian route of the free press as diviner of the general will, I will admit that maybe that leaves too much responsibility with the journalists to shape thought. We should all be allowed to discover and express truth for ourselves. But we never consider that we leave to much responsibility with teachers to shape young minds. Let’s just hope our press isn’t like US schools on some things

Wikileaks isn’t the Wiki that I am concerned with today, though editorial licence, journalistic controls, and potential monopolies on truth are on the agenda.

When Wikipedia came into being in 2001, it was arguably the first major application of crowdsourcing. Though a study by Nature reported that it was no more inaccurate than the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, vandalism of the site raises some interesting questions about the very nature of truth in these early years of a true time of ‘The internet:IRL’- when online and offline are distinctions that become less relevant. A growing number of university essays, professional presentations and knowledge in general circulation and parlance seems to spring forth from this miasma. When people want to find something out, about history, politics, companies, products or things, they google it, or look at wikipedia.

Even tools online that are there to make our world clearer could be manipulated. Looking to see where a street is on Google Maps, the image could be out of date or doctored or even removed. An chunk of Baghdad that was bombed could still look as it did only minutes earlier, with children playing in the street…

Okay, so that is perhaps a little far fetched, but it wouldn’t take much for someone to adjust an entry for your company or brand online, alter reality essentially. After all, celebrities have woken up to their own deaths as twitter trending topics. Especially as we rely more and more on living in the ‘The internet:IRL’ hybrid space that gradually encroaches more and more on our lives.

To understate the importance of the Internet would be churlish. It may the most important thing to happen to the written word since Gutenburg. But just as moveable type helped end an ecclesiastical monopoly on misinformation, the growth of the web starts a fire-sale on opinion. This doesn’t mean that there should be limits on what people can express whenever and however they like. It is one of the most liberating things about the web. But establishing some way to verify reality, remembering that ‘another website’ is not an attributable source may make sure that the digital layers of our lives aid and abet our IRL elements, rather than  allowing a kind of crowd sourced version of Air Strip One’s Ministry of Truth.

A vision that is closer than we may imagine when we consider that 50% of edits are done by around 0.7% of users. Doubleplusungood, very doubleplusungood…