Saturday, 11 June 2016

Welcome to the EU referendum debate


I think it's clear from my writing that I don't think that the EU is absolutely great or buy into the Remain campaign fearmongering that quitting the EU would trigger an immediate Armageddon event. I also refuse to accept the utopian Brexiter fantasy that the EU is fundamentally evil and that Britain would immediately become the land of milk and honey as soon as we were to leave this blighted empire.

Both positions are utterly preposterous, but they do have the appeal of being highly simplistic, and therefore easy for naive rote learner types to uncritically absorb and then regurgitate as if it's their own well-considered opinion rather than the insultingly simplistic drivel that it actually is.


Ambiguity

It's hard for me to feel any great enthusiasm towards the EU because it's so riddled with hard-right economic dogma (just consider the appalling austerity punishment of Greece or the bizarrely anti-democratic reaction to the petition against the TTIP corporate power grab), but it's also impossible to deny the many positive features too (labour rights, environmental regulations, visa free travel, curbs on financial sector greed, consumer protection ...).

A very brief outline of my stance is that the EU has very many serious problems, but as long as the campaign to leave is led by a bunch of rabid right-wingers who are as full of uncosted and over optimistic speculations as they are as empty on reliable facts and details, the rational stance must be to say "No thanks. Not until you actually come up with some kind of post-Brexit economic restructuring plan for us to subject to rational scrutiny".

The EU undeniably has a lot of problems that need solving, meaning you'd have to be pretty optimistic to see a positive future by staying in. However, you'd have to be very much more optimistic to be hopeful of a better situation coming about in a post-EU Britain run by the newly empowered and fanatically hard-right fringe of the Tory party who have sneakily presented us with a load of uncosted and wildly over-optimistic hot air instead of an actual plan for anybody to actually try to hold them to.

To put it even more simply (in the form of a common idiom): Under the current circumstances Brexit would be like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.


Othering

I think it's pretty clear that I'm no big fan of the EU (in fact I've probably written more detailed criticisim of the EU than the huge majority of Brexiters ever have) but that hasn't stopped growing numbers of furious Brexiters from turning up to crudely misrepresent my stance as being pro-EU.

I don't actually think my stance is all that complicated or difficult to understand, but because it doesn't conform to the Utopian milk and honey fantasies that so many Brexiters seem so deeply absorbed in, quite a lot of them feel the urge to instantly dismiss everything that I say by labeling me as a member of the other (pro-EU) tribe.

This tribalist tactic of "othering" anyone who doesn't conform to  the exact same viewpoint helps people to keep their mind firmly closed. and it reduces the art of debate down to the crudest kind of "with us or against us" mentality.

The "you called us racists" tactic


In my articles I've reserved almost all of my criticism for political Brexit supporters (Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith, Arron Banks ...) and for the utterly woeful official Vote Leave campaign. Anyone who is familiar with my work knows that I always try to avoid using insults towards or crude generalisations about large cohorts of people, however this hasn't stopped a lot of Brexiters turning up to make blatantly false claims that I've resorted to slurring all Brexiters as "racists" or "bigots"

Trawling for sympathy by pretending that what has actually been said was laden with insults when it clearly wasn't is an age old Ukipper tactic.

It's a thoroughly disgusting bad faith stance to make up lies that the thing you disagree with is laden with insults in order to farm sympathy and dissuade other people from reading it, but it's a highly effective tactic so a lot of 'kipper types keep using it over and again.

The hypocrisy tactic


Another common Brexiter tactic that keeps appearing on the Another Angry Voice Facebook page is the accusation that Jeremy Corbyn is some kind of unforgivable hypocrite because he opposes Brexit but has a track record of criticising aspects of the EU.

This kind of attack might make sense to a simpleton who is only capable of thinking in the most absolutist terms and
whose political life exist only as a sequence of simplistic binary choices with no middle ground at all, because in their mind it is only ever possible to be completely pro-EU or completely anti-EU.

However anyone with any sense of perspective at all knows that it's perfectly possible to be annoyed about one aspect of a thing without wanting to be rid of it entirely. Maybe you're really quite infuriated that your partner snores loudly next to you in the bed, but that's hardly a reason to stab them to death in their sleep and hide their body under the floorboards is it?
If you actually listen to any of Jeremy Corbyn's speeches about the EU, he talks a lot of sense. He's distanced himself from the fearmongering instant Armageddon rhetoric used by the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne to scare people into voting remain, and he's honest enough to admit that the EU is far from perfect and in need of real reform (not just David Cameron's pathetic smoke and mirrors "renegotiation").

Admittedly Corbyn still struggles to get to his point sometimes, but that's a matter of presentation rather than policy. What he actually says is usually pretty straightforward, honest and non-hyperbolic stuff. Take this as an example:

"Over the years I have been critical of many decisions taken by the EU, and I remain critical of its shortcomings; from its lack of democratic accountability to the institutional pressure to deregulate or privatise public services.  
So Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It’s perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member. I’ve even had a few differences with the direction the Labour Party’s taken over the past few years but I have been sure that it was right to stay a member. Some might say I’ve even managed to do something about changing that direction."
This "if you've ever criticised the EU you're a hypocrite for not supporting Brexit" stance is clearly in the same ballpark as the utterly pathetic tactic of saying "Why don't you just go to live in North Korea" to anyone who expresses the slightest discontentment at the British government, the Royal family or anything about Britain in general.

Have things already degenerated too far?

I'm actually pleasantly surprised that Jeremy Corbyn has been articulating a position that is quite similar to my own: That the EU has serious problems, but that the better solution is to stay in and fight to make it better rather than bail out and be ruled over by a bunch of fanatically right-wing Tory isolationists.

I can't help feeling that Corbyn's stance might be problematic though, because the standard of political debate in the UK has been debased to such a level that 
millions of people have now become used to nothing more than bold, simplistic and easily memorable tabloid style rhetoric from their politicians. This means that anyone who doesn't speak in pre-scripted platitudes or utilise crude fearmongering rhetoric must sound like they're talking in some inaccessible alien language full of confusing facts and conditions and clauses. 

On the other hand, there are a lot of people out there who have real misgivings about the EU, but are rightfully suspicious of a Brexit campaign led by a pack of dishonest and fanatically right-wing oddballs like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith. Perhaps this kind of person is more likely to be convinced by someone calmly spelling out their reasons to remain than by the lurid hyperbolic shrieking from both of the official campaigns?

Conclusion

The EU referendum debate has been annoying because many of the most vociferous people occupy one of the two absolutist camps (If we leave it will be Armageddon/A perpetual bed of roses), while those with more nuanced opinions have been shoved to the sides.

Bertrand Russell once said that "the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts", which is a theory that has now been actually proven. The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that the less informed people are about a subject, the more likely they are to vastly over-estimate their personal expertise in it. In other words the emptiest vessels make the loudest noises.

The EU referendum campaign has been particularly bad in this regard because of the utterly appalling Project Fear from both campaigns (especially the Remain camp), the needless Hitler comparisons, the bad faith muck slinging and the bombardment of outright lies from the Brexit camp. If the leaders of the two official campaigns are intent on dragging the debate down to such a base level, is it any wonder that the general standard of the debate has also remained so low?


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