Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Brexit - The Limits Of Democracy & Free Speech?

There are (at least) two sides to every argument. And that means there will always be adherents of both sides. How do you decide which is right, or at least the correct path to follow? Well science is usually a good way to go, we don't have all that many flat earthers around these days, though they do still exist. Same as those who believe as per the Old Testament that the Earth was created just a few millennia ago and in just seven days. Science suggests that there is actually a higher level of 'truth' and 'fact' and empirical evidence that ought to be able to be employed to convince hearts and minds. But not all issues are able to be proven by scientific fact. Slavery was (eventually) felt to be a morally reprehensible institution, but it still took the carnage of a civil war to see it abolished in the US, rather than Congressional voting. So, unfortunately, might is also a way of prevailing in argument.

Democracies have been pretty good at avoiding outcomes whereby questions are settled by force, (at least where internal issues are concerned, not so good where the decision is to go bomb another country). The nature of representational democracy being, in the main, the two sides debate, take a vote, the majority wins and the defeated accept the decision honourably. However, you might interject that the notion of honour is a class-based one, as tends to be the make up of most parliamentary memberships. You might also reasonably aver that those interest groups with the money to influence or buy professional lobbyists, also distort this notion of honourable and fair debate. But perhaps the notion of honourable acceptance of decisions is breaking down anyway.

The trend was perhaps symbolised by the statement during the Brexit referendum campaign by Leave campaigner Michael Gove MP when he said that the public have had enough of experts. He was tapping into an emotional seam; there are so many people feeling disenfranchised and economically lagging behind others, who felt that the status quo and all the old, established arguments had delivered nothing to them. Gove just gave them a mandate to dispense with belief and trust in experts, because experts hadn't got it right in their case and made their lives better. So science, statistics, economic forecasts, none of this is going to wash with them. Hence when the referendum comes along, it gets (perfectly understandably) hijacked as a means to express the disenfranchisement and misery swathes of people feel, and very little to do with the EU itself. The EU is swept up as the villain, hosting many other grievances which actually it bears minimal responsibility for causing: migrants, sovereignty, detached political elites, are historical and cyclical targets for blame, only here they are all pinned to the mast of the EU for causing them. 

This is not a UK/Brexit only phenomena. Climate change science is denied, especially in the US, with powerful pre-existing economic interests in the oil industry funding lobbying and advertising to blur the scientific narrative by blowing enough (hydrocarbon) smoke. Currently they have the ear of the President, which means they also have the support of his electorate who probably don't care all that much about the fate of the planet's future, they have more pressing economic and identity issues. So science is taking a hit. And the role of force to settle arguments rather than debate is on the rise, witness the 'Gilets Jaunes' taking to the streets in Paris, again a cohort of the populace who feel utterly disenfranchised by the ruling class and damn well want to let them know. And not politely either (again, a class division over what is 'proper', polite behaviour.  

You can make an argument about anything and you will find supporters taking to social media to air their particular side. Compromise seems impossible, while these days an honourable acceptance of defeat in debate is far less tolerated; you have your view, it's perfectly legitimate to hold such a view, therefore it must be recognised and legislated for, is now the prevailing assumption. Because this is no longer a debate about ideas, but has become heavily invested with emotion, with identity, people will not simply admit that they lost the argument. To do so is perceived as denying their existence, their identity and their rights. Democracy may just have hit its limits, because our societies are so divided between the two or more sides of any argument you care to raise. 

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