Brexit is important because it actually concerns us all. We will be analyzing the two main motivations, universal because linked to human psychology rather than to a small island. The double loss of both identity and control, as well as the ethical implications.
Hello everyone, Europeans, non Europeans, and maybe soon to no longer be Europeans. Yes today’s topic is the much discussed brexit. The potential exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Of course in this podcast what is mostly of interest to us is not so much politics as a tactic but politics as a philosophical tool. I will therefore not talk about politicians and their opinions, we will not be looking at what this or that celebrity thinks.
We will not even concern ourselves with economic forecasts. Not because they are not important.. they obviously are since the economy is underpinning a large part of our quality of life.. but mostly because there is no consensus on the topic and I have little to bring to the table here, or even report on. Apparently the consequences will be either neutral or at least not particularly positive or dire, both for the mainland Europeans and British islanders.
No what we will be preoccupying ourselves with in this discussion are the two real reasons which motivate this brexit. Which push people to fight ferociously, on the battlefield of ideas, to get out of this union of political destinies called the EU.
First off I notice that it is not really a British phenomenon. On the contrary, brexit is discussed nearly as fervently in the United Kingdom as it is in the Czech Republic, in Poland or Denmark. Not to mention all the latent separatist tendencies in France, Greece, Catalonia and, to leave Europe a bit.. In Quebec. Beautiful province in more ways than one.
After centuries of national and supranational buildup, we are now observing a renewal of local identity affirmations. What is striking at first glance is the geographical aspect. It is true that all those separatist movements are based on well defined geographical zones.
But focusing on geography would be missing the real reasons, which in truth have little to do with the mountains, rivers and plains of our beautiful homelands. No it is actually about two main reasons for which geography is but a coarse and practical approximation.
The first one is an increasingly franc, less and less disguised rejection of multiculturalism. The international mobility of goods and services has long started to harmonize cultures on some points. But many differences have remained, consumers from each zone preferring to import and often adapt some things and reject others. This globalization was then rather a liberation where somewhat homogeneous consumers were choosing to consume the same things, some of them foreign, together.
Then came the mobility of people. For millennia it had been much easier to move from one region to another legally, but this ease was actually largely counterbalanced by other great difficulties. Travel was physically very demanding, the lack of information did not particularly help to motivate a move toward adventure, and once there it was rarely easy to be accepted.. and even harder to build a prosperous life for oneself among the natives.
And this point is important. Because for the majority of human evolution, groups were somewhat homogeneous, both ethnically and culturally. We can easily see that the conditions were there to favor a certain natural ingroup preference.
It is important to notice here that this preference does not necessarily play on ethnicity or on specific characteristics. In reality what is important is rather.. the familiar versus the unknown, the predictable versus the unpredictable, cooperation versus conflict. Exterior signs, like a different physical appearance or clothing style, are merely imperfect signals.. but ones easy to pick up on without too much effort.
And so, right or wrong, associating these chance or arbitrary signals with an entire narrative about given individuals becomes automatic. We stereotype. As much as we are sometimes mistaken we are often enough correct for those stereotypes to survive. No smoke without a fire.
Despite the stereotype teaching us nothing guaranteed about a given individual, it is nonetheless statistically reliable in some measure. Not all lions bite, and those who do don’t bite all the time.. there’s even been cases of lions protecting humans.. but my advice to you remains to run anyway. Not all those stereotypes are of course valid, not even statistically. Sharks for instance are in the vast vast majority harmless, but we are more afraid of them than we are of tiny stinging gellyfish which are nonetheless more often fatal. Our instinct is not always reliable. But it is often enough so to be useful, even today.
For example it isn’t completely crazy to think that a muslim man coming from a country and culture where this religion’s interpretation is strict, is likely homophobic. Not certain but likely. It is also not completely crazy to imagine that this person will keep behaving and even voting accordingly. Same thing of course for orthodox jews or christians but they do not represent for now growing minorities, and are consequently often left out of public social debates.
Here we have the first real bexit motivation. Europeans, Britons today but others tomorrow, are starting to worry about their culture changing too quickly. They mainly feel that it is imposed on them.. by social classes they cannot identify with and also by the newcomers they never personally invited. There is of course in this fear a large part of panic and exaggeration in the face of this phenomenon. But real or not, it is an uncomfortable situation for all.
And perceived feelings, whether justified or not, are perceived nonetheless. We don’t go telling suicidal people that they do not really want to commit suicide. No, the first thing we do is of course empathize with the victim. Lest we end up with a jump from the bridge or slashed wrists. And rejecting as illegitimate or refusing to comfort those who are afraid of losing their quality of life is exposing oneself to brexit.
We have a natural bias against change and particularly so when it isn’t within our control. It is so for the average voter today. The tactics of derision and moral shaming by those quick to call others “fascist” or “racist” only but add fuel to the fire. Merely antagonizing those we could have previously had a discussion with.
Let’s also not forget that immigration comes predominantly from countries where the language and values are different. Where oftentimes the main religion is not only different but also far more ingrained. Last but not least.. the reasons for emigration are in the vast majority of cases economical or involuntary.
Here we’re not talking people who came for the love of the values, the culture or the landscape of the host country. No we’re talking about people who unfortunately, and for very understandable reasons, decided to come try their luck far from the place where the lottery of life had put them originally.. to improve their lives. It is then perfectly reasonable to think that they are not the best suited to assimilate in the local ideological and cultural landscape. This is a partly instinctive fear, but one that is nonetheless rational. Just as it is rational for migrants to attempt their journey.
It is actually the same motivation, very human, which animates all. That of wanting to improve or preserve one’s quality of life. Some in migrating and some in limiting the number of those welcomed. Both approaches, as much as they are in conflict here, are perfectly legitimate and understandable.
Massive migrations of destitute people from various cultures is nothing new. It was often the case in the past, in the United States, in Canada, in Britain and even in France. Once again I’m not here to judge the amplitude of the phenomenon, the legitimity of today’s fear. Conditions may be sufficiently different.. maybe not. I am analyzing what pushes people to want to live behind walls, be they drawn on a map. That’s what brexit is: drawing them with a felt pen when they were starting to fade. Looking at the past is useful but it isn’t possible to guarantee the same result when conditions are different.. which regrettably is something I do not have enough time to talk about in this episode.
I will end this first point remarking on an important ethical aspect. The birth lottery is a blind process. We are not deserving for having had the mere luck to be born in a rich country. They are not guilty of having been born in a war torn place or without potable water and electricity. This is so obvious I won’t even be trying to justify it here. What I am interesting in however is what follows. This erroneous conclusion which nothing links to the lottery in question.
I’m sure you’ve all already heard more than once that we in rich countries have a moral responsibility to help refugees. Implied here is that we are privileged. The lottery we just talked about. Some even talk of a more direct link where we would be responsible for the wars and poverty.. I’m going to ignore this argument here, not because it is false but because it depends from case to case. Often there is little to no link, nor does it apply to all rich countries, and this would be ignoring the huge part of local responsibility.
I am going to focus on the main universal argument that is being proposed. That we are rich by accident and that we have some duty to help. This conclusion is false. Responsibility is a notion that deals with cause and effect. The cause must precede the effect and it is those originating the cause who shoulder the burden of responsibility. Good or bad. The mere fact of having been born however does not create a cause in regard to the birth of another individual elsewhere. In other words, it isn’t because you were born here that he was born there.
Moreover intermediary causes are usually ignored when it comes to moral responsibility. Even if your birth had by some miracle caused their birth, you never chose, you never caused, your own birth.. which is but an intermediary cause, a mechanical cause, without incidence on your moral responsibility.
Put another way, chance does not create responsibility. People from rich countries have no responsibility toward those of poor countries. If there should be help, which is not something I’m here to judge, it should be given for the right reasons: for compassion, altruism, empathy and so on. Or even by self-interest. All the more logical and valid reasons. We can be nice without having a moral obligation to be so.
The real problem then is this one. Brexit is the fear to lose the comfort of the familiar.. to lose one’s quality of life. A fear which leans on our natural tendency toward tribalism. Things are what they are.. men are tribal, let’s deal with it. It makes us happier than feeling lost and without identity. Rather than vociferate against this fact, rather than trying to reshape man differently, it could be good to understand, to accept, to use it as an asset to make people everywhere happier. In our own tribes. Yes we generally have more than one tribe each.
Because even as it is tempting to want to redefine the tribe as “the human tribe” or “planet earth tribe” it isn’t actually that simple. For a tribe to be convincing it needs to be human-sized and be defined by what it is not.. who it is not.. as much if not more so than by what it is. This is the subject of another episode.. but we are now entering the second big driving force behind brexit: the control of one’s fate.
Yes it’s good and all having a tribe with a flourishing culture and some foreigners who came to enrich it without upsetting things.. we must also have a major role in our own future. A tribe which does not make its own decisions, which does not choose its own norms.. is a castrated tribe.
And whether we like it or not, Europe in general is not a convincing tribe. The United States is a somewhat convincing tribe. But Europe, with its myriad languages, is not really homogeneous culturally. And when people exchange little culturally speaking they don’t feel particularly close. Europeans only intermittently feel European, often when they need to band together against some other bloc. But in general we feel French, Spanish.. or British, precisely.
Brexit is also that, the official rejection of a European identity and the affirmation of a national identity which is for all, on both sides of the channel, much more sensible. And who wants to be governed by neighboring tribes? Particularly when those neighboring tribes also feel ill represented. Europe is undergoing a representation crisis. A level of bureaucracy which is already often not perceived as legitimate and which does not allow any country to really get ahead. And particularly not Britain which is always in conflict with Brussels.
Britons are on average eager for different policies than the French. And the French from the Slovenes. But the European Union guarantees some sort of never ending compromise which is satisfactory for nobody. Not for the Brits, not for the French and not for the Slovenes.
This problem is not just European. It is globally present with the progressive erosion of local governance and the progressive centralization of the world. The most important decisions are increasingly centralized while some semblance of decentralization is maintained for the less important things.
Centralizing in a generally homogeneous group makes few discontents. The European Union is not that kind of group, as brexit is symptomatic of. I will get to the notion of micro-society and a la carte governance in future episodes but this one is long enough and I do not want to abuse your patience.
Today we’ve seen that brexit actually is a path that the Brits have drawn to avoid the dual monsters of multicultural Charybde and loss of local control Scylla. We have also seen that far from being centered on Britain this is really a largely European phenomenon. And finally that the real reason to help the world’s unfortunate is not some sort of responsibility to do so, logically absent, but simple altruism.
Thank you all for having listened to this episode until the very end. It was longer than usual. Do not hesitate to send your, nice, comments and to share the podcast. See you soon.
Published 2016-06-23. (brexit, europe, multiculturalism, immigration, refugees, tribalism)