Centrifugal discourse?

Generally I like to be informed about the opinions held by people and groups with whom I disagree. I may hold the views I hold, but I am interested to hear from those who think differently, and occasionally I change my mind.

So, I do not support or like Brexit. I think it is a stupid idea. I think it exposes the United Kingdom to huge economic risks, and perhaps more significantly, it will lower its standing in the world. But as in all things, I could be wrong, and so I like to listen to what Brexiteers are saying, and in that spirit I follow the Twitter accounts of various people and groups who think it’s all a great wheeze and who anticipate the sunlit uplands of the post-March departure of the UK from the European Union. One of these accounts is that of the lobby group ‘Leave Means Leave’. If you are not familiar with them you can find their Twitter feed here and their website here.

At first I just read lots tweets and opinion pieces and, while disagreeing, thought no more about them. They didn’t come across as persuasive to me because, in truth, they weren’t trying to persuade me. Leave Means Leave is not really dedicated to changing anyone’s mind, its key strategy is to make those already committed to Brexit really angry that it’s not happening quickly enough and that it may involve compromises. And if you’re tempted to follow them also, let me warn you that their Twitter strategy is one of non-stop buckshot sprayed across your screen. I might describe their relationship with the world of facts as, shall we say, edgy. In their world, Europe (not just the EU) is about to be shown as a busted flush, everywhere else is great, and the WTO (under whose ‘rules’ the UK should in their view trade) just brilliant.

Why am I going on about the good folks at Leave Means Leave? Well, I think they are fruitcakes, but that’s not the point. It is perfectly possible to advance persuasive arguments for Brexit (even if I mightn’t agree with them). But actually what’s going on here, and to be fair in a lot of other camps and arguments as well (sometimes including those pushing for remaining in the EU), is a drive not to persuade but to radicalise. In a lot of this discourse, the ‘middle ground’ is now the most despised terrain (here and elsewhere in the world), and those arguing for a balanced view are often the most vilified people. Looking at social media, I am often astonished at the bile thrown at those who raise polite questions or indicate mild scepticism about some idea or other cherished by committed ideologues of left or right.

And it’s not just social media. Watching the BBC TV’s Question Time exposes you to audience interventions delivered in expressions and tones of the raged fanatic. Debate is now about shouting and drowning out the other side, not persuading them. We are all the losers for that, and those who govern us will be pushed, more and more, to take unreasonable and dangerous decisions.

So, as some have suggested, is the centre ground dead? Are our politics destined to shift from an angry view on one radical side to an angry view on the other? The last time that happened some 90 years ago it didn’t end well. So, I would plead, let us pause and think. On all sides.

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2 Comments on “Centrifugal discourse?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Jonathan Haidt, author of The Coddling of the American Mind has argued that “secular democracies are inherently unstable, inherently prone to division unless there are sufficient “centripetal” forces pulling toward the center (such as having a shared language, shared rituals and values, and high trust in the basic political and economic institutions of the country)”
    “Facebook and other social media platforms are powerful centrifugal forces, binding groups together to fight other groups within their own country, driven mad and propelled into battle by an eternal mudslide of outrage-inducing viral videos and conspiracy theories.” His prediction is that by 2030 we will see the spectacular political collapse or geographical division of more than one Western democracy that seemed rock solid on the day Facebook was founded, 15 years ago.
    At the rate things are going could this Western democracy be post-Brexit Britain?
    The key point for me is that we urgently need better governance when it comes to social media platforms so that the potential for commonality (that connecting element based on shared values so crucial for polity) is strengthened. The impetus for such better governance won’t come from the Silicon valley boys’ club, it must come from international institutions, the EU in primis. The European project was born out of a crisis, a world war of unprecedented proportions, today’s challenges have once again a global disruptive dimension, Europe cannot be alone in tackling such issues of course, the hope is that a fruitful partnership with a new US President will be established in 2020.

  2. I have spoken with a small number of Leave supporters recently. I have been shocked at how vehemently they now hold their positions: they are very angry, feel they have been made fools of (what? No plan?) and so consequently are dug in, will not budge.
    They are, for whatever reason, in the majority, and so fairness must be upheld.
    We can only try our hardest to salvage what can be salvaged from all this. It will be another lean time ahead. Something useful will have to be botched up out of it.

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