Why we should be nicer to leave voters (even if we don’t want to)

It’s been a while since the referendum now, and I’m still hearing about how thick the leave voters are and how they’ve ruined everything for the rest of us. It’s also only been since the referendum that I’ve actually become aware of The Express, a “newspaper” so aggressively misleading, incoherent and racist that it makes The Daily Mail look like The New Internationalist.

While it is true that The Express and The Daily Mail are frothing hate rags catering to people who think that immigration is the root of all their problems somehow, it isn’t true that everyone who voted leave reads them and it isn’t true that everyone who reads them is thick. They may believe things that are absolutely wrong but this is true of everyone. Jeering at someone for being stupid has never ever been a good way of winning them over to your side.

The belief that everyone who reads the hate rags and believes the stories they come out with is stupid is an example of the fundamental attribution error. Basically, we tend to explain other people’s behaviour in terms of some characteristic they have and to ignoring any situational factors which might be relevant. In this case the characteristic being used to explain why someone might blame immigration for their problems is their stupidity. This is fundamentally unhelpful as it both further alienates us from people who we disagree with and completely ignores the process by which these beliefs are maintained.

Rather than just assuming that people blame the EU/immigration/Muslims/whatever for their problems because that’s what stupid people do, let’s try to understand this as a process involving various situational factors.

Unless we have the resources, time and inclination to study an issue in depth ourselves and actually come to our opinion more or less independently we have to rely on sources of information that we think are credible. Given the effectively infinite number of issues that there are out there to understand, even if we are genuine experts in some of them, what we believe about the rest will depend on other sources of information which we think are reliable.

We all have a tendency to try to avoid cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable experience of realising that we hold a set of contradictory beliefs. So, when we are confronted with information which causes cognitive dissonance we do one of two things. Either we change our beliefs or we don’t and we reject the troubling information.

If most of the sources we regard as reliable, and these will include the media, friends, family, colleagues etc are telling us one thing then how likely is it that we are going to accept new contradictory information from a source which we don’t regard as reliable?

Not very!

The issue is, whatever beliefs we have are by definition supported by the sources of information we regard as reliable. It is incoherent to regard a source of information as reliable and simultaneously have beliefs which contradict that source. If we are presented with a source of information which we believe is reliable which supports our current beliefs, then our current beliefs are strengthened. This isn’t the same as being stupid, even if it does sometimes involve faulty reasoning along the way.

If all of the sources of information you thought were reliable were constantly telling you that the EU was the source of all your problems and that refugees were the same thing as terrorists, then you would believe it too. We are all susceptible to this, it’s classical conditioning. If every time The Express mentions the EU (or anyone remotely foreign) they accompany it with something to cause outrage and hostility then anyone who regards The Express as a reliable source of information will be conditioned to regard the EU as a source of outrage and will feel hostility to anything related to the EU (see the “Little Albert” experiment).

The way to beat this isn’t through calling anyone who reads The Express an idiot. Calling someone an idiot is just another way to make them hostile towards you (I accept that it might be extremely satisfying and I am guilty of doing it myself, but it’s not terribly productive).

It’s never going to be easy to get people to change their minds, the only thing I can think to do is to approach every interaction with the assumption that the person you are speaking to will never change their mind but that bystanders who haven’t made their minds up may also be paying attention whether you know about it or not (this is especially true on the internet where there are ALWAYS lurkers). If you handle the conversation aggressively, then bystanders will end up hostile as well as the person you are in discussion with. This is clearly counterproductive. If you handle the interaction instead in a way that attempts to be a simple friendly sharing of an alternative point of view, then you’ll both save yourself some stress by not expecting miracles and stand a much better chance of leaving your conversation partner and any bystanders with a positive impression of one or more of your points.

Dismissing leavers as just stupid rather than looking for the real causes behind their complaints was one of the factors that got us into this mess in the first place, continuing to do the same thing won’t fix it.


“My pronouns are…” Champlain College’s Gender Badges

The latest thing to get reactionaries raging (I’m not going to link to any of them, you can find them yourself if you must) is the fact that Champlain College in Vermont has handed out pin badges telling people which set of pronouns the wearer would like to be addressed with. These ranged from the more common “he/him” and “she/her/hers” and apparently (although I haven’t yet found a reliable source for this) to the less common “fluid” and “xe/xem” and perhaps others as well as allowing students to come up with their own. The idea was to promote the acceptance of people who don’t conform to traditional notions of gender.

As far as that goes it’s great! If it gets the politically regressive crowd upset then even better!

However, I am worried about one thing. It makes sense to look at gender neutral pronouns for intersex people for example but if we increase the number of genders in order to help people who don’t feel that they fit into one or the other and start referring to them in different ways then aren’t we just reinforcing traditional stereotypes?

If non-conformity to stereotypes means that new categories have to be recognised then surely this must mean that the stereotypes are correct? If I look like a man but freely show emotions other than anger and just want to stay at home with my children rather than having a career then doesn’t demanding a new pronoun suggest that a man is incapable of being those things? At the same time aren’t they saying that any woman who isn’t a submissive housewife who just wants to get married and have babies isn’t a woman?

Now, I may have got the whole idea completely wrong, maybe there’s more to it than just not fitting into traditional gender roles but surely the goal should be to expand the concept of what it means to be a man or a woman and enable people to live as they wish rather than to simply create more categories to stereotype people into.

Freedom Of Movement And The Tyranny Of The Majority

A lot of people on both sides are angry about the referendum result. It’s understandable, the vote was roughly 50:50 but has still been taken by some people as a strong mandate for giving one 50% what some of them might want and for completely ignoring the interests of the other 50%. This would be absolutely unacceptable no matter which way it had gone.

Statements such as “If the price of the relationship with the single market is free movement of people, it’s a price I’m not willing to pay” made by Liam Fox (who thankfully is now out of the running to be the next prime minister) are the perfect example of this. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that 100% of the people who voted to leave the EU did so only because they wanted to end free movement and that 100% of the people who voted to remain did so because they wanted to keep free movement (which isn’t terribly likely as only 41% of people thought that controlling immigration was in the top 3 most important issues for the country as a whole after the last general election).

Why would this justify ending free movement? To answer, we need to look at why each side wants what they want and what exactly democracy is supposed to achieve.

First, let’s take the simplest possible answer.

Democracy means that everyone has to abide by the rules that the majority want to live by.

This is the view taken by many people and seems to be the motivation behind the rise of “we won now you have to do what we say” sentiment that you’ll find floating around the internet (look on twitter or reddit if you want to find examples, I’m not going to link to any). The problem with this approach to democracy is that it’s a terrible deal for anyone who doesn’t happen to be in the majority group. This has correctly been referred to as “the tyranny of the majority”. It’s difficult to see what advantages this offers over any other form of government, unless you do happen to be part of the majority. The problem is that this entails that if 51% of the population voted for the murder of the other 49% then this decision would be legitimate! The 49% would have no reason to accept the legitimacy of this decision, although the 51% might be quite pleased (don’t make the mistake here of assuming that anyone with a simple approach to democracy actually advocates mass murder or that voting to leave the EU is of the same magnitude as voting for mass murder).

Now, let’s take an alternative answer.

Democracy means that everyone’s interests should be taken into account in political decisions.

Suddenly, 51% are unable to legitimately vote for the mass murder of the 49%, simply because murder doesn’t take into account the interests of the victim. This is a much more appealing version of democracy because it doesn’t collapse into the tyranny of the majority (my preferred model of democracy is deliberative democracy which is a subject for another post). Although there may be exceptions, if we go one step further than simple majority rule and look at why each side advocates a different policy, then there will usually be some set of policies which ends up being acceptable for everyone.

So, back to the assumption that all leave voters voted the way that they did in order to end free movement. One reason that people are opposed to free movement is due to the downward pressure on wages that can be caused by an increase in the supply of labour and the potential for increased strain on public services. On the other hand, people are in favour of free movement because immigration is an overall benefit to the economy and because they hold that freedom itself is valuable. One compromise would be to keep freedom of movement but to use the increased tax income to invest in communities with high levels of immigration and increase support for people who are being effected by reduced wages. In order to reduce pressure on public services it may be preferable to limit access to, for example, benefits for new immigrants, or in the case of the EU/EEA work towards a system where the country of origin is responsible for any benefits claimed by their citizens. These policies, or something like them, would address the concerns of both sides. Those who are against free movement would no longer have to worry so much about wage reduction (which is minimal) and those who are in favour would not have to worry about losing so much freedom or a reduction in overall economic growth.

A roughly 50:50 vote isn’t a strong mandate for taking away the rights of one side or the other, rather it’s a mandate for listening to the genuine concerns of both sides. This would be true no matter which side had won in the referendum.

The referendum is a parody of democracy

A referendum should be the ultimate expression of democracy. It should be a real choice being made by people who are kept well informed on the facts, who have an understanding of the values, arguments and processes underlying the facts and who are considering their own interests in the context of what is good for everyone. That’s what it should be. A referendum should be beautiful.

This referendum isn’t.

It goes beyond the distortions, half truths and straight ahead lies that have been and are being promoted through the campaign. The anti-EU, anti-immigration message has been widely promoted for years.

Our system ensures that the people who are best at winning elections get into power, whether or not they have the nation’s best interests at heart. At the same time we have a media which prioritises profit over truth.

This means that there is a strong incentive for both the media and politicians to promote messages that people already agree with regardless of their effects. If they believe that people are worried about the EU, or immigration, then, even if these concerns are baseless, they will publicly agree. Thus reinforcing and spreading those concerns even further.

Openly confronting your audience’s beliefs is a sure way to alienate them. However, this is absolutely necessary for a society where the citizens have a good understanding of the political issues they are being asked to participate in. Without this confrontation democracy just doesn’t work.

One of the worst offenders, The Daily Mail, has for years claimed that the EU is forcing us to follow ridiculous rules (that in reality tend not to be so ridiculous if they exist at all) and that immigration means that you are going to lose your job etc. This is all because their target audience already believes these things.

These distortions from the media reinforce the distorted perception of reality in the audience. Under these circumstances, even the most conscientious citizen will have difficulty performing any sort of meaningful political analysis. What may be worse is that many of these distortions carry and promote particular value judgements which undermine the spirit of mutual respect, cooperative deliberation, and the desire to find the best solution for everyone that underpins good democratic decision making.

I sincerely hope that the UK votes to remain in the EU on Thursday, despite these problems. I also sincerely hope that we can move forward one day from the harmful influence of some elements of the media. It may just be a fantasy but we can at least try. We need to remember that the media is not simply another business but an essential and central part of our political life.

We must do better.

“In is in. Out is out”. Hardly Surprising.

Wolfgang Schäuble’s statement that “In is in. Out is out” and the suggestion that the UK will not be able to simply enjoy full access to the single market if we vote to leave the EU can only come as a surprise to people who think that all of politics is reducible to economics.

It is absolutely true that continued free trade between the UK and the rest of the EU would be to our mutual benefit. However, the same is true of the free movement across the EU that the leave campaign is so desperate to bring to an end. What this shows is that even Vote Leave campaigners accept that the maximisation of economic benefit is not the only goal to be taken seriously.

If there’s more to it than economics, then why should it be far fetched that the rest of the EU might push for a tough post-Brexit trade deal? There are very good reasons why the EU will want to give us a tough time if we decide to vote to leave.

The first is quite simply that they will not want to send the message that leaving is an easy option. Giving a country the ability to pick and choose which benefits it wants without having to give back in a significant way. Sending this message really would risk leading to the breakup of the EU and a gradual regression to a more fractured Europe where war is again a real possibility.

The second is that by voting to leave, we will already have demonstrated that we are hostile to the idea of cooperation. If we are hostile to cooperation then it only makes sense for the EU to drive a hard bargain and subject any proposals we make to a special level of scrutiny. If you are confident that the person you are negotiating with just wants to ensure a good deal for both of you then, while you still have to stand up for your own interests, there are no special risks involved. On the other hand, negotiations with someone who has already demonstrated that they are hostile must be done extremely carefully. A hostile negotiating partner is more likely to plan to take actions designed to undermine your interests in order to pursue their own. You cannot be as confident with a hostile partner as you can with a friendly one the EU has every reason to cover every possible angle which might give us an advantage at their expense.

The difficulty with this is that it will necessarily lead to harsher terms than we would be able to get if we were approaching the EU on friendlier circumstances. There is a real difference between approaching an organisation looking for areas of mutual benefit and cooperation and making demands of that organisation immediately after rejecting significant cooperation with it.

We can certainly expect to hear more of the same from other European politicians over the next couple of weeks. We would be extremely foolish to assume that we don’t have to take them seriously.

Vote Leave Not Even Pretending Anymore


The image above is, unfortunately, a real poster being displayed in the UK. Let that sink in for a second.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the poster is correct and Turkey’s EU membership is imminent.

The point that the poster is making is clear – even if you currently support keeping the UK in the EU, the idea of Turkey joining should be enough to change your mind.

So, what do we have to believe in order to reach that conclusion?

  1. Turkey joining the EU means that it will be easier for Turkish citizens to come into the UK
  2. This means that the number of Turkish citizens in the UK is likely to increase.
  3. The prospect of an increased number of Turkish citizens being in the UK is bad enough that people should change their minds about the UK’s membership of the EU.

The first point is absolutely right, as is the second. Freedom of movement does mean that there is likely to be more movement of people between the EU and Turkey and some of that is likely to be between Turkey and the UK. The people behind the poster must believe the third point otherwise they would recognise the poster as a waste of campaign resources that could be better spent on another argument. Nobody would waste money trying to convince people who already agree with them.

If you were already anti-immigration then the chances are that you are already anti-EU, so nobody can be expected to switch their vote simply because the poster mentions immigration. So, the target audience must be a set of people who are OK with everything about the EU, including immigration.

If the poster is directed at people who are OK with immigration but will change their minds when the immigrants are Turkish, then the only conclusion we can draw is that Vote Leave expects us to agree that Turkish people are intrinsically undesirable.

Now that is pretty damn racist.

Will Brexit cause war? Maybe.


Pictured: UK – Friday 24th June?


David Cameron invited plenty of ridicule again the other day by mentioning the increased risk of war between the UK and other European countries in the event of Brexit. As much as I’d like to join in just for the sake of Tory bashing (it’s hard enough for me to admit that I agree with him about staying in the EU) I just can’t. He’s not exactly wrong even Brexit is unlikely to result in the sort of immediate war that his critics thought he was claiming it would.

The basic issue is that the international system is anarchy. In international terms all this means is that there is no overarching force to keep states in line when they behave aggressively. This anarchical structure means that, if a state wants to ensure it’s own survival, then it must make sure that it is capable of defending itself against any other state. Even a state which appears friendly may, in fact, be plotting to attack. International cooperation is limited as this uncertainty means that states are in a condition which Hobbes described as consisting of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Due to the constant danger of war states only pursue relative gains. Similar to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, where each side believed that the only way to prevent an attack by the other was to ensure that their offensive capabilities were at least as extensive as their enemy’s. The same logic holds whether it’s the USA vs the USSR, Pakistan vs India, or the UK vs the EU.

While we remain members of the EU, the level of integration makes war all but unthinkable between its members (the prevention of war in this way was the explicit goal of the predecessor to the EU, The European Coal and Steel Community). Attacking another member would have significantly greater costs than attacking any non-member. All the smaller areas where the various EU members work together add to this both by providing a mechanism for us to pursue mutually advantageous policies, such as freedom of movement, and encouraging a spirit of cooperation.

So, the fear that Cameron is expressing is that leaving the EU drops us straight back into Hobbes’s world. If the only reason such cooperation was possible was due to our membership of the EU then he’d be absolutely right.

In reality, there is more at play than simple membership of an institution. For example, democratic peace theory claims that democracies just don’t tend to go to war with each other. Any elected government which causes its citizens to suffer from an avoidable war would be destroyed at the next election. From this point of view we should be far more concerned about the way in which the distortions and misrepresentations of truth given by the media and populist politicians undermines democracy than whether we are members of the EU or not.

The second issue is that Hobbes’s presentation was rather more dramatic than the world actually is (although to be fair, he was writing during the English civil war and so his everyday life was rather more dramatic than life is in the UK today). The reality is that “anarchy is what states make of it”. Meaning that, even if it is always prudent to be prepared for the possibility that another state could attack it doesn’t follow that you should always act as if they will. In the same way even though we take precautions against other people attacking us on an individual level, such as not waving expensive things around while alone at night in an unfamiliar area, we don’t treat all people as if they may attack at any time. We have shared ideas and understandings of our terms of association and of who we are which mean that violence is not the norm. Beyond even the shared understandings we expect to have with strangers, we also get to know people. I am almost certain that my friends will never attack me. The exception would be if some dispute soured our relationship and we ended up with a series of escalating and seemingly irresolvable disputes. If we ended up in this situation then, I should not be terribly surprised if my former friend attacks me when our disputes get too severe but, if our relationship had deteriorated to a point where this was possible, it is unlikely that I would still consider him my friend.

The same idea holds for international relations. States have characters and can get to know each other. War is rare without a build up of some sort. The problem is that, as a democratic state, our state’s character is a reflection of its citizens and at least some sections of our media and politicians have been stuck in a feedback loop with some citizens where the citizens are fiercely opposed to cooperation with other states and the media has been fuelling this. If we do vote to leave the EU then we will be sending a very strong signal that we are hostile to the idea of cooperation or that we think that we should get special treatment of some sort. This won’t be enough to spark war on its own of course but it’s another step on a dangerous path. If other European countries are also going down a similar path, and it seems like they might be, then it could be a very dangerous path indeed.