September 21, 2019

Is Discussion Actually Valuable?

“Is “discussion” really so wonderful? Does “communication” actually exist? What if I were to deny that it does?

The public discussion of exit from the European Union has already caused incalculable, probably irreversible and completely superfluous damage to Britain. Obviously, the “conditions of discussion” before the vote were not in any way “ideal.” There is no need to belabor that, but one should also recall that ten years ago no one, except a handful of fanatics, had any real interest in discussing relations with the EU; they were not on the table, and nothing was any the worse for that. It is only the discussion of the last four years, stoked by a few newspaper owners (many of them not domiciled in the U.K. at all), a small group of wealthy leftover Thatcherites and some opportunistic political chancers, that generated any interest in the subject at all. Dyed-in-the-wool Europhobes didn’t constitute more than 10 percent of the population. It was only the process of public discussion that permitted that hard-core to create conditions in which another 10 percent of the population articulated what was previously a merely latent mild discontent of the kind any population will be likely to have with any political regime, and express it as skepticism toward the Union. A number of further, highly contingent historical factors caused another 17 percent of the population to join the vote for Brexit. The most important of these factors was the ability of the Brexiteers to convince people (falsely) that harms they had in fact suffered at the hands of politicians in Westminster were actually the direct result of action by bureaucrats in Brussels. Structural features of the archaic and rather ridiculous first-past-the-post electoral system transformed the vote of 37 percent of the electorate into a politically effective, and constantly cited, 52 percent of votes cast (in one single election), and that has now been treated as the Irresistible Voice of the People for three years. The irony of the Conservative Party, which had spent two hundred years vociferously opposing this Rousseauist conception, now experiencing a sudden conversion to it, is clearly lost on Tory Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg. A strange sequence of accidents, including the inflexibility and monumental incompetence of the Prime Minister, has now created a situation in which 30 percent or 40 percent of the electorate really is anti-European, and no discussion, no matter how ideal the conditions under which it is conducted, can now in the short run change that. A person who has been brought, for whatever reason and by whatever means, to take a public position is for obvious psychological reasons not eager to admit to having made a mistake. Discussion is not neutral, but changes the situation. Once the government, whatever the rights and wrongs of the original decision, fails to act on it, that changes the situation again, and can generate additional resentment and turn the issue into an existential one. To use the current jargon, for many of those who voted for Brexit, it has become a matter of “identity.”

When I talk with Brexiteers, I certainly do not assume that what Habermas calls the “power of the better argument” will be irresistible. And I am certainly very far from assuming that an indefinite discussion conducted under ideal circumstances would eventually free them from the cognitive and moral distortions from which they suffer, and in the end lead to a consensus between them and me. What makes situations like this difficult is that arguments are relatively ineffectual against appeals to “identity.” In the nineteenth century Kierkegaard was very familiar with this phenomenon, and much of his philosophizing is devoted to trying to make sense of and come to terms with it. “We do not under any circumstances wish to be confused with Europeans because we have nothing but contempt for them.” What is one to say to that? Only real long-term sociopolitical transformations, impinging external events and well-focused, sustained political intervention have any chance of having an effect. In the long run, however, as Keynes so clearly put it, we are all dead.”

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