This little story starts in January 2016 when the word “Brexit” started to mean something – a referendum which the Prime Minister promised the nation regarding whether or not Britain should leave the EU. It was a concession to a growing sect in his party, and the rise of UKIP. ‘My word!’ I thought to myself, ‘The things politicians do to get themselves re-elected. Anyway, who in their right mind would vote to leave?’ I was soon to have my answer, for such a person did not exist in a different demographic but in my own home. At dinner, one winter’s evening, the topic of Brexit arose amongst my flat-mates and Carey, whom I had known and lived with for almost three years, said that he’d be voting to leave.
Now, Carey and I were more than just flat-mates. We were good friends. He studied music, I studied philosophy, and we would have many heated but amicable contentions, from why he considered Rachmaninov to be as innovative as Beethoven, to the problems of Marxism. We were those flat-mates who made things uncomfortable and needlessly intense over dinner, but we didn’t care. In fact, we loved it, for it was something the two of us shared exclusively. Every debate was fierce but respectful, passionate and yet objective, and it was that underlying respect and desire to learn that allowed us to speak so freely with each other and share our most controversial (and sometimes socially unacceptable) views. It was therefore easy to debate with Carey and neither of us minded admitting we were wrong in front of the other. Brexit, however, would change this. In fact, it would change my life and set me on a course to start a movement.
In my eyes Carey was very wrong and misguided about almost all his arguments on Brexit, or at least the importance he gave to them. Yes, the EU elite isn’t that accountable, and yes it has huge cracks, in the structure of its currency for instance, and yes immigration might need to be controlled etc, but how small were these compared to the immeasurable economic benefits, the unity of western nations and liberal ideals, free movement, our collective bargaining power with the rest of the world, a shared identity and collective journey dating to the great and immortal antiquities of Greece and Rome etc. If Carey was right, it was about small things, or so it seemed to me, and he clearly thought the same about my own arguments. Anyway, for the first two months we agreed to disagree just like so many of our other debates.
When it got to March, talk of Brexit started to fill screens and conversations. The debate seemed to aptly reflect the choice before the nation – you’re either for Brexit or against it, and the narrative did not leave much room in between for the undecided. The suffocation of this middle ground was something I considered harmful. Such polarisation was not actually new, for it has been a feature of previous elections, but the referendum was too big and irreversible to get wrong. Without the to-ing and fro-ing and changing of mind that characterises middle-ground thinking, all we have left is sentiment, justified by reason, rather than the other way round. Being in the middle and even changing your mind demonstrates that thinking is going on, and you need thinking to guarantee the right decision, regardless of what everyone else says.
Anyway, what does a doctor of philosophy do when there’s little thinking in a debate? – I started giving talks around the university on how to be an independent thinker when the debate seems to be forcing you to take sides. What’s more, I made sure Carey came to these talks. For the benefit of the debate I needed him to contribute in the Q&A session afterwards. He never did, and by the end of the third talk I did what no speaker should do – I picked him out personally and asked him what he thought, simply because I felt that the audience, who were mostly Remainers, needed to hear his point of view. He said he had nothing to contribute and this annoyed me, not so much because it was a lie, but because it made my talk less controversial and more vanilla than it needed to be. A talk and discussion where everyone agrees is one where both the audience and the speaker have learnt very little. So, I went to him afterwards.
‘Of course you have something to say’, I told him. ‘You always do. Why on earth didn’t you say something?’
‘I can’t’, he said, giving me an unusually sombre look.
‘Why the hell not?’ I asked.
‘Because we’re in front of all these people’ he said. ‘I can’t let them know I’m a Leaver.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I replied, genuinely confused. After all, he never feared to let anyone know his views.
‘Well….you know….they’ll think that I’m racist and stuff’, he replied.
‘Oh come on!’ I said, exasperated. ‘Everyone knows that’s just a few cranks who the media like to sensationalise.’
‘That’s what you think’, he said.
It was those last four words that changed the course of my future. They hit me like a blast of icy air, and I did not reply. I couldn’t. It was one of those statements that make you realise that far from walking on a steady path, you’re actually walking on a plank on the edge of a precipice and you don’t really want to look down to see how far the fall is. ‘That’s what you think.’ Did Remainers actually associate Leavers with bigotry and racism?
For the next week I told myself I would watch the news and follow the debate as closely as possible to see how Leavers were portrayed. Suffice to say, I had slipped off the plank and was in a long free-fall. It was as if I was going through the issue blind and deaf. My good friend Carey – smart, young, talented, exposed to knowledge and experience, a good and friendly man – was often labelled as an old, ignorant, racist, bigot, and he felt sufficiently suppressed by this narrative to fear publicly identifying himself as a Leaver. Not only was I greatly grieved, but I was also terrified. Carey is one of the braver people in society who usually doesn’t mind telling people what he really thinks. What about the others who aren’t quite so brave? How many people were paying lip service to the Remain cause, but really wanted to vote Leave?
Carey’s statement affected me so deeply that I found it impossible to campaign for Remain. Yes, I always argued for it with my friends, but I could not do it whilst giving an address, for instance. I simply found it impossible to publicly associate myself with a campaign, while that campaign was telling my good friend, in effect, to shut-up! I could not help but look at him as a friend with a muzzle over his mouth, and myself as being part of the group that put it there.
In the following months I watched David Cameron and George Osbourne lead a campaign infamous for its feebleness. They still went around the country with the swagger and confidence of people certain of a result, but in this case completely ignorant of the bubbling underneath the social surface. A gloom started to seep into my heart as I saw them fail to convince the undecided with all their forecasts and fears. They certainly didn’t convince me, even though I knew why I would still vote Remain. Fortunately for Cameron, he had the support of Tony Blair, John Major, and Gordon Brown. This added clout and conviction to the Remain campaign which was badly needed.
Then Cameron made the ultimate blunder. He got Barak Obama to make a soft trade threat to the UK if they left the EU. In my opinion, this is what tipped the scale. It was the worst thing Cameron could have done. In fact, it was probably the only thing he could have done to show that he was both feckless and desperate, and if he and Mr Obama had had even a moderate insight into the feelings which lay behind the Leave campaign, they would have known that Mr Obama’s comment was perhaps the best way of congealing – nay – making concrete the already fiery, but not yet implacable cause of the Leaver. I still did not think that the nation would vote Leave, but by the time of the vote I knew that all was far from what it seemed.
The 23rd of June arrived, and the rest is recent history. I met Carey at breakfast the following morning and there was not even a suggestion of celebration or gloating on his part. I was his friend, and he saw that I was devastated. We did not really talk about Brexit much after that. However, what we both needed recovery from was the poison of the campaign and the fact that it felt like we were now members of two different and incommensurable societies. Those four words never left me.:‘That’s what you think.’
Carey is one of the most intelligent, promising, and above all, honest and sincere, individuals of our generation. He is exactly the sort of person we need to hear from the most because he thinks objectively. I was loath to listen to Johnson or Gove, but I could always listen to Carey. Britain needed to listen to the Careys of the country, but they were not given a chance. In fact, most people did not believe that many Careys existed. That, for me, was the biggest loss of Brexit – not that we’re leaving the EU, but that it split the country in a way so needless, so deep, and so hurtful.
One of the principle methods used in a philosophical debate is to adopt your opponent’s position as if it were your own, and the aim is that in the end both debaters actually help each other find truth. In the Brexit campaign, however, we shut each other off, often aggressively. We therefore could not find truth together. Why is truth so important? – because nobody wants to make mistakes. I think Brexit is a mistake, but it is one that I can live with. One mistake I will not accept is the general conduct from both sides towards each other.
I’m a Remainer, and from the Prime Minister, to the media, to the average voter, even to the American president, we Remainers, on the whole, were just as divisive as our opponents, and we forgot that unity mattered more. The right wing was toxic and sensational, and all we needed to do was say that we were (and are) bigger than that. We took social unity for granted and assumed a virtuous high ground, shouting down those who thought differently. We lost Carey; we lost the majority of the voters. I don’t care about what happens to Brexit now; I want Carey back. I want Carey and I to sit at a dinner table and discuss issues as we always did – as united citizens with different views, not as members of the different societies which the referendum created. This is what I call the Carey Problem - how do I get Carey back? This is my problem, both as a friend, and as a Remainer. It will not change the result, but it will heal what was broken, and for me this is more important.
For the next two years I set up a solution to the Carey problem - ThinkCitizen. I never minded politicians having a view and trying to convince others of it. That’s what leaders are meant to do. I do, however, lay a lot of blame on the news. In fact, I believe that they bear the brunt of the responsibility for causing the division which occurred during and after the referendum campaign.
For me, the campaign showed two things – 1) News has the power to select what we know. They can make the minority seem like the majority and visa versa, simply by how much airtime they give a particular view. All depends on what they choose to call news. This is an astonishing amount of power, probably exceeding that of our elected leaders, and we have little choice but to live our lives according to what a few people think we should know and what they decide to call important. If we depend on them so much make decisions about elections and other things, this might be the big information problem of our time.
2) News doesn't have to be fake to be misguiding. They can take a real story but present it in a way that affects our judgement – include or exclude certain facts or quotes, twist the headline, move the statistical goalposts, etc, doing all this completely without our knowledge. Yes, all news – centre, left, and right, is guilty of this. What is worst is knowing that the algorithms and Artificial Intelligence on our search engines constantly confirm our biases by suggesting content based on our web history. No wonder members from each side often speak as if their view is the only view that exist, let alone the only view that is right.
Both technology and the selection biases of the news didn’t really give us much of a chance to think otherwise in the referendum. When we met someone who thought differently, we thought they were complete idiots. The media, not the politicians, caused the Carey Problem. Why should we have expected otherwise? They simply want to sell newspapers and get as much traffic onto their website as possible. Sensationalism is the most efficient means of achieving this. Offering clear thinking that unifies society and helps its thinking simply isn’t an incentive for them.
The Carey Problem therefore reduces to the Information Problem of our age – the lack of incentive in information production (especially news) to help the ordinary citizen think objectively. In my opinion, the conduct of mainstream news over Brexit was in effect an abandonment, even an abdication, of duty to society; the duty of producing truth.
So, I left academia and would spend the next two years setting up ThinkCitizen. Society needed a news page where headlines from both left and right-wing sources were published so that we had a unified view of the world and not just stories that confirmed our biases. We also needed a platform that filtered what was misguiding.
ThinkCitizen was set up, not so much to be yet another news company, but as a way of healing what was broken. I continued to give talks and still do, but also turned them into courses aimed at empowering society to become independent thinkers in the mass media age. Yes, there is still one thing better than having so many things automated for us – being a better thinkers; making better judgements for ourself. This can only be achieved by training the mind, and I believe it can be achieved on a social level.
So, what was worse than the Brexit result? – the split it caused in society. I’m not saying this just because of a nice fuzzy feeling of wanting to be friends with everyone;. I’m saying this as a philosopher. Unity is a background condition for truth. No one knows everything, and any of us could be wrong about anything at any time. We need each other to talk about things so that we are better informed and don’t make mistakes. Only when people are free to speak and think openly can this happen. Even if disunity is caused for good reason, both sides are still far more at risk of error. Freedom AND unity, regardless of difference, are the hallmarks of a healthy society. It starts by unifying the news. In so doing, we provide a much needed platorm that unifies the different views and their folowers so that everyone feels known, represented, and a part of something bigger.