By Anna Wilson, UK Communications Officer
In an age of Brexit, the refugee crisis, “post truth” and sensationalist media, never has the term “pigeon chess” been more appropriate. Arguing with the irrational – as is now so often the case – is like attempting to play the game with a bird: no matter how clever your strategy and how many good moves you make, the pigeon will still arrogantly strut around the board, knocking over pieces and acting like it’s won. Pigeon chess, then, is very much like attempting to win an argument using reason with people driven only by emotion and other irrational motives.
So why was pigeon chess so common in the UK’s European debate?
Firstly, the referendum was predominantly fought on emotional rather than empirical grounds. The use of vague yet sentimental tokens like the Union Flag and bandying about of phrases like “British values” and “threat to our culture” meant that the more traditional forms of rational and fact-based debate were side-lined in favour of a far easier and far more populist focus on irrational nationalism. Because the Leave campaign pitched its arguments on a different playing field to those of the Remain campaign, no battle could ever have taken place. Two teams played two separate games while their fanclubs cheered, but the two never actually engaged, and votes were not won.
The rise of “post-truth” (or “lies”, as it has more traditionally been called), has created a climate of dismissing evidence and presenting ideas as “fact” without proof. Within this environment, sensationalist media and populist politics thrive, from claims that 1 in 5 Muslims have extremist sympathies, to wildly inaccurate statements about NHS funding painted on the side of busses. This culture had a huge impact on the referendum – whether it be threats of Turkey’s imminent EU accession, the “swarm” of migrants heading for UK shores or the declaration that the UK is “sick of experts”, the new trend of simply creating the “facts” needed to back up your argument has meant that real, constructive debate has not taken place. Misinformation and a flood of fake news drowned out the real information needed for a decent campaign to take place… after all, how do you argue with someone who thinks they know everything?
Another thing worth considering, though, is the relatively short-lived campaign (spanning from the announcement in February to the vote in June) was a mere blip on the informational landscape in comparison to the 50+ years of EU-bashing perpetrated by the British press. Though sensationalism about the curviness of bananas or the sprawling Brussels bureaucracy did significant damage to the public’s opinions of Europe, the relative silence on real European affairs was the real culprit here. Rarely did any form of update on the EU feature prominently in our news outlets – Murdoch-owed or otherwise. As such, the British people were kept largely in the dark about the everyday impacts of the EU, be that from regional development funding, employment rights or technological standardisation. How could a 5 month campaign undo half a century of such neglect and damage? To claim that the EU was a) good and b) misunderstood argued with the dominant (and irrational) ideas, challenging what people thought they knew. The vote to leave the EU, then, can be seen as a defensive response to that, and caused by the massive inequality between the 50 year-long Leave campaign, and the comparatively short-lived Remain campaign.
The referendum vote boils down, then, not to intelligence and stupidity as many pro-EU voters have phrased it, but rather to rational and irrational. There is no rationalism in nationalism, meaning the Leave campaign was on a separate track from the beginning. Being irrational, they could not be countered by the statistics and fact-checking and expert opinions of the Remain side – hearts were valued over minds, and vice versa. The rise of “post-truth politics” facilitated this, making it easier to disguise the irrationality of arguments by creating new “facts” to back them up. All of this taking place in a culture already unaware of and hostile to EU affairs meant that an emotional, truth-deprived Leave campaign was destined for victory. With two completely different approaches to debate, it is no wonder that the Leave and Remain campaigns never meaningfully engaged with one another, and votes were not won over from the default anti-EU setting manufactured over decades by the British media.
Will rationality ever return to British politics? Perhaps, but we need to take a good long look at how the electorate are informed before making decisions. A democracy premised on inaccuracy is no democracy at all.