Brexit Reflections Part Two: The Language of "Truth"

The language of anger behind the Brexit vote and Trump's rise is more important than we have thought.

Thanks to the unstoppable passage of time, there are now many months between us and the Brexit results. Neither the supposed benefits nor the doomsday predictions have materialized, and we are all waiting with baited breath to see how things will turn out. Will the UK be better off? Will the world come to an end? We do not know. What we do know is that whatever it was that led to the Brexit result is not unique to the UK. And the problem lies not in the result, but in what gave rise to the result.

The shocking, and dismaying, election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, suggests that Brexit was not a one-off affair, but may be the first statement of a larger wholesale rejection of liberal globalism. We now have to come to terms with the fact that many people are deeply unhappy with what multicultural cosmopolitans might consider progress, and fear that other people are the cause of their problems. The success of Trump and the Leave campaign show us that many people have been left out of the political system and are not benefiting from global economic expansion. They are feeling vulnerable and are very angry about their lot. This is the real problem. They are willing to vote to signal their displeasure. The fact that there are politicians who are actively exploiting this harnessing pain and anguish to gain power is disturbing, but not surprising. Their involvement is already making things worse, and will embed this anger in our lives for a long time.

Brexit and Trump’s election has made me feel as if I have now lost two homelands to these divisive forces. I have lost the UK, the place of my birth, and I have completely lost the U.S., the country I grew up in. As I said in my first post on this subject, I have never felt any connection to the United States as a country or a concept. I feel more of a citizen of New Mexico than anything else. The Trump election has widened the gulf between us. I doubt this will be repaired any time soon. It has led me to wonder what is driving these changes, and why this came as such a surprise. It strikes me that that answer is in the language that people activate this this anti-globalist distrust.

The rhetoric used to support Brexit and Trump’s rise to power was very similar. It is ideological rejection of the tenants of inclusiveness and relativistic collectivity, both pillars progressive thinking. But the problem is that these ideas also have their roots in the very liberal globalism that has alienated the people who are arguing against them. It can be argued that progressive thinking and action are related to the forces that caused their situation.

The ideology and mechanisms of liberal globalism has many manifestations. Certainly, globalized capitalism is the most relevant manifestation, considering the current political crisis. But what is interesting is that while global capitalism is the culprit of many of the problems facing all of us, it is not the one that is being blamed. Instead, people are angry with the more intangible identity politics that is only a small part of liberal globalism.

As a global population, or at least as a Western population, we have chosen to see other people as the root of our problems rather than the resultant of our collective economic and political actions. The idea of finding common ground with immigrants and marginalized communities has become anathema to those wanting the political and economic change promised by Trump and the Brexiteers. The very language of inclusiveness necessary to foster this common ground is under attack. If we do not protect the language of the multicultural perspective, we risk losing our ability to find common ground and common cause. This will prevent those of us committed to inclusiveness and collectivity from participating in the debate altogether.

This seems to be one of the purposes behind the language of Trump and Brexit. The directed attack against “political correctness” by Nigel Farage, Marion Le Pen, Donald Trump, and “news” outlets like Brietbart, the Daily Mail, and Fox News, is really an attempt to replace the language of inclusiveness with a chaotic discourse where “one can tell it like it is” and emotive opinion matters more than collaborative dialogue. It is an ideological argument fought through language. It is an argument that is allowing racist, classist, and hateful speech into open public discourse for the first time in recent memory. It is an argument against a competing reality.

Their dislike of “PC language” is a rejection of a way of speaking that incorporates relativistic perspectives into one’s speech. And whether this is a bad thing depends on an interpretation of Orwell’s concept of newspeak. For them, politically correct language is an Orwellian attempt to change the way they people think by limiting their choices in vocabulary. By not being able to say certain things, or being obliged to say things like “happy holidays,” they cannot speak in a way that they feel reflects the way the world works. In this way, they are correct. The language of inclusiveness is ideological, and it is formulated to provide a space where difference can be subsumed by similarity. Where they are wrong is that they are not arguing about language, but about the nature of truth and the perception of reality.

The other interpretation is that the language of inclusiveness offers an escape from singular monolithic truth. The idea behind injecting some relativism into the way people interact with each other is grounded on the fact that there are many competing social realities. From within this perspective, there is no single truth. There are only many equal truths. To understand someone else we have to learn more about others in order to see the world as they do. And we should speak in a way that allows space for this empathetic dialogue.

The “PC” debate is essentially an argument about the perception of reality. One perspective asserts there is only one objective truth, and that they are the owners of it. For them, they are just speaking the truth. The opposition to this perspective argues that there are many truths and that we should be aware of them, and empathetic towards those who live by them. In this view, language must indicate this inclusiveness and awareness.

Those fostering the progression of liberal globalism have come to accept the possibility of multiple realities. Multiculturalism is a manifestation of this acceptance. And while many of the attempts at inclusive speech border on the ridiculous, it is the intent that matters. Empathy and a desire for open, inclusive dialogue matter more than the words. And it is this that is under threat.

Brexit and Trump’s new government present a challenge to the epistemological roots of progressive thought. They are asserting that the words “us and them” provide a more realistic picture of the world than simply “us.” They are trying to eliminate the possibility of a phenomenology of multiple realities in favour of a single “truth” that is easier to bend to their will. The language of Farage, Le Pen, and Trump is designed to harness the truth and create a new one while eliminating the possibility of an inclusive relativistic perspective. This is the language of control. We are not livening in a post-truth reality, we are living in a time where what is true is dictated and defined by forces outside of public discourse.

Their successful campaign tactics exposed the vulnerability of a relativistic world view. They pushed the idea of acceptable, equal truths to the breaking point and washed away the open dialogue that could evaluate and curb those excesses. If we do not meet this challenge head on, we risk losing our own language and the message of togetherness and community that it conveys. We also risk losing our ability to counter a hard-line empiricism of difference.

This will be difficult. Empathy and self-governance are not cathartic in the way that “speaking your mind” seems to be. They cannot be a solution for people who are in debt, work low-paying jobs, have few social opportunities. It is hard and requires vigilance. It requires us to challenge everything, including our own thoughts and actions. Hate is easy because it allows for a clear delineation of the meaning of the world. If accommodates hasty, binary distinctions that let us say this is our land, that is yours and we are not like them. As James Baldwin pointed out, hate allows us to define our feared “other” without consulting them, which makes them easier to hate. The alternative is compassion and understanding. And both seem to require energy that people who are struggling to provide for their families do not have.

To answer this problem, we have to keep speaking the language of inclusiveness to insure its survival. But we have to do this while working to eliminate the crushing effects of exploitative capitalism. We need to build a bigger “us,” admit that this group will chaotic and have many ways of thinking, and work for everyone’s best interests with compassion and empathy. 


Image copyright: Nicholas Raymond