Emma's blog

A crisis of knowledge

“The internet will never be an important source of information in education”, I mused to a university colleague in the early 1990s when one of my students wrote an essay on the environment using dodgy sources from the web. I got that seriously wrong. But we do face a crisis of knowledge in politics.

Look at what we has been presented as if it were truth this year. Crazy promises and threats by Brexiteers and Remainers, wild accusations of rigging the US election by Trump, and last week the Daily Mail claiming that the court ruling on Article 50 was an example of the judges as ‘enemies of the people’. In a bid to undermine opponents, journalists collude with politicians to do politics, trying to influence public opinion to their side through attacks on whoever disagrees with them. Contrast this with the measured reporting by public broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 – and the more thoughtful journalists, politicians or commenters or reports by Parliament who manage to convey the full range of views. Take this House of Commons library blog which makes it clear that the High Court ruling was about the relationship between Parliament and government and which has the power to trigger Article 50. This is written by a constitution expert.

Politicians have been rude about experts recently, again presumably to undermine those that disagree with them. Since experts do often disagree, relying on them doesn’t and can’t mean believing them all but we should surely take seriously what they say. Judges are in a different league. The rule of law depends on us taking not just their views, but their authority seriously as well. The undermining of experts, expertise and institutions that make democracy work – judiciary and Parliament for example – is making our political world increasingly unstable.

This fast and febrile new political world is fuelled by the Wild West of social media. It is addictive, exciting and potentially violent to democracy. Since regulation of social media is even more challenging than constraining the press without compromising its freedom, we have to up our game in citizenship education. It has been taught in schools but in a shallow way, resting on the assumption that the point is to inculcate civic values. It sounds OK but it’s not. It is not up to the government, or schools, to shape children’s values: we will all have different ideas about what they should be. But they should be given the opportunity to learn about and debate the significance of political institutions, processes (including political communication) and decision-making. Above all, we all need to develop better skills at navigating the battlefields of knowledge and the best way is to start when we are as young as possible.  

An anthropological take on Brexit

The prospect of Brexit is giving me insomnia. What more is there to say about Brexit when Matthew Parris sums up the arguments so persuasively? “Is there an anthropological take on this”, I wondered in the small hours this morning? After all the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett was one of the few experts to anticipate the financial crisis.

Of course no one knows what would happen if we left the EU. But we can speculate based on observation of how populations tend to respond to situations. Different views, and conflicts over them, are pervasive in all social groups: families, communities, organisations, networks. Unless we live within situations of rigid hierarchy and peace – where obedience to authority leave little room for argument – people in societies tend to engage in a process of fission and fusion. The first anthropologist to write about this was Evans-Pritchard. In the Sudan people argue within their clan until their clan is threatened by a neighbouring one and then they rally together to fight against their neighbours. Clans come together to fight as a tribe, tribes join to wage war against nations. In organisations I have worked in we identified with our department (our energy team was more efficient and honest than others I swear) until competing against other charities when we’d express heartfelt solidarity with the whole organisation.

If we apply this to the EU then the fallout from Brexit is likely to be the break up of the union, especially since Scotland is more pro-EU. In addition to dealing with the chaos of renegotiating everything as we divorce from our European neighbours, Scotland claiming independence would require another layer of negotiation and probably bitter disputes. (Divorce with Scotland would be even sadder for me than leaving the EU.) Even if that did not happen, vicious divisions within the UK would emerge because our attention would be turned onto ourselves. Presently when the EU does something we like, we don’t notice. When it becomes the scapegoat for something we don’t like – regulation, immigration, cuts – we can rage against our neighbours even when they are not to blame. Do we really want to turn that scapegoating from our neighbours and onto ourselves even more vigorously than the present?

Some of the arguments for leaving are perfectly logical in a fantasy world – not one I would like to live in, mind you – but they defy our experience of the one we inhabit. I love change generally, but this one makes no sense to me because, (a) we can reverse our decision later if we vote to remain, if we leave on a whim we are stuck with it for generations at least, (b) it will make our relationships with our neighbours excruciating and cause divisions within the UK, (c) the benefits are based on wild speculation by people who will not have the power to bring their utopia (not mine) into being. The vote leave spokespeople don’t even lead a major political party but in any case it is not earthly democratic power they would need. They would need to be gods or tyrants to realise their dreams.

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