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.

Recognition: an apology to Owen Jones

I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be LGBT and reeling from the news of the Orlando massacre – the worst mass shooting in the United States, with the overwhelming majority of those killed being Latina/o and Black members of the LGBT community. I think this is what Owen Jones was inviting us to do when he was part of a TV interview on Sky News, until he walked out. He gave up on an interviewer who failed to understand that really listening means using your imagination if you are taking time to understanding something.

My reading is that Owen was trying to tell the interviewer and fellow guest that this was a mass homophobic murder, the biggest since the Holocaust, in a long history of hatred and lethal violence towards LGBT people. The interviewer kept wanting to make comparisons with the ISIL terrorist attacks last year on Paris, implying they were identical. In both cases people – it doesn’t matter who, he said – were having a good time and were then murdered by Muslims. When the interviewer failed to see how insensitive he was being, Owen Jones told him he couldn’t understand because he wasn’t gay.

The interviewer probably failed to appreciate what Owen meant by this too, judging by his expression of ‘regret’ and failure to apologise later. He may have heard, “you can’t speak about this because you’re not gay – only gay people are feeling the pain.” But I did not hear Owen Jones like that at all. The interviewer would not have gone off on tangents about Paris if he had the experience of being gay and facing homophobic violence himself. Aside from the fact that the terrorist’s own father wrote that his son was homophobic and not motivated by religious ideology, this massacre was not about killing people because they were enjoying a night out. It was the targeting of a particular group – LGBT people – in a long history of lack of recognition, abuse, denial, imprisonment and and murder. You only have to look at twitter to witness the vile homophobia that persists in every country including our own. Citizens of our country are hated by homophobes for something that is integral to their identity.  LGBT people do not need to be reminded that violent homophobia is something they experience on a daily basis, so they would surely understand Orlando without a pause and perhaps have their grief for others mixed with painful memories of their own struggles.

Imagine being both gay and Muslim, contending with both that pain but also the Islamophobic backlash that this kind of massacre generates (Beydown and Mack write about this eloquently). If we don't use our imagination, and recognise the nature of evil, then how can it be challenged? I apologise, Owen Jones, that it took me a moment to see this hateful homophobic massacre for what it is.


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