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28 March 2019

The only thing we can agree on about Brexit is that its handling has been a national humiliation

Professor Bobby Duffy

BOBBY DUFFY: Respectfully engaging across our divides might pave a way forward during this impasse

Sad Britain
The only thing we can agree on about Brexit is that its handling has been a national humiliation

Each passing day of Brexit deadlock confirms how divergent our views are, in the country, Commons and Cabinet. The placards at the People’s Vote march will one day form their own academic dataset of how we saw each other: “52% Pride and Prejudice, 48% Sense and Sensibility”, while probably self-mocking and nearly funny, will not age well. 

But we don’t just have different opinions about the other side or what should be done – we see the same verifiable facts very differently. Our separate realities are the most direct sign of our division, and help explain why we seem to be constantly talking past each other. 

We know, for example, that EU migrants pay £4.7bn more in taxes each year than they take out. But only 16% of Leave supporters think that’s true, compared with half of Remain supporters. 

EU immigration is a net benefit to the NHS, from taxes and EU workers, but over half of Conservative Leave supporters think EU immigration has reduced the quality of the NHS, compared with only a quarter of Labour Remain supporters.

And the claim that we send £350m each week to the EU continues to divide us most. It’s been called a ‘misuse of statistics’ by the UK Statistics Authority, and a lie by others, but two-thirds of Leave supporters still believe it, compared with only one in five Remain supporters. 

And this is not just about deluded leave voters, remain supporters are wrong too.  While we don’t send £350m to the EU each week, we do pay more into the EU budget than we get directly back out. But barely half of Remain supporters think that’s true, compared with nine in ten Leave supporters.

These different views of reality are not a symptom of ‘post-truth’ or ‘alternative facts’, they’re built-in to how we think. Francis Bacon summed it up in 1629, as succinctly as any modern behavioural scientist: ‘The human understanding when it has once adopted an opin­ion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises.’

These self-serving delusions are examples of what social psychologists call “directionally motivated reasoning”, a dull, academic phrase for one of the greatest challenges we face, for two reasons.

First, we now have an ability to filter our world and only see what we want to an extent unthinkable until very recently. At the same time, unseen algorithms push us more of what we like, so that we’ll spend more time on the host sites. It’s a dangerous feedback loop, where the system is built to prey on one of our deepest biases.

But, paradoxically, the same system gives us more fleeting glimpses of different viewpoints than we used to get – the exaggerated takes from outriders or controversialists, or an opposing view shared within our own group to ridicule. Filter bubbles may not seem that real to us, because we see these views from a distance, but that is not real engagement, and does more harm than good.

We’re at a point where the sole unifying opinion on Brexit is that its handling is a national humiliation. We could do with more positive ways to bring us together, and two points stand out.

First, we are just beginning to understand that underlying values are vitally important to how we see the world, and what we think of others. It’s what US academic Jonathan Haidt calls our Moral Foundations, and it makes our different starting points much more understandable, shifting the focus from who’s good or bad or right or wrong.

Second, we need to work ever harder to hear, see and experience more meaningful interactions across different viewpoints. It’s no coincidence that the BBC have launched a major series called Crossing Divides, which brings real people together, to demonstrate the value of interacting with the other side, whether that’s leave and remain, or Uber and black cab driver. 

And it’s the same motivation that’s increasing some groups’ interest in Citizen’s Assemblies and similar deliberative methods, either as a solution to the Brexit deadlock, or more realistically, a way to decide what to do after in a more constructive, less shouty way. Bringing people together in these sorts of structured sessions can increase understanding without requiring people to give up their worldview. 

Both approaches try to fill the growing chasm between our separate realities with respectful engagement. Without that, whatever the outcome in these next few tortuous weeks or months, we’ll resolve nothing. 

Professor Bobby Duffy is Director of the Policy Institute, King's College London.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

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